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Windows on Education: When Can My Child Wash the Dishes?

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Over the years, some parents have asked me when the proper time is to expect their children to help with the chores and other household duties. I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that touched on this issue; it caused me to reflect on my parents' expectations, as well as my wife's and my expectations for our kids. I've included some of those ruminations, as well as others' thoughts below. I recognize each family is different, so your mileage may vary.

I, as well as many people, believe that children who are assigned household chores are better prepared for adult life. Certainly, the jobs need to be age appropriate; the complexity should increase over time. Kids should be challenged, and it's more important that they make a good attempt than that they accomplish the task perfectly the first time. Then, once they become proficient, you will be in a great place to add other "stretching" tasks. The WSJ suggested the following for the ages shown:

5 and under: Grasp the basics
These are relevant daily jobs that help kids get used to the idea of chores. Examples include:
• Pick up toys
• Clean bedroom
• Comb hair

6 to 9: Find new challenges
These tasks build responsibility and motor skills. They might:
• Take care of pets
• Operate appliances
• Make own bed

10 to 12: Offer choices
Some of these tasks help children learn to make choices. For example, if they're making their own lunch, they need to decide what to put in the lunch. You can expect them to:
• Take out trash
• Make lunch
• Clean bathroom

13 to 15: Build ambition
Harder tasks build ambition and can be goal-centered, if they are trying to reach a certain monetary goal. As they accomplish these harder tasks, they will develop a work ethic and gain the satisfaction of a job well done. You might have them:
• Mow the lawn
• Wash windows
• Clean the garage

16 to 18: Time to grow up
This is the time to focus on those specific tasks they will need as an independent adult. For example, they will need to:
• Wash clothes
• Grocery shop
• Handle car maintenance

Of course, assigning chores is one thing; actually getting your children to DO the chores is something separate. Here are a few basic ideas regarding setting expectations:

• Be clear about what your expectations are and why this is important. For example, "People in our family work to help each other and support each other."

• Lead with a positive statement whenever possible; set the expectation of what you do want from your child rather than what you don't want. For example: "You are such a good helper. As soon as we both clear the table and put the dishes away, we can play a game." A natural consequence of this boundary would be that you would not play the game if your child refused to help you.

• Start early, be clear and hold firm. The earlier you implement family chores, the more successful you will be. If the quality of the completed chore does not even approach the standard, look them in the eyes (kneel down if necessary) and tell them in simple words what you expect. This will ensure that your message is clear and has been calmly sent and received. Ensure they understand the consequences of not meeting expectations. "John, you need to make sure all of the dishes are washed, including the pans. Please let me know when that is done. There won't be any video games until you are finished."

• Follow through. Don't ever threaten anything that you are unwilling or unable to carry out. Kids learn very quickly the difference between a consequence and an emotional parent making an idle threat. (Take a deep breath instead.)

• Communicate with as little negative emotion as is possible. When you communicate calmly and clearly, there is far less likelihood of defiance. Kids often mirror both positive and negative emotions.

Parents who consistently do a good job of setting clear expectations and holding to them are more apt to have children who learn to have respect for others, build greater self-control, develop the ability to tolerate frustration, and become more responsible for their actions.

Byron, Ellen (3 April, 2017). When Can My Child Mow the Lawn?, Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on May 1, 2017, from
Manchester MacMannis, D. (2012). 7 Hints for Setting Boundaries with Your Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 1, 2017, from

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