Despite what kids may think, we don’t ask them to help around the house just to interrupt their fun. Doing chores lets a kid know he plays an important role in his family and does great things for his perception of himself. Long-term it’s vital. When we hand responsibilities over to our kids — bit by bit, as they grow into them — they become independent, confident and kind adults, prepared for the challenges of looking after themselves and others.
So what can kids do and when? Just as each child walks at a slightly different age, each child is ready to wrangle a vacuum in his own time. Give or take a year, here’s what your kids can tackle as they grow.
Preschoolers are riding trikes and kicking and throwing balls. They are also beginning to understand the needs of others and may be eager to help now — without prompting. “This is a good cue for parents,” says Laurie McNelles, a child and adolescent specialist and teacher of child development at York University in Toronto. “When they start volunteering, they are developing that awareness.”
• Maybe you didn’t even know you needed help to sort socks. Jan Gaudet, parenting program support at the Ontario Early Years Centre in London, Ont., explains that at three to four years of age, kids are learning to categorize. With laundry, they could sort out big and small — Dad’s socks and children’s socks.
• Your child can help to set the table — one (non-spillable) item at a time. Do the job with her so she’ll start to learn where to put the plates, cups and utensils.
• A preschooler can put her toys away if the storage is accessible. McNelles suggests it’s best to give her a specific task (such as putting puzzles on the shelf) rather than a general direction to tidy her room — that’s a job with many steps.
• Most preschoolers love to spray and wipe things like a table or cupboard doors, or to (sort of) wash windows. Just give your child something safe to spray like plain water.
• Let your child help to look after another creature. “Around age five or six, children really like to care for others,” says Gaudet. “So helping to feed, water or brush the family pet is a great opportunity to learn about responsibility.”
Most school-aged kids like to please their parents. “They want to do things independently and make a contribution,” says McNelles. “If you’ve fostered it along in the preschool years, hopefully you’ll see a continuation of helping behaviour.”
• A school-aged child can help clean the family room — dust or wipe surfaces and perhaps vacuum (though he probably won’t do a spotless job). McNelles cautions that kids shouldn’t be in contact with any harsh cleaners. Also avoid asking a young child to take on big chores — he probably won’t be able to manage cleaning a whole room on his own until he’s nine or older.
• Your child can lend a hand on grocery trips. She probably knows what you buy (she’s been watching from the cart for years) and she can pick items out for you. “By grade three, the vast majority of kids will be solid readers,” says McNelles. “I ask my sons to look at the nutrition facts on packages so that we make healthy choices.”
• She can help you rinse and sort the recycling and move the bin to the curb. Kids this age are concerned about environmental and social issues, so this is a satisfying way to make a difference.
• Coach your child on how you would like him to answer the phone. At first, McNelles says, you may to prompt him, but he’ll soon be a pro.
• Because school-agers are learning to print or write, they can write thank-you notes for gifts or visits with relatives. It’s good practice, says McNelles, as well as a kind gesture.
Your child is probably spending more time at friends’ homes and noticing that every family is different — this can complicate chores at your house. If your daughter protests that at Emmy’s house, they load the dishwasher differently, be flexible. “If the parent thinks a task has to be done a certain way, you might start to get some rebellion,” warns Mary Salegio, executive director of the Parent Resource Centre in Ottawa. Remember too that your preteen should be organizing some of her own time — give her a say in how she contributes to housework with a calendar so she can fill in her jobs.
• You can ask her to make her own school lunches. Part of the job is planning what groceries she needs and letting you know.
• With increased hand strength and dexterity, your preteen can tackle bigger tasks. She can wash a floor and do a pretty good job.
• He can change the sheets on his bed. First, though, you’ll have to show him how.
• It’s time to let your preteen take on some school responsibilities — he can check his own agenda and backpack to see what his homework is. You’ll want to strike a balance: Stay in the loop, but give your child increasing responsibility for himself.
• She can help with yardwork, such as shovelling snow or raking leaves — especially if she loves the outdoors. “Match her interests with her responsibilities,” suggests Salegio. She also stresses that chores be balanced between the genders: If you have a son and a daughter, housework and yardwork should be shared equally.
Teenagers have to learn about balancing responsibilities. “They are involved with sports, homework, friends,” Salegio says. “There’s less time when they want to be doing chores.” Acknowledge that your child is busy, but let him know he still has family obligations. Talk about what jobs he can do.
• “Young teens should be able to get themselves up in the morning and get from home to school,” says parenting speaker and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn.
• As her kids turned 12, Salegio taught them to do their own laundry. “They each do it their own way, but not doing it is not an option.”
• After you show him how, your teen should be ready to take the bus to different places. He’ll probably relish this big step toward independence.
• Your young teen can get milk at the corner store and run other local errands, says Lynn.
• “Give them some autonomy,” Salegio urges. Ask your kid to cook occasionally (after some lessons).
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.