Should Children Do Chores?

I was having a conversation with a friend last weekend about how to get our children to help us with chores.  We were questioning how to balance the workload of mothering with giving the children all they need besides a tidy home.  I wish I could accomplish everything myself with ease, then this would not even need to be a problem!  It would be nice for the laundry to be folded and put away, the dishes to be done, the floor swept after each meal, the counters cleared and wiped, the clutter filed, the toys picked up and sorted..oh…should I stop the wishlist?  I fully recognize that there are many more important things than a clean house, which is why I usually have dishes scattered about the kitchen and unfolded laundry piled in the corner.

What I have noticed though is that when I let my chores slide a little too far, when the laundry piles creep out into our living space, or the kitchen is so bad that I have no work spaces left to prepare food, then the rest of the household starts to unravel as well.  This goes for both its general state of cleanliness and the attitudes of the people living here.  As I discussed in a previous post about the broken window theory, there is a certain amount of maintenance that is our baseline.  Without that, things seem to spiral out of alignment quickly.  I function best when things are reasonably tidy.  I’m not sure this is as important to the children, but regardless, when my bristles get up about the disarray of our living space, I inadvertently pass on my frustration to the children – no matter how much I think I’m being calm and in control of myself about it!

So how can I maintain the level of cleanliness that I need to function properly without forcing my ideals onto my children?  Trying to ‘make them’ clean up is an ineffective strategy anyway – it inevitably becomes a power struggle and justly so.  Whenever I feel I should do something, it usually creates resistance or at best an anxious feeling of malcontent.  Insisting children should keep the house in a certain way is sourced from my own set of values I’m imposing on my children.  While I understand that my role as a mother is ultimately to instill values in my children, I also have to take pause to question just how much more of me they really need!

On the other hand,  I do need their cooperation since I can’t do everything for everyone.  This is not in anyone’s best interest.  I need to feel supported and not taken advantage of.  I need to feel that we are functioning as a community.  I need to protect my own sanity.  So I must set limits for myself.  Clear, healthy limits of what I can accept and not accept.  But setting limits for myself does not mean that I should to impose them onto someone else.

Then there is also my desire for them to learn how to do chores.  I want their autonomy to include the ability to do whatever task they need to with confidence because they have been shown how.  Ultimately I wish for them to find joy in the work.  The idea is to plant the seeds of how a tidy house feels and tend them, in hopes that they will grow a family who also is compelled to join in the work too. I will often ask questions before and after cleaning to raise awareness in my children about the look and feel of the space.  They are often surprised by how their mood is lifted when we tidy up.  Like my recent post called Perceptions of Work, it is when I am able to approach the work with a joyously open heart that it becomes a desirable activity for all of us.

So what exactly does a balance look like?  I see it as the coming together of when I am able to get the help I need (however limited) to feel supported and get the work done and the children are not begrudgingly carrying out tasks I demand them to complete.  Perhaps a first step to achieve balance is to look at my own expectations…what is it that I really need to get done?  What things do I think I need to get done because of feeling judged or scrutinized for it.  My house will not be perfect because I have three little souls growing inside these walls.  Gardening humans is messy business.  I often use the strategy of saying something like, ‘I cannot do this until that is done.’  They will sometimes pitch in to help me, because they want to get to the next thing.  But sometimes not.  In my reading about attachment parenting and RIE, I often come across the reassuring statements that children want to do what we’re doing.  As humans we want to fit into our society.  So as soon as conflict and the energy bound up in a power struggle are gone, suddenly the possibility to work together arises.  When the children have enough autonomy to feel they are choosing to participate, things work much better.  This is what cooperation is.  When I can stop clinging to old ideals and control, new potentials open up.  I question what possibilities for enjoyment of chores and work am I cutting off because of the language I’m using – both for myself and my children.  What difficulties am I creating in my relationship with my children because I am expecting them to perform a certain way?  How do I balance the needs of myself, the household and my children?

So what am I left with in my toolbox then if I don’t enforce their participation?  I want to integrate, not segregate.  I know that establishing rhythm and leading by example works.  So how do I weave these pieces together to find something that works?

Out of necessity due to a small entryway, we have a rhythm to entering our house.  I installed hooks at the children’s height and gave each child a cubbyhole for their shoes/boots and another for accessories (hats, mitts, splash pants, etc.)  They are expected to put away their things before entering the home.  They do.  I do.  It’s just what we do.  So how do I transfer this to the whole house?  I find this question to overwhelm me quickly.  I have observed that if I let up on my rhythms for a day or two, suddenly everything seems to erupt.  I think that having a house wide tidy up, A quick five minute overhaul of the floors and surfaces to clear the debris, just before mealtimes could work nicely.  I’ve tried this before, but haven’t been regular with it.  The key for the children is predictability.  The key for me is to not expect or enforce participation.  If I take the attitude that tidying is what is being done at that time and that dinner will be served when the work is done, I don’t think it will take too long to become ‘normal.’  Building this into our regular routine would help it to just be part of what we do.

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