It's easy for a parent to mess up when it comes to giving their young children chores to do around the house, even with the best intentions. You want a pre-schooler to be mindful that she has a role to play in our family and is culpable for the mess she makes in her playroom or bedroom ... but the lost look she gives you when you instruct her to "clean up" spilled blocks, papers, crayons and princess costumes makes you realize she either needs a lot more direction than provided or is simply not at an age where "clean up your entire room" is going to make a lot of sense to her.
On the flip side, we sometimes make the mistake of assuming our kids are either not mature enough to handle certain duties, or we overburden them with chores because we don't want to raise indulgent children. But kids can thrive when they're given responsibilities, and it's great for them to feel they have as much power over their environments as the adults in their lives do. The key is to give them chores that challenge, without frustrating them.
"Every child can be invited to help and participate in the responsibilities of a household — a 2-year-old can hold a diaper while you're changing a younger sibling, a 4-year-old can hold a door open and carry in light groceries, a 6-year-old can help with dinner, and an 8-year-old can feed the animals," says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach and co-founder of ImpactADHD. "I think it’s not about assigning the right task for the age, because kids vary so much developmentally. I think it’s about creating a culture of mutual support and responsibility. That comes from how we approach things as parents, and kids start to absorb it very early."
If you're really at a loss and looking for more specific advice on chores that are ideal for most children in specific age groups, Dr. Patricia McGuire, a board-certified developmental and behavioral pediatrician, offers the following advice.
McGuire says it's best to give young children one- or two-step activities. Start by asking children to put food in pet bowls with an appropriate size cup. Work up to picking out the socks in the clean laundry pile. Once the parents know the child can match, McGuire says it's fine to then add that activity to the task.
Children in this age range are able to handle tasks with more steps, but McGuire says it's helpful to provide a visual list so that kids can remember their duties. "An example [would be] collecting trash to take out, which would also require getting the correct big bag to collect from the waste baskets, putting replacement bags into the cans, getting the full bag to the trash can and getting the trash can out to the curb," McGuire says. "If the child is to do the recycling, this also needs to be broken down into the needed steps."
More complex tasks, like carrying breakable objects, setting the table, loading the dishwasher and unloading and putting away the clean dishes, are just right for this age range, McGuire says.
Put your teen's desire for independence at the heart of tasks you assign in this age range. "Older teens would be able to handle doing their own laundry (with visual directions until mastered), lawn work (especially if motorized vehicles are used) and, when they have their driver's license, doing errands for the family," McGuire says.
"When the chores exceed the child's ability, either developmentally or if the child has a learning, attentional or other challenge, self-esteem decreases, the child begins to act out and can begin to refuse to do anything," McGuire says. "On the flip side, appropriate chores along with appropriate acknowledgment of sharing in the chores of the family helps them all have time to do things together."
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