Ask the Expert: Assigning Chores

We’ve all heard it – the chorus of little voices at our knees begging to get involved. “I wanna help!” “I can do it!” “Can I try?”

Kids have a natural desire to help. They want to be involved; they want to be mommy or daddy’s little helper. As parents, one of the most important things we can teach our children is the value of work. Fortunately, we can take advantage of our children’s natural “wanna-do-it” attitude by giving them age-appropriate chores at home.

Start Simple
About the earliest age children can begin completing jobs at home is 3. At this point, kids can do very simple chores that help develop cognitive (thinking and reasoning) and social skills. One or two chores a week is just about right for a young child.

An example of a cognitive-type chore is sorting toys. Kids can pick up and organize their toys in baskets or bins based on the toy’s shape, color or size. For a 3-year-old, this type of repetitive job is a great way to prepare for preschool. Sorting silverware is another job that provides a good learning opportunity.
Of course, a 3- or 5-year-old needs help the first few he or she they complete a job. At these ages, children are too young to take on and complete new assignments on their own. With a parent’s modeling, kids reach a point where they can complete their work alone.

In our house, we have separate baskets by the front door to hold shoes for boys, girls and adults. My 3-year-old son is responsible for putting the shoes into the right baskets. To begin with, we showed him how to sort the shoes, and the first few times we had to ask “What do we do?” Now he remembers and completes the task on his own.

Sharing chores among siblings gives kids a chance to develop social skills. Children learn to get a long and work together when they pick up the family room after playtime or clear the kitchen table after a meal. When older children help their younger siblings, it reinforces their own learning while teaching younger children by example. Working together also shows children that solving challenges together is easier and that work goes much faster when everyone helps.

Clean It Up
By the time children reach age 5, they can start doing more advanced jobs at home. Not to say they can complete tasks without initial guidance and help, but they can take on more challenging jobs. Kids can help with tasks like unloading the dishwasher, putting away groceries and folding the laundry. They have more responsibility, get the advantage of working with us and learn that mommy and daddy cannot do everything alone.

Between the ages of 8 and 10, children have reached a developmental stage where they can take on more difficult chores and complete tasks independently. However, jobs should never be too physically taxing for young children.
Another reminder is to make sure jobs are appropriate to a child’s ability and age. It would be inappropriate to ask a very young child to handle things that are dirty, like the garbage. Only older children should use cleaning products. Above all, safety must always be a priority.

Rewards and Punishment
What about paying kids for completing their chores? While it may be a good motivator for adults, money is a very abstract concept for children. Most 3- and 5-year-old children do not understand what money means and how it relates to doing chores. As an alternative, try providing a reward for a job well done: “You can play (have dessert, watch TV, etc.) when the work is finished.”

At the other extreme, using chores as a punishment for inappropriate behavior sends confusing, mixed messages. One day we tell kids that work is good and positive, the next day it becomes a punishment.

As parents, we can teach our children early that being successful in life means doing hard things they may not want to do. Chores are not necessarily fun, but they help keep our homes and belongings nice. Sure, it would be easier just to do the work ourselves, but giving our kids age-appropriate chores helps them develop socially and cognitively, and better prepares them for their future world of work.

Nicolle Napier-Ionascu is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.