I was an only child, and even though we didn’t have much money, I was spoiled. I wasn’t expected to do much around the house. I never learned how to cook, and I was in high school before I learned to do laundry. My husband grew up in a very similar household. Our moms both worked full-time, and then cooked and took care of the house. Once in a while, Mom would have a meltdown, and I would be pressed into forced labor for the day.
When we got married, we were utterly clueless about what it took to run a household. Learning to cook was a comedy of errors. Thankfully, we didn’t have children for a few years, so we had some time to learn how to take care of ourselves before we had to learn to care for other little humans.
Then I started repeating the cycle of trying to do everything. One day when a little one begged to help wash dishes and was so proud of himself standing in a chair to help, I had an aha moment. Training them when they are small that they are valuable for who they are, and what they do is healthy. We started a chore list. Little ones did things like folding towels and emptying the bathroom trash cans. Older kids helped with dishes and swept and mopped floors.
The chore list rotated, so every kid knew how to do everything. By the time they hit mid-teens, they each cooked a meal for the family once or twice a month. Not only were they learning valuable skills, but they were proud of their accomplishments.
Don’t get me wrong; they were normal kids. They complained, often. They whined and moaned and made sure we knew how unfair it was. Their assigned chores never took more than 30 minutes or so a day, but in their more dramatic moments, that might as well have been a 16-hour sweatshop shift.
Then, one by one, they started to trickle out of our house. Some of them went to college dorms, others to their first apartment. They knew how to do that. They knew how to buy groceries and cook reasonably nutritious meals on a budget. They understood that cleaning wasn’t something you could do once every couple of weeks, but was something you had to do every day. The knew so much more than we did when we started our lives together.
I have lost count of the number of friends and family members who have said some version of “I wish I could get my kids to help around the house.” Yeah, I was just lucky enough to stumble across naturally helpful kids. Insert eye roll. My kids were helpful because we expected that from them. We spent years training them and listening to plenty of complaining in the process. We didn’t waiver, convinced it was for their own good.
If you have never expected your kids to do chores consistently, it won’t be easy to start the process suddenly. It is worth it, though. It gives kids a sense of worth to contribute. It is teaching them the necessary life skills for the future. It is worth dealing with the complaining that comes and goes.
They also learn negotiation skills, especially with their siblings. One kid despises kitchen duty, and the other kid doesn’t mind it. They are in a constant state of negotiation. The one who doesn’t mind kitchen duty gets more and more in exchange for doing the kitchen for his other sibling. I stay out of things like that. Negotiations are a part of life, and practicing with your siblings is probably healthy.
Every parent needs to do what works best for their house, but if having your kids help keep the house running is what you need, you aren’t going to harm them by making them contribute. Chores take about 30 minutes a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask in exchange for all the material possessions they have, and the time and energy invested into them.
I spent ten days in the hospital and came home with some pretty serious limitations. The house was fine. Everyone had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. Most importantly, they had worked together as a team with no one there to make them do anything. The oldest was an adult by then and capable of being the “adult in charge.” He bragged on how well everyone pulled together.
Oh, and one last tip. If you are going to encourage your kids to be helpful around the house, you are going to have to let go and accept things will be less than perfect. A four-year-old is not going to fold towels the way you want them folded, and sneaking around and doing it over is teaching them that what they did doesn’t count.
Teaching kids to cook means eating simple meals while smiling and complimenting a few less than gourmet dishes. To this day, my husband can’t watch when my son mows the yard. It gets mowed and looks okay when he is done. But watching the process is painful.
For more on lessons my kids have taught me: