Over the past couple of months several parents have asked me to share my thoughts about managing children’s household jobs and responsibilities. This is a great topic to write about prior to summer vacation. Many families have a bit more breathing room once school is out, and parents can give some thought to tweaks and adjustments they want to make to their family plan for delegating household tasks. At the outset I want to apologize for a longer than usual message – I found a had a lot to say on this topic!
There are so many good reasons to have your children help around the house. As everyone reading this knows, managing a busy household takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy. For practical reasons, it makes sense to tackle these responsibilities as a team: there is a lot to be done in a week to keep a household running smoothly, and it’s useful if everyone who is part of the household helps out. Asking all family members to contribute also makes sense from the standpoint of deepening family connections. When everyone works together to complete household tasks, the process of working towards a common goal strengthens family member’s sense of unity and reinforces the message that family members can rely on each other.
In addition to these benefits for the whole family, holding the expectation that children will help with household jobs supports the development of autonomy and resilience. Through helping with their own self-care, cooking, yard work, or laundry, children learn to be independent. Mastering a new task such as learning how to wipe a table clean without simply brushing the crumbs on the floor, make a quesadilla, or care for houseplants, supports learning how to break a larger task down into component parts and work on mastering each step. Trying something new and working diligently to master that task builds a sense of competence which in turn supports the development of resilience.
When you talk with your child about helping with household jobs, be mindful of conveying a positive attitude:
“Look at all these toys on the floor – kiddos had a lot of fun in this room! Let’s put on some music while we straighten up.”
“You got dressed all by yourself. Looks like you’re feeling pretty proud.”
“Thanks for clearing your dishes from the table. I appreciate your help.”
“Taking care of our houseplants is a big responsibility. It’s cool that you’re old enough to help. I’ll show you what to do, and then on Saturday afternoons we can water the houseplants together.”
“Cooking a dish like chili might sound like a big job. We’ll start by doing it together and then I’ll let you take over next time.”
Hold in mind that children often need ongoing help and support with household jobs. When a child helps with adult assistance, this still counts as helping. Children thrive with structure and predictability, so whenever possible be clear about whenyour child is expected to help with a job (“Please put the dishes in the dishwasher before you go outside”) and set clear expectations about how one knows when a job is complete:
“Once all the books are on the shelf and the trains are in the bin, this room will be all picked up.”
“Thanks for putting away your clean laundry. Once your basket is empty, you’ll be finished with this job.”
How do parents know which jobs to assign to a child and when to assign them? As with many topics in parenting, there is no single answer to these questions. Your family’s plan regarding assigning household responsibilities will vary in accordance with the ages and developmental stages of your children, their temperaments, and what is realistic given your family’s unique circumstances at any given time. At the bottom of this message, I have included some ideas for jobs that might be suitable for children of different ages. This list is by no means exhaustive – it is simply meant to be used as a helpful tool to guide you in developing a realistic plan for your family. Keep in mind that your child will not be able to complete a task as quickly or thoroughly as you would if you were doing it yourself. The goal is neither speed nor perfection. Rather, we want to encourage children’s sense of autonomy and responsibility. If there is a task that you like done a particular way, such as cleaning the kitchen counters, I’d suggest you do that task yourself and assign a different task to your child.
How do parents know when their child is ready to help out more around the house? When I am working with parents, as a rule of thumb I recommend that families consider adding a new task to their child’s list of responsibilities about twice a year. A simple way to do this is to schedule a reminder in your phone every 6 months to review your child’s household responsibilities and consider adding one new task. Keep in mind that some jobs will be daily tasks (for example, clearing dishes from the table, putting clothes in the hamper), some are weekly tasks (for example, emptying the bathroom trash can or sorting the recycling), and some tasks, such as helping to rake leaves or clean the house before a holiday meal, will be seasonal.
If you have not been expecting your children to complete household jobs, please don’t feel guilty and please try not to make your child feel bad that they haven’t been helping. If upon reading this you decide that you want your child to take on more responsibility at home, I’d recommend taking a collaborative approach. This might involve either talking one-on-one with your child or having a family meeting:
“I know how much you like to bake. Over the summer I’d like you to learn to do some cooking so you can help make family meals. What ideas do you have about what you want to learn to cook?”
“We have a problem for our team to solve. There is so much laundry and only one family member trying to do all of it. I’d like to come up with a system so that everyone in the family shares some of this big job. What ideas does everyone have?”
Often tweens and teens are so busy with school, extracurricular commitments, and homework that parents feel confused about how to set appropriate expectations about asking busy children to help. If you are in this situation, try to balance being realistic about the limits on your child’s time with holding them accountable for completing at least a few tasks that take a minimal amount of time such as clearing their dishes from the table or filling their own water bottle and packing it in their backpack. If your child has a very busy schedule, consider looking at the calendar with them and scheduling one or two 15 minute blocks a week for them to complete a specific task that takes a little more time such as putting away clean laundry or straightening their room. Teaching children to add these jobs to their calendar helps support the development of executive function skills. Over the summer when your child’s schedule is likely to be more open, consider asking your child to take on more responsibility such as by helping to cook dinner once a week, fold laundry, or water the vegetable garden.
Here are some ideas for age-appropriate household jobs and responsibilities. Please note that these are general guidelines: the appropriateness of a particular task can vary depending upon age, temperament, ability, and other factors. Also note that I am not suggesting that your child needs to do every task listed for their age. Pick one or two tasks to start with and then, as described above, add a new task every 6 months or so.
Ages 2-3 (many of these tasks will be completed with adult support)
Put soiled clothes in hamper
Pick up and put away toys
Take own (unbreakable) dish/cup to sink
Select clothes from limited choices
Scrub fruits and vegetables with a brush
Pick up sticks in the yard
Ages 4-5 (often with adult support)
Hang coat and backpack on hook
Help unpack groceries
Wipe table with a sponge
Put placemats and/or napkins on the table
Clean up spills
Unload some items from the dishwasher
Fill water bottle
Water or spray houseplants
Sort dirty laundry into lights and darks
Put away clean laundry
Help write grocery list
Help pull weeds, water plants, rake leaves or shovel snow
Help wash car
Tweens and teens
Pack own snack/lunch
Pack own bag for sports or other activities
More involved pet care (grooming bathing, cleaning pet cage/crate/bed)
Strip bed and eventually change sheets
Cooking (with adult supervision as necessary)
Fold laundry and eventually do their own laundry
Care for garden/lawn (watering, weeding, eventually mowing)
Help with larger household jobs such as washing windows, cleaning gutters