Children and chores - the impossible dream
‘Mum, if I wash the car will you give me money?’ ‘No darling, you should help around the house without expecting payment. After all, you live here too.’ Sound familiar? Sally Morrell looks at ways that parents can encourage their children to accept more responsibility around the home.
Every parent dreams of a child who happily helps around the house doing their share of the daily grind of chores without complaint. But how do you do it? And at what age should we start them? Then there is the question of what exactly can they do and how much, if anything, should we pay them.
And, of course, the big question – what in the world do you do if they simply won’t co-operate? For some parents, it’s easier not to bother. They simply do everything themselves or, if they can afford it, pay a cleaner.
But child psychologist Dr Janet Hall says that is not the way to go. We shouldn’t take the easy way out and nor should we feel guilty about putting our children to work. Rather we should see having children help around the house as one of the ways to produce a well-adjusted adult. Chores teach them teamwork, independence and appreciation of what others do for them.
‘If they are not taught how to do their share, then what happens when they grow up and move out to live independently in shared houses, or worse, when they get married?’ she says.
And that’s why Dr Hall says it is important not to just use the lure of pocket money. ‘It’s also important to get them to take the initiative to help out and not just do only what they are told to do. They need to be able to help out when help is needed, without expecting something for it every time.’
How young do you start?
Dr Hall says even a four-year-old can be helpful around the house. ‘You have to match the task with the child’s interest and ability and praise them like anything.’ Usual chores for children include keeping their room tidy, feeding the dog or cat and setting and clearing the table.
As they grow older, it’s common for parents to add making their own bed, putting out the rubbish or cleaning out the car. But Dr Hall says we should be thinking even wider than that. What about emptying out the dishwasher or doing the dishes, dusting and sweeping the floors?
‘Obviously there will be some chores that young children can’t do, like mowing the lawn or doing the washing. But as they get older they can be taught more complex tasks.’ You wouldn’t expect a 10 year-old to do all the ironing but if they each have their own baskets in their room, they can be taught to separate white and colours and even turn on a washing machine. After all, if they’re able to operate a Nintendo, they can certainly be shown how to use a washing machine!
And Dr Hall says teenagers could even prepare a meal one night a week. ‘It doesn’t have to be a big deal, pasta would do, but when they are that age they should be doing more than just keeping their room tidy,’ she says.
And remember that boys can wash and cook as well as girls. Dr Hall says often unintentionally we give the girls the inside chores and the boys outside chores. ‘Sometimes that’s fine, but other times it’s not really fair. They should be doing the chores depending on where their interests and talents lie, not according to their gender,’ she says.
Pocket Money – How Much?
To make sure the chores all run smoothly and everyone is happy with their role and the role of others, it’s a good idea to occasionally bring it up in conversation around the dinner table. And that can be an ideal time to talk about pocket money.
While it’s important to get them into a mindset where they help out without expecting payment, pocket money is usual for many children.
The basic rule is to try and match the pocket money with the chores and the age of the child. Other parents and your children’s peers can give you a rough idea of what is the norm.
If you have more than one child, you have to be careful what you pay and for what, so that everyone is happy with the arrangements. ‘Children are very conscious at an early age about what’s fair and what’s not fair,’ Dr Hall says.
But how much you pay is up to you. Some parents give their children a set amount each week with no strings attached. Others don’t pay pocket money as such, but will give them spending money if they are going to the movies.
The idea of pocket money is to teach children responsibility. If they do their allocated chores, they are rewarded. It also introduces money management at an early age. They can choose to save their pocket money up to buy something special, or blow it the first day on lollies.
A good idea is to encourage a little of both – save some, spend some. ‘Good banking habits are very important and it is better to learn them early in life,’ Dr Hall says.
What if they won’t do what you want them to?
Dr Hall says if the children start intentionally ‘forgetting’ their chores, or worse refusing to do them, then it is time to get tough. And the sooner you make it known you won’t tolerate it, the better.
