Spring Cleaning: How Everyday Household Chores
Can Teach Responsibility and More

by Jennifer Wolf, PCI Certified Parent Coach®

Preparing our children to be responsible adults is one of our main objectives as parents. We recognize, too, that there is a connection between giving our children small jobs, such as regular household chores, and teaching them responsibility. However, our busy lives don't naturally leave us with the time necessary to carefully and intentionally cultivate that sense of responsibility. Frankly, much of the time, it's just easier to do things for our kids than it is to teach them to do tasks on their own. Seeing the long-term benefits, though, can create in us the sense of resolve that we need in order to transform our ideals about teaching responsibility into tangible results.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Teaching our children to be responsible for some household chores is much more than simply passing on a set of life skills that our children will need in their adult lives. When we look at it that way, it's easy to think that teaching responsibility through household chores is something we can "get to" later. However, our children stand much more to gain than a clean and orderly living space! Take a look at how using simple household chores to cultivate responsibility can impact our children's character:

  1. We Can Help Our Children to Develop a Spirit of Appreciation
    When we teach our children to responsibly take care of their belongings, we help them to appreciate the things they've been blessed with. In those moments when we go ahead and do something ourselves—such as picking up their toys—because it's just easier and takes less time, we cast off an opportunity to teach our children to value their possessions. That may not sound like a big deal. However, learning to value and take care of what we have is a big part of appreciating all that we've been blessed with.
  2. We Can Help Our Children Develop Respect for Others
    When our kids value their own belongings, they are better able to put themselves in another child's shoes and show respect for that person and his/her belongings. Thus, being intentional about teaching responsibility facilitates an overall atmosphere of respect for self that extends to respect for others!
  3. We Can Help Our Children Develop a Spirit of Generosity
    When we appreciate what we have, we don't take it for granted. You might think that would mean that our kids would never be willing to part with a once-loved toy. However, when our children truly appreciate what they have, they gain the insight that someone else would also benefit from what they have so enjoyed.

Shifting Our Focus

In the past, when I've considered how to teach my children responsibility, I've been tempted to focus on creating a "system" for assigning and keeping track of the household chores. After all, my own family used the "checklist" system when I was growing up, so I naturally assumed that a checklist would be a necessary part of teaching responsibility. However, I have to admit that we've only really dabbled in trying to find a consistent system that would maintain itself and stand up over time.

I realized, too, that for us, looking for the "right system" wasn't effective; so I tried something else: I applied a strategy I often use with my coaching clients. Instead of focusing on myself and what a "system" might cost me in terms of assigning jobs, reminding the kids to do their part, and rewarding their participation, I decided to focus on them—my kids.

"What," I asked myself, "do I know about them that could help me increase their participation in household chores?"

Here's what I discovered:

  1. They love to be involved.
  2. They love it when I'm involved.
  3. They feel good about themselves when the have the opportunity to contribute.

When I think about it that way, of course, participating in household chores together is much more natural. After all, I'm not really interested in drawing up new charts, checklists, and "systems." I'm interested in facilitating a spirit of collaboration in maintaining our home and appreciation for all that we've been blessed with.

Everyday Applications

Is it really possible, then, to instill responsibility without a checklist? Yes! Here are some suggestions for how you can seamlessly incorporate valuable lessons about responsibility while you share the household chores:

Start Small
Instead of saying "That's it everybody! From now on, we're going to…" chose one area where your children can grow. For us, this starting point has been taking care of our toys. Too often I find that I'm the one picking things up at the end of the day and walking them to the kids' rooms. My intentions are good; I'm trying to keep the main living area of our home clean and presentable. But I'm inadvertently teaching our kids that it's okay if the other areas of our home are strewn with toys! Consequently, the kids aren't learning to take care of, appreciate, and respect their belongings. So for us, the starting point was returning to the basic rule of putting something away when we're done playing with it.
Encourage Every Attempt
We need to take advantage of our kids' enthusiasm. When they express an interest in being helpful, we need to encourage that. Whether it's helping you baking a batch of cookies, or running the vacuum cleaner, our response can either encourage our kids to jump in and give it their best shot, or simply keep their thoughts to themselves the next time they get the idea to help out. Which do we want? Of course, we want to encourage our kids to participate with their full selves. Especially when your children are just starting out with a new task, you'll want to focus more on their spirit of willingness and their efforts than on the end result.
Select Age-Appropriate Tasks
As parents, we can inadvertently cause our children to be discouraged with their ability to do a job simply by expecting them to complete something independently before they've truly mastered it. One indicator of this might be our own frustration. If we're dissatisfied with how something is being done, could it be a task that the child isn't really ready to do on his or her own just yet? Capitalize on your kids' sense of accomplishment by making sure that they take on tasks their capable of mastering with time and effort.
Along the same lines, it's really important that we demonstrate what it looks like to do a certain task. When I ask my kids to just go clean their room, they'll comply. However, it's likely that items are going to be shoved under the bed or hidden behind a closet door. I can help to alleviate that by showing my kids first what it looks like to clean up. How do we sort toys? How do we determine which papers to keep and which to throw away? Of course I'm not suggesting that we plan to clean alongside our kids indefinitely, but it's important to ask ourselves whether we've demonstrated what completing a task well looks like before we label a child's work incomplete or insufficient.
Provide Choices
As with most anything else, allowing our children to have a say in what chores they're going to be responsible for will increase their motivation to fully participate. While we might be tempted to think that we should "assign" jobs, ask yourself—and your child—what opportunities would increase his or her sense of accomplishment and help develop the specific skills you'd like to focus on.

Reflecting on Your Own Family

As with all new ideas, it's important for you to take the time to reflect on your own family and determine what will best suit your individual needs. When you think about how your family might work together to bear the burden of household chores, what do you envision? How will each family member benefit, and how will it also benefit your sense of unity and cohesion as a family?

Household chores might seem at first like a "no-brainer." Everyone should of course pitch in and do their part. When we focus on what we really want to gain, though, and we implement those ideas with intention, chores can be one tool we use in cultivating a positive, loving culture within our homes.

Copyright © 2007 Jen Wolfe, all rights reserved; used with permission.