How Chores Prepare Children for Life

Charlotte Mason used a wonderful phrase when she was talking about our responsibility as parents. She said that we have the responsibility to instruct our children in the art of living. I love that phrase. Today we want to discuss how chores can help us instruct our children in that art of living. And here to join me is my friend, Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, between us, we’ve got eight kids. And we have trained them to do lots of chores over the years. So first, let’s talk about why we should train our children in chores. What are some ideas that come to mind?

Karen: Well, first and foremost, they help make the mess. They can help clean it up.

Sonya: It does teach them a sense of responsibility.

Karen: And it teaches that they are not royalty sitting in my home, and I’m the servant. They need to pitch in and help also. Part of it is community. We work together to get things done.

Sonya: Yes, and along with that, there’s also a sense of contributing to the community and that builds a sense of belonging. A stronger sense of “I belong here.” I’m not just beside them. I’m an integral part of what they are doing here. Another reason that we trained our children in chores was to try and smooth the path to adulthood in a way. I remember, when I got married, I knew how to cook two things and that was it. So it was the cooking, and the cleaning, and the laundry, and I was working full-time, and all of that stuff was a big stress.

Karen: Because you didn’t have experience doing any of it.

Sonya: Not habitually, no. It took so much of my brain to think about that. It created an environment of stress. I realized that if my kids have the habit of doing laundry, have the habit of cleaning the house, have the habit of cooking, know how to cook already, then that’s going to really smooth their path into, as my daughter says, adulting.

If kids have the habit of doing laundry, cleaning the house, know how to cook, that’s going to smooth their path into adulthood.

Karen: Yes. For your children, and my children, who are all adults now, I think that they would all agree with that. That was a big help to them as they set up their own households.

Sonya: I know Doug mentioned earlier, when we were discussing this, that training our children in chores really is training them to have a heart for service.

Karen: Yes. He mentioned a family that we know; as a family they found ways to serve. It may have just been mowing the lawn on the church property, but they did it as a family. So it wasn’t “You go mow the lawn.” They served together and they trained their children to do that. And what a wonderful service and ministry they had because of that.

Sonya: That reminds me of another thing Charlotte talks about. The best thing in life is to be of use to someone or something; that gives you so much purpose. I can see how training your child to be of service is important. That’s another habit Charlotte talks about, taking initiative to serve other people, to help to be of use. One thing that was interesting, as we were talking about different chores that we trained our children in, we kept trying to decide whether these are chores or are they life skills.

Karen: They’re all life skills.

Sonya: I think so, too. We talk about chores but really we’re training them in life skills.

Karen: Yes. We think about cleaning a bathroom, for instance. as being a chore, but it’s really a life skill of how to keep your house clean. Don’t just put it in that distasteful “chore” category. This is something useful for life.

Sonya: Part of the art of living is being able to create an atmosphere of cleanliness and being able to live to your fullest because you’re eating healthful foods. And you know how to shop for healthful foods and plan healthful meals. You’re able to mend your clothes.

Karen: You can change a tire.

Sonya: Okay, let’s talk about different age groups and what might be appropriate for those different age groups to learn in life skills, or chores. We’re going to call them life skills, because they are. Now, preschool kids. My preschoolers wanted to help.

Karen: Kids are usually so eager to be helpful around the house. Sometimes it’s difficult finding something that is at their abilities so they can help out. But there are things that they can do.

Sonya: And if we don’t encourage that, the desire to help, now, we’re going to squelch it. And that’s going to make it harder to get them to help when they’re older. So let’s encourage that. One thing I did with the little ones, they would start just by folding a washcloth when I was doing towels.

Karen: Something simple.

Sonya: And small. I didn’t give them the whole big bath towel because they would probably. . . 

Karen: Use it as a cape.

Sonya: Yes, exactly. Something small they could handle. I remember one of the grandchildren that we share is a little over one year old now. Do you remember getting that video? It was time to do laundry and so the little girl was standing on the chair in front of the washer and on a stool or a chair beside her was the basket of laundry. She was just grinning, happy as a little clam. She would pick up one little item and put it in the washer and pick up one little item and put it in. Somebody watching this right now or listening to this right now is going, “That would drive me crazy.”

Karen: Because as moms, we just want to dump it in and be on with life. We’ve got other things to do. But taking that time to let children help goes a long way into their futures.

Sonya: That grin on her face that just told it all. She felt achievement. It was wonderful. So we can give children those types of things to help. What else can we do with preschoolers?

Karen: They can make their beds, even if it doesn’t look as nicely as you would make it. They can pull the covers up and cover the bed. They’re learning those skills as they gain better mobility: those fine motor skills and even large motor skills. As they gain those, the bed will be nicer when they do that.

