Should You Make Your Kids Do Chores? Absolutely!
That's right, I said MAKE, because some kids aren't going to go for subtle hints about cleaning their room, clearing the floor of stray toys, and setting the table. Getting kids to help around the house requires being direct and using imperative sentences (that means command, people). It also means setting consequences for when children fail to complete their chores and establishing rewards for when they do.
I know, I know… this sounds so old school. According to a recent piece on the New York Times Motherlode blog, there seems to be a split between traditional views of children doing housework and less authoritative, more safety-conscious (or child-centric, if you will) ideas about chores. A Montessori chart of "Age Appropriate Chores for Children" inspired the post - the chart, shared on Facebook by the Maria Montessori page, sparked a comment battle between parents who find some of the chores on the list inappropriate ("children aren't slaves," said one), and others who value hard-work and elbow grease.
I come down on the latter side of the debate. A lot of contemporary parenting philosophy underestimates our children's capabilities. For example, I was recently talking with someone about kitchen safety. When I told them that my four-and-a-half-year-old son Felix helps prepare dinner, I was asked about what I do with the knives to ensure that he doesn't touch them. But because Felix has been involved in cooking for a couple of years now, he knows to respect a knife's blade. With supervision, he's used a paring knife. When he finds a steak knife while unloading silverware from the dishwasher he grabs it by the handle and calls me to retrieve it.
Will my son slice himself with a knife at some point? Undoubtedly. I do too, every so often. Accidents happen; that's a part of life. But a child won't learn how to keep themselves safe if you step in and do it for them. And if you're concerned about getting your child involved in cleaning because the products you use come decked out in safety warnings, then maybe you shouldn't be using those products to begin with.
On the Motherlode, KJ Dell'Antonia discusses another challenging factor to children doing chores: they don't want to do 'em, and parents don't want to make them do 'em. Well, as Jennifer Senior might say, this is why parenting isn't always fun. I don't enjoy fighting with Felix about his follow-through on chores either, but what I hate more is when he goes to bed and leaves the living room looking like a messy pre-school classroom. This makes me feel like the family's common areas are actually Felix's play spaces, and they're not - we share the house. He can play in the living room when it's playtime, but at night, when it's parent time, the toys have to go back where they belong. (I'm less concerned about his room, because that's his room. He's welcome to leave LEGO projects scattered about in various stages if he wants to. I won't trip on them, or have to look at them while I'm relaxing on the couch.)
I know that the idea of tying allowance to chores has become a controversial one, but it's a technique we use to great success. We have a chore chart with boxes labeled Set the Table, Clear the Table, Put Away Silverware, Clean Up Toys, and a Wild Card spot for random jobs well-done. For every task he completes, Felix gets a sticker. After six stickers, he gets a dollar. This adds up to 5 dollars a week, which is more than I got when I was in middle school, but hey! With inflation, it feels fair.
It's gotten so that Felix sometimes asks, "Is it time for me to set the table?" because he wants to get a sticker. Notice I said sometimes. He's a little kid, after all. We still need to remind him and occasionally command him to get to it, but he usually does (With a whine or gripe or two).
Once an allowance enters the picture, you can talk about budgeting, the value of money, and saving up for the things you really want. After pining for 20 LEGO sets simultaneously, Felix has finally set his sights on one, and figures that in about five weeks, if he keeps up with his chores, he'll have enough to buy it. That's pretty cool initiative to see in a kid, no matter what the age.
Any way you look at it, having your kids help around the house builds practical skills and also introduces a lot of "real world" concepts about money, safety, and labor. Yes, it might even help instill a strong work ethic and pride in a job well done. More than all these things, though, it establishes a healthy dynamic in the family. No, your children aren't slaves, and you shouldn't be forcing them to do all of the grunt work around the house. But you aren't a slave to them either. A family divvies up the domestic duties, and everyone cooperates to get the work done. We put on music, we talk, we laugh, we work together.
Life, like parenting, requires effort. While that might not always be fun, it doesn't have to be joyless.