How Parents Underestimate Kids' Ability to Do Chores

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Though 82 percent of adults “regularly did chores as children, including cleaning, cooking, laundry and dishes…just 28 percent ask the same of their own kids,” according to a study. What gives? (Photo by Getty Images/Kraig Scarbinsky)  

My 4-year-old usually does laundry with me. Our routine is always the same: I pluck wet clothes from the washer and toss them to him one by one. He catches, chucks the stuff into the dryer, and seems to enjoy himself immensely. But one sock toss this time, I found myself thinking, “He could really just do this himself. Could I get him to do this himself? How amazing would it be if he just did this all by himself?”

In the little man’s preschool, after all, he practices sorting, pouring, and putting things in their place. That’s pretty much the gist of laundering clothes. But when I threw out the idea to friends I got blank stares – blank stares implying that having your child do your laundry crosses the line from being supportive to asking too much. 

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Their reactions were actually pretty in line with recent data about parents, kids and household responsibilities. Though 82 percent of adults “regularly did chores as children, including cleaning, cooking, laundry and dishes…just 28 percent ask the same of their own kids,” according to a study commissioned by Whirlpool, reports the Chicago Tribune

Why? “There’s definitely a guilt component to it,” Shannan Welsh, a teacher at the Andover School of Montessori in Massachusetts, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Parents who work all day and don’t get to see their children until 6 p.m. may not want to feel like they’re making their child do chores.” Another anti-chore attitude that parenting coach Sharon Silver says many families hold is that “young kids should just play because there will be plenty of time for chores when they get older.” 

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But even 2-year-olds are up for the challenge of performing age-appropriate tasks – regardless of whether parents recognize it. “Children as young as two or three can begin to understand the concept of responsibility,” Katy Collier, a pre-K teacher at Haines Elementary school in Haines, Oregon, tells Yahoo Parenting. Chores within this age group’s ability include cleaning up toys, hanging up their coat and putting shoes away, she says. 

By 3, your child can also ace folding towels, putting away utensils from the dishwasher, or putting utensils out at table settings for meals, says Welsh. “Preschoolers are probably too young, though, to be like, ‘Go do this’ and send them off,” she says. “You still need to be with them or close by whatever they’re doing.” Yet, like every skill, children develop their expertise at different paces, she adds. “So see where your child is at, what his or her abilities are, and go from there.” 

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This children’s chores chart made the rounds on social media last year (Photo: Maria Montessori/Facebook)

At the same time, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic, in terms of the learning curve and number of activities. “Kids have to see and understand the process, so it does takes that extra teaching time from parents initially,” says Welsh, who recommends starting with one or two new chores at a time and building up a repertoire. Just remember that children likely won’t learn to love a tidy playroom anytime soon, no matter how often they practice putting toys away. 

“Preschoolers have different priorities than their parents,” says parenting coach Joanna Faber, daughter of Adele Faber, co-author of the bestselling How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. “They don’t care about disorder the way we do so they don’t sigh in pleasure at the sight of a cleanly swept floor and a well-made bed. They’d just as soon pick through the dog hair and dust for stray cheerios and pennies, and leap on a rumpled bed to worm under the covers and wrestle with the pillows.” 

Still, going through the process of getting kids involved is worth it. “While it is much easier for parents to complete the simple clean up tasks, children not only learn responsibility from them but also begin to develop a sense of independence,” says Collier.

The majority of parents agree. Seventy five percent those polled in that Whirlpool survey say consistent chores make kids “more responsible,” and 63 percent consider them a tool to teaching life lessons. “To them, it’s new opportunity to try something new and contribute to your family,” explains Faber. “Even a child too young to care about order and organization can feel a sense of purpose and pride in accomplishment that comes from helping out the family, instead of just being a person who needs to be managed and ‘done for.’ Kids want to contribute to family and to society.” 

By not encouraging kids to do chores, Welsh goes so far as to say that you’re actually shortchanging them. “Children develop their minds through activities,” she says. “If they don’t have the chance to do those things that are meaningful activities that adults do every day, they’re missing out on part of their learning and development as people.”

To kids, chores aren’t mundane, continues the teacher. “They’re part of caring for themselves.” Which is why Welsh recommends starting early. “Preschoolers really do take joy in helping out,” she says. “If you wait until age 8, it’ll be a lot harder to get them involved, but you should still try. You don’t want a 21 year old who doesn’t know how to wash dishes.” 

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