Sonya: They can absolutely pick up their toys.

Karen: They can pick up their toys, and many times they can even pick up their books and put them back on the shelf. Sometimes they can dust, particularly if you don’t have breakables in case they accidentally knock them off the shelf, but they can dust certain areas.

Sonya: They can use that little whisk broom and sweep little things.

Karen: So there are things they can do. They can help even if they’re just standing alongside mom or dad when they’re cooking a meal. They can help; they can help hand spices to them. They can at least watch. Maybe they can hand a carrot to mom so she can cut it up to put it into the soup or whatever she’s making.

Sonya: Or, “Go get the carrot out of the refrigerator because I need it.”

Karen: Yes, so there are several things that they can do. Sometimes, particularly if you have a toddler and then a younger baby, the toddler might go get the washcloth so that the baby can be cleaned up. Or the preschooler can get the diaper. There are many things, and we don’t think of them as chores. Usually. These are ways that you can encourage your very young children to help around the house. Then that grows into more things as they get older.

Sonya: Opportunities to serve is what it is. I remember, when my kids were in the preschool years, trying to do a shift in my mentality, rather than thinking, “Oh, how old do they have to be before they can do such and such?” I shifted to, “I wonder how young they can be before they at least start doing a component of it.” Like the laundry. We didn’t say to the one-year-old, “Here, do the laundry,” but that little component could be there. Folding just the washcloths is a start to it. If we think about how young they can be, encourage at least a component of it. That can be a change. 

Alright, so that’s preschool. Let’s go to elementary age kids. At that age I think they can start unloading the dishwasher. I remember that when my girls unloaded the dishwasher they couldn’t reach the top cabinet to put away the plates and things. So I had them stack them neatly on the countertop and then I would just put them away.

Karen: Yes. That’s one thing you can do. You can get a step stool that they can safely get up on to put things away like that. They can also help clear the table.

Sonya: And set the table.

Karen: And put those dirty dishes into the dishwasher. Many kids at that age are also able to use a broom. So even if it’s just a dust mop, that makes it even simpler for them. They just have to run it along the floor and then use that little whisk broom we trained them to use to put the dust into the dust pan. You can expand on those things that they started as preschoolers, just increase that little skill level.

Sonya: Even though we are breaking this down by age, it’s really more developmental growth. Because I have a 24-year-old special needs daughter, and she can’t do some of these things that a normal 24-year-old could do. But she can do many of them. One thing that has really helped is, for example, she can do her own laundry, but I have put stickers on the washing machine and on the dryer. On the washer I’ve labeled the sticker. I taught her, “Turn the knob, so it points to this sticker for your clothes. And here’s the one you turn it to for your towels. And on the same on the dryer, turn it to this place and then push the button to start it.”

Karen: She has a visual; she knows where to turn the dials.

Sonya: Right. Because the judgment call is what throws her off.

Karen: You could do that for children who can’t read yet. If you want them to do their own laundry, or maybe do a load of towels so they can learn how to use the machines, you can put a little sticker and teach them to turn the dial there for the towels. That could be a big help for them in taking that next step. They’re quite capable of putting the things into the washing machine. But this would give them another step of being able to turn it on also.

Sonya: Yes. Give them confidence that they’re doing it right.

Karen: I know one mom who puts her laundry detergent in a a jug. I know you can buy them in jugs that have the little spigot on them, but she puts hers in a clear glass jug that has a different knob on it. That’s easier for her children to measure out the soap. That’s one thing that you can do too. Think of ways that you can help your child be able to do some of these things that knock down some of those obstacles.

Sonya: Yeah. So they can do it more independently and more successfully while gaining confidence.

Karen: And helping you, yes.

Sonya: Alright, let’s move to middle school age. And at this point I think we can bring in different kinds of life skills. Some of the cooking.

Karen: Some more advanced cooking.

Sonya: Yes. Some of the cooking, mending, sewing on a button, and things like that, they can learn.

Karen: It’s things that they might need to do when they become adults and are taking care of their houses. They can . . .

Sonya: Change a light bulb.

Karen: There you go. That’s a good one.

Sonya: I remember someone telling us that he sold his house and moved away, and about two months later he got a call from the new owner of his old house. He said, “Could you please come? The bushes are all overgrown now. I need you to come take care of that for me.”

Karen: He didn’t know how to trim the bushes.

Sonya: He didn’t know how to do it. He wasn’t prepared.

Karen: Yes. Things like that. We often think of chores as being inside, but there’s yard work, life skills. Doing yard work.

