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06 Feb, Monday
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Montreal Families

Getting kids to do chores can be a messy job

I have a confession to make. Besides picking up their toys, my 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son don’t have any chores. When I mentioned this to a colleague, a mother of older teenagers, she grabbed my arm and said in a serious, hushed voice, “You have to start now. When they’re older, it’s too late. It’s my biggest regret.” I try to make light of it, thinking there are more serious regrets to have, but the look in her eyes haunts me, and I begin to worry.

Should my kids be doing more around the house? Do their classmates have chores? “Yes, of course,” says Jody, whose 8-year-old son is in the same grade as mine. “He vacuums, rakes leaves, sets the table, loads the dishwasher and obviously tidies his room and makes his bed every morning.” Wow! Very impressive.

And here I am still dressing my 6-year–old some mornings just to speed things up, leaving the house with the beds unmade and breakfast dishes on the table, in the mad morning rush.

Some parents, however, are in the same boat as I am. “Aggg,” groans Lynn. “There’s no time! There’s so much homework and all the activities…”

“We started a chore list for Saturday mornings, but it petered out,” says Ingrid. “There were always play dates or something else to do.”

Despite the fact I’m in good company, the dire warning of my colleague is still ringing in my ear along with thoughts of my kids going to university without being able to boil an egg. I head to the library to do further research.

The parenting section is a big one, with overflowing shelves, groaning under the weight of books, whose authors have lots of letters after their names. I randomly choose book after book until my arms ache from the heavy load.

Determined not to leave the building until I have a plan, I sit down behind the pile of books and begin to go through them. Worry turns to panic as I skim the words of parenting experts.

No chores = spoiled kids?

Chores are one of the best ways to teach responsibility says Rob Wallace Kennedy in The Encouraging Parent (Three Rivers Press; 2001) Whatever you do, he says, never give in to frustration and do all the work yourself.

This idea is repeated over and over by expert after expert until I begin to fear for the very well being of my kids. What will happen to these chore-less children? They will become over-indulged unhappy adults says Jean Illsley Clarke in How Much is Enough (Marlowe & Co.; 2003). The author adds that chores are the grist from which character and confidence are built and help kids feel attached and grounded. The Nanny 911 manual simply asserts, everyone should do chores and pitch in.

Armed with the combined knowledge of a dozen parenting experts and a chore chart I downloaded from the Internet, I sit the kids down at the table and declare that starting today, we’re doing chores. I proudly show them the neatly filled in chart with a morning and evening routine list as well as colour-coded tasks for each day.

“Yay!,” my daughter cheers. I feel a pang of guilt for what I had been denying her all these years. My son is not as thrilled. “What do I get for unloading the dishwasher?” he asks. “You get the satisfaction of knowing you are an important member of our family, and we need your contribution,” I answer, quoting parenting guru, Barbara Coloroso who warns against bribing kids to do chores. “O.K,” he shrugs. “Can I play Wii now?”

For the first couple of days, it goes quite smoothly, and the kids check off tasks with considerably less grumbling than I had expected. I wish I could stop right here and have a happy ending with my children no longer destined to be part of the wave of spoiled youth who enter adulthood without basic life skills.

But the novelty wore off. And then there were play dates, karate, hockey, figure skating and swimming lessons. The chore chart got buried under an avalanche of school notices, party invitations and artwork. The kids didn’t mention it and I never brought it up.

Maybe, we’re doing too much. I’m sure I read something somewhere about over-programmed kids. I’ll have to go back to the library to do some more research.

What the experts say about chores

Be specific and have clear expectations. Saying “clean your room” is vague and can mean different things to different people. Much better to say – pick up your toys, put the clothes in the hamper and make your bed.

Keep chores and allowance separate. Don’t bribe kids to help out.

Start early. Preschoolers and even toddlers want to help out, so seize this window of opportunity to begin routines so they’re already well-entrenched by the time they realize it’s no longer fun.

Vary the tasks. Change jobs weekly or monthly ensuring that eventually they’ll know how to complete all household tasks.

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