My wife, Julie, and I have worked hard over the years to have a healthy and rewarding relationship. We have challenged each other in many unexpected ways and have both grown as a result. One of the things I learned from her, she began teaching me early in our relationship while we were in grad school together. She was so much better at applying herself to studying than I was, and I could not understand why.
Studying was always a struggle for me. It was not an issue of intelligence, but one of discipline (I realize this may seem strange coming from someone who has earned black belts in several martial arts). It took a long time for me to understand this. Much to my bafflement and frustration, studying seemed so easy for her. How could she just sit down and study whenever and for however long was needed when it was such a struggle for me to get even a little bit done. I was surprised to learn that studying was just as hard for her as it was for me. She would get just as bored and frustrated as I was. But she had a lifetime of habits around doing what she needed to do when she needed to do it, even if she wasn’t in the mood.
I was not raised that way. I didn’t discover self-discipline until at the age of twenty when I found martial arts. For the first time, I had something that gave me the focus and determination to push myself when otherwise I would not. Nothing in my childhood had come close.
As Julie and I shared our lives, we also shared our pasts. Where my childhood was filled with inconsistent parenting strategies, discipline and boundaries, Julie was consistently left to her own devices to meet high expectations and responsibilities. When I met something too uncomfortable, I was usually able to find my way out of it through loopholes created by uneven parenting. Julie had no choice but to keep going whether she wanted to or not.
So when I met frustration or boredom in studying, I immediately changed directions and sought a different activity. Julie didn’t change directions, she changed gears. Her habit was to dig in and push forward.
Indicative of this difference between our childhoods was the expectation around chores. For me, chores came and went. Sometimes there was a sticker chart that led to rewards. Sometimes there was strict assignment with the expectation of punishment if the chores were not done. Sometimes there were no chores at all.
For Julie, there were chores and that was it.
As we reflect back on where we came from and how it has impacted who we are as adults, it is clear to both of us that the difference in how we were taught to approach responsibilities was both significant and important to how we approached challenges as adults.
Now there is evidence that supports what we have seen in ourselves. Researcher Marty Rossman looked at a sample of young adults who gave information on the type of parenting they received as well as their participation in chores at ages three to four, nine to ten and fourteen to fifteen. She looked at the impact of variables such as parenting style, gender, types and quantity of chores, as well as the motivations and attitudes applied to those assigned responsibilities.
In her research, she examined the outcomes for these young adults, evaluating “success” by looking at level of education completed, IQ, presence of addictive behavior, quality of relationships with others and level of progress on a career path.
What she found was that the best predictor of success as young adults was whether or not they did chores as preschoolers (ages three to four). These outcomes were further improved by the chores being appropriate to the child’s age and presented in a way that they child was better able to understand expectations. Furthermore, it was helpful that the child participated in determining whether or not the chores were complete through family meetings or chore charts.
Tying chores to an allowance undermined these outcomes. In my opinion, if you want your child to receive an allowance, it should be through activities that are distinct from their basic chores. Doing chores is part of the responsibility one has to being in a family. The reward is inherent because of the benefit it provides to the family as a whole. If a child wants to earn money doing something above and beyond his or her base responsibilities, there are some opportunities for teaching and learning there about the earning and managing of money. But only if it isn’t muddled with their “family” chores.
Interestingly, if a child is not expected to do chores until they are in their teens, it can have a negative impact on outcomes. Once they are in their teens, instead of learning an appreciation for responsibility and developing the skills need to act on those responsibilities, children develop resentment for the imposition. The earlier your child starts doing chores, the better!
Julie and I expect our daughter to do chores. It began with little things, like putting her toys away at night before bedtime. Now that she is four, she is responsible for personal hygiene tasks like brushing her teeth and dressing herself, as well as taking responsibility for clearing the table of her dishes after a meal. On top of that, when we do weekly cleaning of our home, she is expected to join us. Surprisingly, she does this joyfully (most of the time). Part of it is because of the fact that she is learning new skills and using unfamiliar tools (like sweeping the stairs with a broom). Part of it is because it is an opportunity to share high quality bonding time with her parents.
Of course, it does not always go smoothly. A couple of weeks ago when Julie asked her to help with cleaning the house on a Sunday, she said she didn’t feel like it. Julie told her that she did not feel like it either, but that it was important for each of us to contribute to our family and the household running smoothly. Our daughter sighed and said, “Well, I don’t really want to do this, but I want to be a part of this family, so, okay, I’ll do it.”
When assigning chores, make sure that they are appropriate for the age and developmental level of your child. A three-year-old should probably not be expected to mow the lawn and a fourteen-year-old should be expected to do more than empty the dishwasher once a week.
You should also make sure that the expectations around the chores are clearly communicated. What is the expected outcome? As your child learns their chores, give them feedback on what they are doing well and how they could improve their efforts.
Give your child the power to determine whether or not their chores are complete. This is an acquired skill and will require feedback from you for them to learn it. When they feel they are done, double-check their work and let them know how they did. You want them to get to a place where they understand the expectations well enough that they no longer need supervision. This can take a very long time, so be patient.
On this last point, remember that your child doing chores is not really about chores. It is about teaching your child as a future adult the essential life skill of taking and following through on responsibility. See where your child is now and where they should be as a healthy, functional grownup, and begin taking steps towards bridging that gap. Your initial steps will be very small, but over time you will gain momentum and you will be able give your child larger and larger responsibility within your home.