For his 10th birthday, Bowie teenager Michael Donovan, 16, got an unusual birthday gift along with his other presents: a laundry basket and the expectation that from then on he'd do his own laundry. Ditto for his sister Kathleen, now 14, when she turned 10. When they began high school they were required to make their own lunches, and now each is responsible for their own dog.
"These chores help prepare me for when I'm out on my own. I've been doing them for so long that it's automatic," says Michael, who also has to take out the trash and in the summertime mow the lawn and share in kitchen chores.
"We have it pretty easy compared to what our parents did when they were kids," says Kathleen, who is also in charge of the recycling bin.
While hard data are difficult to come by, most parenting experts believe there has been a decline in the amount of chores that children do. Chores used to be a critical part of growing up. Today, however, lots of parents have not incorporated them into a child's routine. Many are too busy to initiate and oversee a regular chores program.
"My children do very few chores because I am too lazy and tired to make them," remarks a Bethesda mom and part-time lawyer who preferred to speak anonymously. In many dual-career families, parents do not want to spend their limited time with children arguing with them over chores. Further, many children are overscheduled, so they have less time for chores, especially on school days. And many upper-middle-class parents think their kids will be at a disadvantage if they perform chores when they could be doing something that seems more productive.
Finally, certain parents want things done a certain way, so they would rather do the job themselves or have paid help do it.
"I want my house to look neat all the time, so it would come down to me yelling at the kids all the time to do stuff," says a Bethesda at-home mom with full-time live-in help. "But I know I'm doing them a disservice in the long run by not having them do any chores."
Numerous parenting experts believe that requiring children to do chores is an important part of their development and teaches good values. Doing chores helps children develop a sense of responsibility and reaffirms that they are part of a family unit in which each member contributes.
Christine Scibetta, parent educator at the Fairfax County Public Schools Parenting Education Center, says that "kids want to feel that they are contributing to the family." A regular regimen of chores helps children develop the ability to plan; learn how to solve problems; hone new skills; become more organized and thus better students; and feel good about being relied upon.
"Self-esteem is based on competence," says Barbara Strom Thompson, a child development specialist in private practice in Chevy Chase. "You can't talk kids into competence, but if they know that they can make their own meals, then they'll feel competent."
Getting kids started
How can parents get their children to cooperate with chores? To start with, children can be encouraged to have fun with their work. On Sundays, Bennett Clarkson, 10, and his brother Bradford, 6, embark on a two-hour cleaning project – stripping their beds, tackling bathroom sinks, scrubbing the shower, vacuuming the floors and rugs, and cleaning mirrors and screens. Often they make a game of their tasks, racing to see who can pick up the most toys, dancing with the vacuum, or pretending it is an alien laser blaster or a treasure finder.
Another tip is to start young so that children become accustomed to helping out. For example, kids can help wash the car by using a hose and sponge when they are in preschool. They enjoy the water play and the suds, so that by age 13 parents can assign them the chore of washing the car and they have positive feelings about it.
It's also important to set realistic expectations and to accept inevitable imperfections. Bowie mom Marilyn Donovan says that when her children first started doing their own laundry, the results were not totally successful.
"Initially Michael turned some of his clothes pink and, Kathleen washed and dried a dry-clean-only article." But Donovan considered those mishaps a small price to pay because washing their own clothes ended her children's groans about not being able to find a particular item, and it has been good training for them.
Parent educator Scibetta advises parents always to choose reasonable tasks. A 7-year-old can't do the grocery shopping, but he can bring bags from the car into the house.
Also, it is sometimes necessary to break down tasks for kids.
"If you expect them to do the dishes, then tell them to first rinse them and then put them in soapy water or to put them directly in the dishwasher. Be specific," she says. Parents should not get impatient or irritable over the way the child performs a chore, if she's trying hard to do it well.
"Do not use chores as a way to blame or criticize your child," says Washington psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, author of Playground Politics. Chores can be made more acceptable to children and seem less like drudgery when parents consider the child's working preferences and their particular interests. For example:
Does the child prefer to work alone, or with a sibling or parent nearby? Would she want to finish the job before school? Does she work better with music on? If he loves the family pet, he can help care for it. A teenager could be assigned to research a possible travel destination on the Internet. If she likes cars, she could be responsible for helping to maintain the family vehicles. Children who like to cook can be taught to grill or be responsible for trying a simple new recipe for a family meal.
Dru Breslav, a special foster care social worker at Northern Virginia Family Services, offers another tip: Hold a family meeting where parents and child develop a chart that specifically lists each person's job and job schedule.
"The chart takes the fight out of the issue," she says. When they do the task without needing a reminder, the chart can be revised with new tasks or discarded.
Reinforcement is key
Once the chores are assigned, parents cannot assume they'll get done. Reinforcement is necessary. Cabin John mom Krista Kasten learned that when she asked her daughter Samantha, 10, to do the dishes one night a week. She did not clearly set which day or for which meal the child should do them, so the chore did not get done.
Having consequences – positive and negative – associated with chores is another way to see that they get accomplished. Positive reinforcement can include acknowledgment of a good attempt or a job well done, such as "thanks for setting the table so nicely" or "thanks for putting away your toys without being asked twice." Children who need added incentive can earn a reward, which should be defined at the outset. It need not be material or expensive. It might be 10 extra minutes of television or an hour of special time with a parent.
One Washington-area family resists serving dessert until the children finish their after-dinner kitchen jobs. Other families tie allowance into the framework of chores, but some experts say children should not be paid for helping with family work.
What matters, says social worker Breslav, "is that a parent never offer a reward that she can't deliver."
Finding an appropriate negative consequence when a child fails to perform a chore is a challenge. "It's so easy to ground a kid," remarks Scibetta, the parent educator, "but is that really appropriate for not walking the dog?" A more fitting consequence could be that the child has to bathe the dog on the weekend and clean the bathroom afterward, or help a parent do so. It is counterproductive to bail kids out when they don't do a chore or when they do it wrong.
"If they burn grilled cheese, they can learn to figure out a way to fix the situation or find another lunch option and realize that next time they have to watch it more carefully," says Thompson, the child development specialist. If an adult takes over when a mistake occurs or when a child forgets to do the task, the child is stripped of powerful lessons of responsibility. So when your child's next birthday rolls around, go ahead and get them that skateboard or bike, but don't forget the laundry basket.
Rebecca R. Kahlenberg. Special to The Washington Post , February 5, 2001