March 21, 2012
Why is it that some children seem to enjoy doing household chores, whereas others do everything they can to avoid anything that looks like work? Many of the most successful and productive adults have described their work as feeling like play. There is emerging evidence that the roots of mastery and achievement lie in early play experiences.
We got some interesting responses to my blog on playtime, where I made a case for kids needing lots of unstructured time to do what they want to do. I cited some research showing its importance in children’s development, including the increased likelihood of kids happily and voluntarily involving themselves in clean-up when they’re given enough time for child-directed play.
From Luc, we heard this about his son, Felix:
“Unstructured playtime”, I think that’s what Felix has been doing all his
life. He didn’t want Pokemon or Playstation. As a toddler, he was always ‘constructing’ something, using carton boxes, home furniture, ropes…
I remember having breakfast standing up, because I didn’t have time to
untangle the chairs he had tied together in a ‘construction’.
One thing’s for sure: “to take ownership of their own learning and their own
environments” is happening right now. He’s studying “morphology”, “syntaxis”, “linguistic sciences”, ancient Greek, colloquial Norwegian… while reading many books.
However, it looks like I missed one part somewhere along the route:
“co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period”.
Perhaps that’s related to my office desk looking like a garbage dump most
of the time?
The same day that this note arrived from Luc, I read a delightful blog posted by Kelly Bartlett, the author of a blog called Parenting from Scratch. She describes herself as a ‘Certified Positive Discipline Educator who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, children, and way too many pets.’
In her blog on chores, Kelly laid out what I recognize (from years of work as a developmental psychologist specialising in gifted development) to be a brilliant step-by-step plan for helping children acquire mastery in anything. She’s applying her plan to chores, but the same concepts apply just as well to musical, mathematical, linguistic, athletic, or any other kind of mastery.
When it comes to doing chores, there is a positive approach that can be summed up in two words: Take Time.
To teach, that is. Chores, while seemingly straightforward to us parents who do them all the time, take time for kids to learn. And we need to take time to teach them. And to expect independence with them. And also to form a habit of them. Oh, and enjoyment of them. Well, we might be waiting a LONG time for that one!
But promises of rewards and threats of consequences aren’t necessary as long as the chore-learning process is cooperative and encouraging. In our house, “We do it together,” is our motto right now, with an addendum of, “(until you can do it alone)” to come later. Here are the four steps that help us get there:
1. Model. They see me do stuff first.
2. They help me. I get to have an assistant.
3. I help them. Now it is their turn to take the lead.
4. They do it alone. We’ve done it enough times together that it is not unreasonable to expect them to get a job done on their own.
Of course, the length of time to get through this 4-step teaching process depends on the task. Getting the dog her food is much less complicated than cleaning one’s bedroom.
For big tasks, break the job up. Make the bed. Put toys away. Pick up clothes. Vacuum. Clear dishes. Throw away garbage. Wipe surfaces. Each one is its own learning process. That’s why it’s overwhelming to say, “Clean your room,” and expect it to be done quickly and without supervision/ direction/ guidance/ help.
Here are some jobs that my kids were able to handle alone at various ages:
Age 1-2 (not expecting perfection)
- fruit & veggie prep (washing & drying)
- choosing clothes
Age 3-4 (also not expecting perfection, and expecting some “No’s)
- setting table
- folding laundry
- getting dressed
- measure ingredients
- pack own carry-on for trips
Though my kids can do these kinds of jobs on their own, I still expect to give directions as to when they need to be done. I don’t expect them to notice on their own and take the initiative to do some chores (except when the toilet needs to be plunged…that takes no prompting for JJ). At their ages, they simply have other priorities than I do. I think the first time I started taking initiative for doing chores is when I had my own house! That’s when it began to matter to me.
What if they say “No,” or argue when it’s time to do chores? My answer is, “Yes, let’s do it together.” Even if it’s a task that I know they can do on their own, they may simply be needing some extra encouragement right then. So my answer is, “Yes, it needs to get done. Let’s do it together.” I break the job up into “You do this and I’ll do that…” No arguing, negotiating, reasoning, bribing or threatening…just cooperation and some re-teaching. I expect to remind my kids often to do chores. I expect to teach them (“do it together”) for a long time. I remind myself that their whole childhood is time for teaching. Like me, my kids may not exhibit “proactive-chore-behavior” until they’ve moved out into their own place. But because of the years I’ve invested teaching chores and instilling the importance of getting jobs done, it will be second nature to tackle their own chores with confidence.
To see Kelly’s entire blog (from which this was excerpted), including great photographs, go to
Luc’s story illustrates the value of free unstructured play, and it also demonstrates the importance of parents’ modeling the kind of behaviour they want to see in their kids. As Luc says, the fact that his desk is a mess is a clue to why Felix doesn’t volunteer for clean-up. And sometimes—specially if the creative free play has gone on for a while and resulted in a giant mess—clean-up can be daunting, which is where Kelly’s blog comes in. Her approach to chores illustrates the scaffolding—step-by-step support— kids need for learning anything. The more complex the task, the more scaffolding is needed. When this is embedded in normal daily life, the way Kelly describes, it becomes second nature, and kids are given a giant gift—it will be easier for them to achieve whatever they decide they want to achieve.
For more about how important chores are, and how to help kids learn to do them happily, go to http://www.worrywisekids.org/node/125