I grew up on a farm in Vermont, complete with horses and cows. My father worked as an engineer for a specialty tools company, and my mother managed a handful of residential properties. On evenings and weekends, they caught up with all the farming and maintenance work. We didn’t have the money to hire outside help, so naturally, my siblings and I were roped in to help. I painted houses, stacked wood, and harvested hay as a kid, and distinctly remember that my parents expected us to do our jobs well and to completion… no excuses!
My parents also made it a point to teach us how to go about our tasks—they worked alongside us at first, and as we became more proficient, they would hand it off but always inspect the final product. At the time, I hated doing these chores on top of my schoolwork, but as I progressed into adulthood and started my career, I realized they were teaching me about responsibility, perseverance, and self-sufficiency.
As a mother, my natural tendency is to do everything for my children to ensure their happiness. However, whenever I’m overwhelmed with trying to maintain order around the house, I force myself to take a step back and figure out what age-appropriate chores I can offload to them. They complain, of course, but then I think back to my childhood and remind myself that work is good for the soul (rather than something to be avoided)…
When my girls turned two, I had them help me wash vegetables and set the table for meals. They often took longer than I would have liked, but it was a fun activity for them, and made them feel like they were helping mommy. At three, I added a few more tasks like making beds, picking up toys, and clearing dishes. To keep track of everything, I created a weekly job chart with pictures of the various tasks, plus a cute graphic of whatever princess or cartoon character they were obsessed with at the moment. Each year, we sit down and chat about what tasks they should be adding to this list, so they feel like they have some input in this process.
There are several resources available if you’d like to do some research on age-appropriate jobs, but here is a classic list based on the Montessori system:
When I introduce new tasks, I try to do it with them once or twice, so they know what the “end product” should look like. My children are now in elementary school, and have just started helping me wash pots and pans. The first few times, they were happy to declare the job done even though the cookware had greasy streaks or soapy suds (or both)! I had to stand beside them and make sure all the soap was rinsed off and that the pots and pans were clean for next use. Now, they just tell me when they’re done and ask if it’s clean enough.
Every night, before my children go to bed, we go through their job charts and mark completed tasks with stickers of their choosing. (I try to make it fun for them!) Early on, I would often double-check to make sure they did a good job, but once they know what is expected of them, I try to back off so they feel like I trust them.
Some other things I try not to manage as carefully, because learning by making mistakes is part of the process. If they leave a favorite toy out in the bedroom, and someone accidentally steps on it and breaks it… oops! I guess that’s why we pick things up.
Dealing with complaints
When I first introduced their job charts, I shared with our girls that families work together and everyone needs to contribute. We talked about expectations and responsibilities, but also about how much more time we could have to do fun things together if everybody chipped in. Occasionally they push back or use endless delay tactics, and then I tell them “sorry girls, we ran out of time, so mommy can’t read you bedtime stories”, “we don’t have time to get ice cream like we planned”, or worse, “you don’t have time to watch an episode of your favorite cartoon”… that usually straightens them out!
Lastly, I try to impress upon them that there are many things we all have to do that we don’t necessarily like, but they have to get done anyway. I try to highlight things that would directly impact them if I chose not to do it (e.g. replacing batteries in their toys), so it hits closer to home 🙂
That’s what has worked for me thus far. How do you tackle chores in your house?