Whatever Happened to Chores?

published Mar 17, 2021
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One night before the pandemic, I picked up my middle-schooler at a friend’s house and saw an amazing sight: the friend’s brother was folding napkins and setting the table.

Kids can do things! I thought. It was a moment of revelation.

I’m only half joking: My attempts to give my two sons chores over the years have been sporadic and mostly unsuccessful. While I grew up doing what seemed like buckets of chores (unreliable narrator alert), my kids clear their plates and maybe carry in a Trader Joe’s bag but that’s about it. I’m all for chores, don’t get me wrong, but as an exhausted working mom, I never got my act together enough to dole them out.

I’m not alone: A Braun Research poll found that while 82% of parents said they did regular chores growing up, only 28% are giving them to their own kids.

And who can blame any of us for laughing at those Montessori chore charts that make the rounds of social media — the ones that say a 2-year-old should make their own sandwich and a 4-year-old should disinfect doorknobs. Riiight, I’ll hand my preschooler a knife and some Lysol and let you know how THAT turns out!

Still, it’s not a stretch to think the kiddos can start a helping habit. “Young children absolutely can and will do chores if they are expected to, but we’ve really fallen away from that,” says KJ Dell’Antonia, author of How to Be a Happier Parent. Is the pandemic changing that? Is it ever too late to learn these life skills? We dug into the science and here’s the upshot.

Credit: Sarita Relis Photography

The perks of pitching in

When kids chip in, they win. Chores help set children up for future success,” says Katie Lear, a family therapist in Davidson, North Carolina. Tasks like feeding the dog or making their bed encourage independence and self-efficacy (that realization of “hey, I can do things for myself!”).

And the benefits may be long-lasting: One study that followed kids for 25 years found that the best predictor of success as a young adult was having chores as a preschooler. 

Doing household jobs helps children feel needed, and that’s a boon for their emotional health.

Doing household jobs helps children feel needed, and that’s a boon for their emotional health. “Kids who feel needed tend to be mentally more healthy than kids who feel like whatever they do, they’re just doing it for themselves,” Dell’Antonia says.

Lending a helping hand makes kids happier, too, according to a UCLA study. The researchers asked a diverse group of more than 700 14- and 15-year-olds to keep a diary for two weeks tracking both how much they pitched in with housework and helping out their siblings and their moods (happy, anxious, etc.). The teens who spent the most time in chore mode reported greater feelings of happiness than the ones who did less. 

So why exactly aren’t kids doing chores these days?

Given these benefits, why aren’t regular chores the norm? For one, kids are busier than ever. School, sports, music, and other activities are more in-depth than they were in the past (the whole “specialization” trend), and that leaves them with little time to focus on the family to-do list. “Parents will just say outright, ‘My kid’s work is school’ or ‘My kid’s work is sports’ and they don’t have time to do the things kids used to do,” says Dell’Antonia. “And kids do spend more time on homework and other activities now than they used to.” 

You can trace it back to the 1990s and the whole quality time movement, says Dell’Antonia. Parents got the memo that they had better make every moment meaningful, and that continues today.

Parents are under a lot of cultural pressure to do whatever it takes to cultivate their children

“Parents are under a lot of cultural pressure to do whatever it takes to cultivate their children,” Lear says. “It’s now a parent’s job to set a child up for an enriching, happy life and to clear any barriers that stand in a child’s way of achieving their dreams.” So taking out the trash naturally falls lower on the priority list than extra violin lessons.

Then there’s the (stuffed) elephant in the room: Getting your kids to do chores is a total chore for you. “It would be easier to do it yourself,” says Dell’Antonia. “It would be less painful, really.” 

That’s why Meredith Bodgas, mom of 6- and 3-year-old sons, isn’t stressing about how much her kids do to help right now. “I roll my eyes at chore charts because they are more of a chore for the parent than the kids,” says Bodgas, an editor in New York. “As a mom who works full-time, with at least one child and sometimes both home during business hours in the middle of a pandemic, I refuse to take on one more thing to teach kids a good lesson.” 

A pandemic upside: family teamwork

At the same time, COVID may actually be bringing back good old-fashioned family drudgery. “The boundaries between work and home are so blurred that many parents are left with very little free time, and there’s an ‘all hands on deck’ feeling in many households,” says Lear. Kids may in fact be picking up some of that slack, according to the 2020 Good Housekeeping Institute’s State of Parenting study.

