Starting chores at a young age builds essential skills and self-esteem
By Perry Santanachote
My niece went off to college and was crammed into a dorm room with three other young women. She would regale me with horror stories about how her roomies would leave dirty dishes throughout the space, spilled mac ’n cheese smashed into the carpet (container and all!), and moldy, stinky things at every turn.
Initially, she would clean up after them but eventually left the messes to see how long they’d go untouched. After half a semester of living in a literal trash can, my niece finally asked the others to clean up after themselves. Their excuse for not doing so? They didn’t know how.
There is no reason to wait until your kids are 18 years old to teach them about tidying up. Simply crossing your fingers and hoping they wake up one day with the desire to clean won’t cut it, either.
Children can start doing chores as early as 18 months old, and it’s in everyone’s best interest that they develop these skills incrementally starting at a young age.
“It’s a really important component of development for kids to develop this sense of autonomy and independence and the ability to start to take care of themselves,” says Christina Fiorvanti, PhD, a child psychologist with Montefiore Medical Group in New York. “The more things that they can do on their own, the more confidence and self-esteem they build up.”
Cleaning Tasks for Very Young Kids
“You can get your kids involved in chores and cleaning as soon as they start to show some interest in doing things independently,” Fiorvanti says. Usually, that’s about the time they become more mobile, around 12 to 18 months. They might begin imitating their parents and starting to show an interest in the day-to-day tasks of the household.
Parents and caretakers spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, and putting things away. And Fiorvanti recommends involving the children in these routine tasks when they’re not in a rush.
“It might slow you down a little bit and might not be all that helpful to you, but they’ll feel really special, and they will be learning a skill,” she says. One of the easiest tasks to hand over to the little ones, she adds, is moving and sorting laundry. “At 18 months old, they’re very big on putting things in and dumping things out, and they can follow simple directions, like ‘put all the clean laundry on the couch.’ ”
Cleaning Tasks for Younger School-Age Children
“A 2-year-old can understand where things go in the home, so you can start teaching them how to organize and put toys away,” says Naeemah Ford Goldson, a certified professional organizer, owner of Restore Order Professional Organizing, and author of “Tidy Tessa,” a children’s book that teaches kids how to organize their things.
The lessons don’t need to be instructional, either, but you can teach by example. “Put their things away at the end of the night while they watch,” Ford Goldson says. “Explain to them that everything has a home and here is its home. Eventually, they will realize where everything goes, and they’ll want to do it, too.”
Anytime you’re organizing or purging their things, put your children to work and get their input, says Yuzu Sasaki Byrne, a certified professional organizer, and owner of Neatopia, an organizing and coaching service in Chicago. For instance, when going through their wardrobe, ask them to help identify clothes that no longer fit or are worn out, or those they don’t like. “Kids also tend to come home from school with a lot of artwork throughout the year,” Sasaki Byrne says. “Have them choose their best three to store in a dedicated memory box and purge the rest.”
Young kids can handle simple cleaning tasks, too. It could be wiping off the bathroom counter after they wash their face or wiping off the mirror after they brush their teeth. They can dust shelves, carry dirty dishes to the sink after meals, and even help load a dishwasher (with adult supervision, of course).
Make sure to keep their time cleaning and organizing to a short time frame. You can make it into a fun game (with a reward) or you can set a timer so that they know they’re not going to be cleaning all day. “I think 20 minutes is a good amount of time for kids to do any task without them hating it,” Ford Goldson says. “We want to build skills and habits for them as they get older so they can eventually do this on their own. If they loathe chores now, they’ll end up with messy homes as adults.”
Another thing to be mindful of is how you communicate emotions around doing chores. “If an adult in the household complains and struggles through these tasks, they make the tasks seem negative, and kids will pick up on that quickly and not want to do them,” Fiorvanti says. Instead of saying we have to do the laundry or we have to take out the trash, put a spin on it and turn it into an activity. Now we get to go do the laundry and separate the colors. “It won’t feel as much like work, but just another part of the day that kids want to be involved with.”
Cleaning Tasks for Older School-Age Children
“Around age 10 is really when they can start doing things without supervision,” Ford Goldson says, things like taking out the trash, sweeping, vacuuming, changing the bed sheets, and their own laundry. Games might not work anymore as children get older, but an allowance is a good incentive.
Nonmonetary rewards might also do the trick. “It does not need to be anything significant, but provide them with something they would enjoy, such as a longer screen time, a bowl of ice cream, or a family movie of their choice,” Sasaki Byrne says. You can also set a timer for up to 45 minutes for older kids.
“Incentives can be helpful, but we want them to be an active part of [deciding what the incentive is] as much as possible because we don’t always want it to be a transaction,” Fiorvanti says. “We want them to become more independent, so work with them on how to get through something they’re not looking forward to by thinking about what they want to do afterward to make it a little more motivating.”
Cleaning Tasks for Older Kids
Most tweens and teens should be able to clean and organize independently. But keep in mind that some children, such as those on the autism spectrum, might not be there, and those with ADHD are typically three to five years behind in some areas than their neurotypical peers. “It’s important to set realistic expectations for what they are capable of doing,” says Sasaki Byrne, who works with clients and children with ADHD, “not what is typical for their age group.”
In general, if your children are reaching their late teens having never cleaned anything or picked up after themselves, it’ll be difficult to get them to do it now, but not impossible.
“When you start kids early with doing these things, it just becomes a routine,” Fiorvanti says. “It doesn’t even feel like a chore or something negative because you’re just in the habit of doing it.”
If you suddenly tell them to clean their room now and they don’t do it, Fiorvanti says it could be that they have no idea where to start. So it goes back to the baby steps. Break up “clean your room” into specific tasks: Pick up the clothes on the floor and put them in the hamper, then take all the piles of clean clothes and put them into drawers, then take all the books on your desk and put them on the bookshelf.
“Make it clear so that they understand what is expected of them,” Fiorvanti says. “That’s one of the most important steps in getting them to actually do it themselves.”
And regardless of age, any new task or skill that we’re teaching them should be scaffolded, Fiorvanti says. That’s where you basically give them as much support as they need to do it independently, but not so much that you basically do it for them.
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