Here’s How Chores Actually Make Your Kids Better Adults

mom and toddler daughter doing chores around the house

I’m a big believer in chores for kids. My boys have been putting their toy trains, cars and action figures in their proper bins since toddlerhood. They’ve been tasked with laundry sorting, table clearing and even the eww-inducing grossness of composting since preschool. But judging by the amount of side-eye I used to get from other people’s kids (and some moms), I’ve always suspected I was in the minority when it came to chores for kids. It turns out, I am.

Chores for Kids

According to a 2014 survey of over 1,000 parents, only 28 percent dole out regular chores for kids. “Parents often think kids should be kids and that chores make them grow up too soon,” says Marty Rossmann, an emerita professor of family education at the University of Minnesota. “Plus, they don’t want to listen to complaints or be burdened with redoing poorly executed tasks.”

I admit I’ve done a few secret do-overs, like when my kids did what looked like a pantomime of cleaning the windows. Marieke Lewis Brock, a mother of one in Washington, DC, on the other hand, isn’t too bothered when her child does a less-than-perfect job from his chore chart. “My son is going to make a mess whether he’s helping or not, so I’d rather have him helping,” she says. Case in point: Lewis Brock’s 2.5-year-old clears his plate after dinner and regularly spills bits on the floor on his way to the sink. “I just tell him it’s okay and that he needs to clean it up. Now he knows how to wipe the floor too!”

Should kids have chores?

With kids potentially making more work for you as they “help” with chores, you may wonder: Are you expecting too much of your child? Should kids have chores? Rossmann says to ease up on the parental guilt about creating a chore chart. After studying 25 years of data on the topic of chores for kids, she found that people who performed chores as children were more likely to develop into well-adjusted, successful adults. “Chores help to develop a sense of independence, responsibility, self-esteem and altruism, even for small children,” she says.

That’s been the case for Marcie Cheung, a mother of two from Renton, Washington, who says, “Chores give my 3-year-old the feeling of accomplishment and pride, and he thrives on it.” Her son’s chore chart includes cleaning up his toys. Cheung will often spy him putting his toys away on his own before getting out new ones. “I always tell him how proud I am each time he does this,” she says.

Beyond helping your child develop good habits early on, a family chore chart also gently nudges a child away from a “me” mentality and toward a “we” mentally, says Alexandra Barzvi Silber, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the NYU Child Study Center in New York City. “You’re teaching children that they’re an important and valuable member of the family unit—that they’re capable of contributing in a meaningful way to the well-being of the family.”

When to start chores for kids

When it comes to chores for kids, the sweet spot is age 2 to 3, says Elena Mikalsen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and head of pediatric psychology at Baylor College of Medicine in San Antonio. That may sound young, but keep this in mind when creating a chore chart for kids: For toddlers, there’s no real difference between fun, education and chores; they’re just as happy sorting laundry as they are sorting colored blocks. “Toddlers are very interested in adult behaviors and want to engage in these same behaviors, making it the perfect time to start modeling chores for them,” Mikalsen says.

Also, kids who are given age-appropriate chores at a young age grow up to be teens who continue to help out mom and dad. “I’ve met many families with two or three teens, where parents are overwhelmed with still doing all the chores because they never taught their children how to help around the house when they were little,” Mikalsen says. “If you start early, you’ll have a household of great helpers who know about responsibility.”

Age-appropriate chores for kids

Before handing out chores for kids, parents need to figure out what their child can actually handle and (gasp!) even enjoy. The key for a chore chart that works: making sure you’re giving your child age-appropriate chores. “Chores for kids should feel like play—and they should be given tasks they can handle developmentally,” Mikalsen says. “Remember, toddlers can’t focus for more than a few minutes, so stick with one-step chores that you do with your child.” (It’s all about mirroring behavior at this age.) When kids get to preschool age, you can graduate to a two- or three-step chore chart. Here’s a list of chores for kids that works for toddlers and preschoolers:

Clean up toys. For toddlers, capitalize on their budding desire to sort when tidying up. Play a cleanup game where you both toss all the blue blocks in a bucket. Next, the red ones! By age 4 or 5, kids can start sorting by category better. For example, all animals go in this bin; all dolls go in that bin. Counting is also a newfound skill kids will love to show off, so take advantage. (“Let’s put five rubber frogs in the bin!”)

Put laundry in the…

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