But the bulk of the cooking and cleaning is still falling on — you’ll never guess who! — mom, according to a few recent studies like this one out of Ball State University. Men have taken on more of the childcare duties during the pandemic, research suggests, but they’re not necessarily the ones loading the dishwasher for the fourth time that day. “COVID changed things because once we were all in the house together, it became almost impossible for most women, especially if they were working, to also make all the food and follow people around cleaning up after them,” says Dell’Antonia. “Everyone had to step up. And for those families that did get some degree of teamwork out of this, it may be a silver lining.”

Good news, it’s never too late to start

If you’re like me, you may worry you missed your window to hand your kids the Windex. It’s never too late, promise the experts. ”Start when you start,” says Dell’Antonia. “The only thing that matters is your determination to make it happen.” (In fact, over the pandemic we taught my 17-year-old to do his own laundry.)

Many families are tapping tech to make the chore management process seamless and (almost) fun. Apps like Busy Kid and debit cards like Greenlight let you pay kids for chores; they can cash out onto a debit card or donate to charities. Petra Guglielmetti, a mom of three, is a fan of Greenlight: “I only add their allowance if they did their chores. We keep it simple — they each have a before/after dinner helping job and then on weekends one bigger job. I never could keep up with any chart! Life is too hectic as it is.”

If the thought of chore charts makes you break out in a cold sweat, you’ll be happy to hear you can skip ‘em. “There’s no magic; you don’t need charts,” Dell’Antonia adds. “The parents who get kids to do chores are the parents who insist their kids do chores.” 

Want some next steps? Consider these pro and parent strategies: 

Keep it age-appropriate. No disrespect to Maria Montessori, but 4-year-olds don’t carry firewood. They can’t carry firewood. They can, however, put their toys back in a bin or wipe the cabinet with a wet rag while you scrub the counters. 

Lower your bar, a lot. Hoping to get your preschooler to make his bed? Your second grader to pour herself a bowl of cereal? Any time you have kids stretch to do new chores “expect it to take more time and lead to more mess,” says Lear. “There is value to it as a learning experience, but it may not lessen your workload as a parent.”

Don’t expect kids to buy in. At all. Parents tell Lear that they want their kids to have intrinsic motivation — meaning their own desire to weed or take out the trash. Wouldn’t that be nice? As Dell’Antonia puts it, “Forget getting kids to buy in.” Push that right aside. Ah, doesn’t that feel better?

Remind, nudge, nag. Repeat. “The thing we really get wrong about chores is expecting them to do it without being reminded,” says Dell’Antonia. “It doesn’t matter how much you have to nag.” What matters? “That they understand they have to do it and you’re not giving up until it is done.” (As Catherine Gilbert, a mom of five, puts it, “After trying five billion chore charts the one consistent thing that works is when mommy loses her patience and yells. Then all of a sudden everyone will help!”)

Be hyper specific (you’ll get better results). If you say, “Please clean your room” your daughter might spend an hour rearranging her stuffed animals and not even think to pick up the heap of dirty clothes. Lear’s advice is to be precise: “Please put your toys back on the shelves and put your dirty laundry in the hamper before dinner.”

Give them a time limit. Kids — like news reporters and wedding planners — need deadlines. “This avoids the cycle of stalling and nagging,” shares Lear. “It helps them manage their own time better and gives them some control over when they’d like to do the work.” (Fun fact: Chores also help children develop greater executive function … specifically time-management skills!)

Pile on the praise: Why? Kids want to please us and they’re more likely to repeat behaviors that earn them kudos. “It might seem odd to praise your child for doing something they are supposed to do,” Lear says, but it is effective, so go with it.

Remember, it’s a long game: Teaching life skills might not be a ton of fun in the moment. But it will come together one day, as Melanie Farrow Kraut, who is a mom of three kids ages 12 to 18, found out. Her oldest is now at college, where due to COVID rules she has to live in an apartment and cook and clean for herself.She is actually enjoying it because she knows how to,” Farrow Kraut says. “I tell my kids they will thank me someday, and my daughter already has.”