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Chores teach kids responsibility and reinforce family unity

May 9, 2012
By Kristy MacKaben - For Mirror Moms , Mirror Moms

As a preschooler, Paige Matteson was setting and clearing the table for dinner. These days, the 14-year-old Hollidaysburg girl is pretty much in charge of the kitchen.

She cleans the kitchen, loads and unloads the dishwasher and often makes dinner.

"One of her major chores is kitchen duties," said her mother, Karen, a kindergarten teacher at Washington-Jefferson Elementary School in Altoona.

Article Photos

Mirror Mom photo by Gary M. Baranec
Paige Matteson, 14, shown with her mother, Karen, enjoys cooking and often is in the kitchen making dinner for her family.

Paige's younger brother Nick, 10, has also been helping around the house since he was barely out of diapers.

Paige and Nick aren't the only youngsters carrying a chore-load, and experts agree it's good to start young. Parents like Karen aren't trying to pawn off household chores, they are trying to create responsible kids and a more cohesive family unit, said Debbie Pincus from Larchmont, N.Y., licensed mental health counselor and author of "Calm Parents AM and PM".

"Chores make kids feel valued and important in a family. It's about being a valuable member of a family," Pincus said.

Young children are "little apprentices," and can begin helping around the house as soon as they can walk, Pincus said. Whether it's sweeping the floor with Mommy or gardening with Daddy, toddlers love to help around the house, especially while spending time with parents.

Around age 1 (or when a child starts walking), children can help by throwing trash away, cleaning up toys or bringing desired objects to parents upon request. At this age, children are eager to help and feel pleased to contribute.

"Kids come into this world with a desire to be helpful," Pincus said. "That is really a very natural drive to help others and make a positive difference. Kids really get pleasure from that."

Toddlers and preschoolers can help dust, set the table or clean the floors. Patience is key and parents should not expect a job to be completed perfectly. Chores are a learning process, Pincus said.

One way to assign chores is to teach a child small steps of a bigger responsibility, Matteson said. If parents want their children to eventually take out the trash by themselves, kids could put cans in the recycling bin.

Dragging a heavy trash can to the curb might be too difficult and cumbersome for a young child, but a preschooler or kindergartener might be able to return an empty trash can (which is not as heavy as a full can) back to the garage.

"Start when kids are small and get them involved," Nancy Bergstein, family based supervisor for the Behavioral Health Department at Altoona Regional Health System, said. "They just love being with their parents. You want them to get comfortable doing their chores."

To sustain that natural drive to help, parents have to encourage their children and make them feel valued for their efforts.

As children start school and become more involved in activities, it may become harder to fit chores into their tight schedules.

But, Pincus said, household responsibilities should be a priority.

"Kids have so much on their plates. Schedules are very complicated and often we let them off the hook," Pincus said, adding parents sometimes finish their children's chores, or don't expect them to do chores at all.

Matteson also warned parents to never give in to kids who refuse to do their chores.

"One of the tricks they'll play is they'll put it off until someone else does it for them. If they wait long enough, someone will do it anyway," Matteson said. "If you keep consistent and wait for them to do it, they eventually will."

While introducing chores to toddlers can be fun, encouraging tweens and teens to finish their chores can feel like nagging. Pincus suggests not making it complicated, and allowing older children to choose which chores best fits their personalities and abilities. Rotating or changing family responsibilities also helps keep kids motivated.

A good method, Pincus said, is requesting the help of your child instead of giving orders or getting angry. Persistence works best, not aggression or anger.

"The message is we're doing this because it's a fair thing to do in a family," Pincus said. "With teenagers, you just stand there and wait. Stand there and insist and let them know you mean business."

Punishment usually doesn't work in terms of teaching children the value of taking part in family chores, and paying for chores also isn't ideal, Pincus said.

Children should do chores because they are part of the family and they are important in making the family work. Rewards for going above and beyond normal duties, is OK.

"You're really teaching them responsibility, how to take care of themselves and feeling good about themselves," Bergstein said. "Chores and housework are a part of life and being a family."



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