Sonya: If the middle-school-aged child is old enough to mow the lawn safely.

Karen: Yes. That might be a good place to start.

Sonya: Yes. And of course you give them instructions for safety. Let’s talk about how to train them in chores in just a minute. Let’s talk high school, and then we’re going to talk about how to actually train any of them in any chore. High school. If they’re old enough to drive a car, they should know how to change the tire, and have practice in changing the tire, and checking the oil, and scheduling when they should check the oil regularly.

Karen: And how to put gas in the car and maybe air in the tires. So there are different things there.

Sonya: All the auto maintenance.

Karen: Yes. That’s something they can do.

Sonya: They can learn childcare—learning how to change a diaper. Somewhere in those middle school, high school levels. There’s changing a diaper, even first aid.

Karen: Yes. Basic first aid. What to do if you get cut or the child you’re taking care of has an injury. What do you do?

Sonya: Even how to paint a wall is a good one.

Karen: In those middle school and high school years they can start taking ownership of some of those things around the house. Maybe, depending on the child’s confidence and ability, you assign him to cook one day out of the week. He plans the meal and he makes it. He’s going to have to do that when he leaves the home.

Sonya: I think that’s a great gift. Not just one day a week either. It’s a wonderful gift. And as you said, he plans the meal as well as cooks it. So we’ve got our science in there as well— planning nutritious meals.

Karen: Also, you can’t make a recipe if you don’t have the ingredients. So you have to plan that when it’s time to cook a meal. If that’s the point that you’re saying, “Oh what should I cook?” you’re most likely not going to cook something nutritious because it’s going to be whatever you can find in the house at that time. Having to plan ahead of time is a real life skill for more than just cooking.

Sonya: Now, for both of us, by the time our children were in middle school and high school, our oldest children were in high school, we had started traveling on some weekends. We weren’t gone all the time, but there were some weekends that we would be gone. I think I can speak for both of us; I know it was true for me. I felt very comfortable leaving my children to run the house while I was on the road for a few days, and I was confident it would be done well.

Karen: Yes. I wouldn’t come home to a mess. I knew that they would be able to cook whatever meals they needed. They would clean up after themselves, and they they would still do the other household chores while I was gone. They would do the laundry, they would take care of cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming, dusting, all of those things.

Sonya: Change the sheets on the beds, all of it.

Karen: Yes. And I knew that it would be done when I came home. I didn’t have to concern myself with that at all.

Sonya: It was not a selfish thing for us to do. Oh, “Here you do it so I don’t have to.” It was very much intentional.

Karen: Prepare them for their own households. When they move out they need to be able to do those things, not learn them when they move out.

Sonya: Exactly. Have it be a second nature to them so they don’t have all that stress of, “Oh I’ve got to learn how to do this. Oh, I have to remember how to do this.” It’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s easy. I’ve done that for a long time. I know how to do that.”

Karen: Yes, “I know how to do that.” They didn’t have to think about it. We’d already set those rails for them.

Sonya: Alright, so let’s talk about how to train a child in a life skill or a chore. I like to go through a five-step process very simply. Step number one. I do it as the parent and the child watches me. That can start when they’re preschool age.

Karen: Oh, yes. And they watch you, whether you know it or not.

Sonya: Which brings up an interesting point. I know some moms who save all the cleaning and chores until the children are in bed, but then the kids are not watching and seeing how these things are done. So that might be sabotaging yourself if you do that. Anyway, step one, they watch you. Step two, I as the parent I do it, and they help me. And again, it can start in preschool. Step three then, now we’re going to make the shift when the child is ready. Now the child is going to take the lead. They’re going to do it, and I’m going to help them. So I’ll help as you need it. But you take the lead and do what you can do. And then step four, the child will do it and I will watch them. So it’s just the exact reverse of the process we had before. So now you do it, and I’m going to watch you. So I’m here if you need me but I think you can do it yourself. And then step five is they do the chore and afterwards you go inspect it. Because let’s be honest, you get what you inspect.

Karen: Yes. If you allow your children to do sloppy work, or maybe you train them to do it well, but if you don’t keep holding them accountable for how well to do it, their work will get sloppy because they are just like us. They are lazy. They want to do the least amount of work as possible to get the job done.

Sonya: As we do. I love how you said they’re just like us.

Karen: Just like us.

Sonya: That’s human nature. It’s easy to let it slide. If you’re not held accountable.

Karen: We want the easy path.

Sonya: So that fifth step is turning it over to them, holding them accountable for it and responsible for it, and inspecting that work. To help them keep it up to the standard that you think will best equip them for adult life, for the art of living. I love that. Thanks.