Stopping the pocket money is usually the first punishment parents use when their children go on strike. But Dr Hall warns that it’s often not enough for them to change their ways, especially if they are not dependent on their pocket money for anything specific.
The best way for them to learn that all the players on a team have to pull their weight is for another of the players to start playing up along with them. ‘Maybe Dad could stop being the chauffeur for them until things improve. Or maybe the TV could go on strike, or even Mum could go on strike for awhile if it gets really bad,’ she says.
When it comes to children and chores, it’s important for parents to remember the reason you want them to work is not just to have a bit of help around the house, but to instill in them a willingness to help others.
‘They have to understand that they have to do what people are relying on them to do,’ Dr Hall says. And that will help them to become the adult you want them to be.
Ten-year-old Emily Smith is expected to help set and clear the table and tidy the lounge room of all things each night, as part of being a member of the family. But for her $2.50 pocket money each week, she must keep her room tidy, make her bed, keep the bathroom clean and put her dirty washing away. Younger brother Timothy, eight, does the same and gets $1.50 a week. Each birthday, they get an extra .50 cents a week.
‘If they do extra things to help out, like putting out the bins, unpacking the dishwasher or help with cooking the dinner, then they get a bonus .25 cents,’ says their mother, Lu. Emily and Timothy started helping around the house when they were about four and five.
‘We didn’t have pocket money then, they weren’t interested in money,’ she says. ‘When they wanted to, they would help put out the washing out on the line by hanging up the simple things standing on a chair and sometimes they liked to do the dishes, but we always had to rewash them after they had gone to bed!’
Pocket money was introduced when they became interested in money. ‘It’s up to them what they do with their money, but they are teaching themselves how to save already,’ Lu says. ‘At first Emily would just spend her money each week on whatever it would buy her, but now she saves for things she really wants.’
If they don’t do their jobs, they have money deducted. ‘That has worked well so far because they are usually saving for something and they don’t like to miss out on the money,’ Lu says.
Four-year-old George Juliff has just started doing a few chores around the house. ‘Obviously he can’t do much at such a young age, but George is expected to take his dirty dishes to the sink before he gets his sweets and he has to pack up his toys and books when he has finished with them,’ says his mother Kaye. Older sister Gwen, at seven, also pulls up and straightens out her doona in the morning, puts her pyjamas under her pillow and dirty washing in the laundry basket.
‘And if we are having a family dinner, we like the children to set the table. It’s important for them to learn that they need to help out around the house,’ says Kaye. There is no talk yet of pocket money. ‘Gwen hasn’t shown any interest in it. None of her friends get pocket money and really, money doesn’t mean anything to her. No doubt she’ll be very keen on it in a few years,’ says her father Peter.
If the children complain, Kaye says she just explains what will happen if they don’t do what they’re asked. ‘If they don’t put their plates away, then they won’t get their sweets and if they don’t want to set the table I might say that if they can’t be bothered doing that then, maybe, I can’t be bothered cooking dinner,’ says Kaye. ‘But usually they are happy to help out and seem to enjoy the responsibility.’
When can they…………?
- Pick up their toys
- Water outdoor plants
- Wipe the table with a cloth
- Put away sand pit toys
- Set the table
- Feed the dog or cat
- Carry dishes to the sink
- Hang up bath and pool towels
- Tidy toy areas
- Put dirty clothes in the laundry basket
- Use a dustbuster on crumbs
- Stir food mixtures like cakes
Junior primary (6-8)
- Make the bed
- Fold underwear and pair socks
- Sweep the floor
- Put away ironing
- Unpack groceries
- Empty dishwasher
- Help prepare salads
- Rake the garden
- Put away breakfast foods
- Put out the rubbish
- Recycle papers, bottles, organic materials
- Sort the washing into lights and darks
- Wash the dog
- Tidy their room
- Wash/dry the dishes
- Pack the dishwasher
- Chop or peel vegetables
- Tidy the pantry or plastics cupboard
- Help around the yard
By Sally Morrell
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2000.