Let's keep talking about family routines! Over three posts I'm sharing details about three categories of family routines that we are working to get more ship-shape: screen time, chores, and behavior. As the new year started I was noticing habits and behavior in each of those areas that made me think, "Wait, how did we get here?" We chatted about screen time earlier this week and I so appreciate the suggestions, commiseration, and hearing from parents who are a few years ahead of me.
Next up in family routines we are revisiting: chores. So let's get into it...
Our philosophy on kids and chores
When I think about involving kids in household responsibilities I do so from the perspective of raising competent, confident adults. When my kids move away from the house one day I want them to be able to know how to take care of all the day to day responsibilities of being a person and living in a home. Involving our kids in age-appropriate ways in all the work of taking care of themselves and keeping up our home is how we are doing that.
Not only do I want my kids to know how to do their own laundry, load and unload a dishwasher, and clean a toilet but I also see their involvement in household tasks as a way for them to feel purpose and the everyday satisfaction of a job well done. Am I saying that cleaning a toilet is good for your mental health and that's why kids should do chores? I didn't mean to end up making that point but in a way I guess I am. Being able to take care of yourself and your living space is part of being an independent adult which lays a foundation for having the confidence and autonomy to do much more challenging things: study for college classes, work a full time job, travel to a new country where you might not know the language but you do know how to make a simple meal and, thank goodness, keep your toilet clean.
So that's the big picture that I keep in mind and what helps us kindly but firmly remind our grumbling kids that yes they do have to make their beds.
We also see helping out around the house as responsibilities that are tied to privileges. Upholding responsibilities and doing so with respectful attitudes earns privileges like staying out to play with friends until dinner time and screen time. It makes sense to me that if the boys' responsibilities are not being done then their privileges should be curtailed. We haven't had to do this often and usually reminding the boys of the tie between responsibility and privileges is enough to get them back on track.
The current chore landscape
When I've chatted with friends and compared notes on kids and chores I would say our expectations of the boys fall pretty much in the middle. We expect more of them than some parents but less than others. I really like hearing what works and doesn't for other families but have also come to realize that, like pretty much everything else with kids, you have to find what works for your family and your kids.
The good news is as my boys have gotten older I have a much better sense of what new responsibility they are ready for, and how to best implement it. Prior to instituting a few new routines (which I'll talk about in a moment), our chore expectations of the boys included:
Morning: brush teeth, brush hair, put on deodorant, make your bed, pack your backpack and lunch (which Chris or I make), and fill your water bottle.
After school: take off shoes, wash hands, unpack your backpack, lunch, water, and any papers. Currently the boys don't have homework every day and are good about taking care of it when they do so at this point homework is not part of our chore management system.
Evening: shower, fill your water bottle (which sits on their nightstands), and brush your teeth.
Other responsibilities include clearing their own dishes from the table (which we also have Maeve do) and setting them next to the sink, tidying up their rooms when asked, emptying dirty laundry into the washer when asked, and putting away folded laundry left on their beds.
Last year I made printed morning checklists for the boys that I put in page protectors so they check things off with a dry erase marker and those work beautifully. Especially because getting their checklist done is naturally tied with being able to leave for school, which they are always eager to do so they can get extra outside play time. I have also created an afternoon/evening checklist that we set out when the boys are home from school. Those work okay but they aren't tied to anything that motivates the boys to get them done like their morning checklists.
I also want to touch on chores for Maeve, who is three and a half. Maeve has seemed interested in having a chore chart so I quickly made her a morning and afternoon/evening chart using a template from Canva. She is sometimes into it and sometimes not and for now that feels fine. I am starting to set her folded laundry in her room and help her to put it away. Sometimes she will put on a dramatic show of annoyance (who did she learn that from I wonder??) but then say, "Fine!" and ends up feeling proud to do things herself. We are also including Maeve in family chores which I'll talk about more in a minute.
Now that I've been through chores at different ages with my boys I feel more confident in including Maeve in chores. I also think having more time because I'm not working full time is a big factor. Depending on age, it takes time to have kids do chores, especially at first. When I was working full time I didn't want to spend our hour and a half of evening time supervising putting away laundry, plus there really wasn't time. I can see that now but at the time I felt like I wasn't doing a good job having the boys help around the house.
The "how did we get here?" situation
Perhaps you have or have heard of children who independently keep their rooms tidy, take care of all their personal hygiene without reminding, and readily take on any new responsibility assigned to them. I know some myself! But, those children do not currently live at my house.
Here's an anecdote to illustrate my point:
A couple of summers ago I had the great idea that the boys should take on the responsibility of making their own breakfast. So we announced this new expectation at the beginning of the summer. Breakfast is often cereal, toast, etc. which my 7 and 9 year old were more than capable of making for themselves. Also, they had to eat breakfast before starting any screen time. Do you know what happened after about two weeks? They just stopped eating breakfast! They claimed not to be hungry and we couldn't stand over them forcing them to make breakfast and eat it. So sometimes your great ideas about chores will be met by unexpected obstacles (i.e. your own children). If you decide that the battle is not worth it right now then I am here to say I see you.
Luckily our family routines with chores have not felt as far off the mark as screen time has. But Chris and I definitely felt that we could use some ship-shape energy. The situation wasn't so much that things were amuck but more that we need to step up our expectations of how the boys, and Maeve to an extent, participate in household tasks.
Chris and I were becoming exasperated because it can feel like we have to remind the boys of every. little. thing. they need to get done, despite having the same expectations and morning/evening routines for years. I don't mind offering reminders but I really dislike having to herd kids through tasks that they are definitely capable of managing themselves.
Another undesirable aspect of the chore/responsibilities routine as of late are attitudes around getting things done. I don't mind if someone is not thrilled to clear their dishes from the table, but a disrespectful, "Why do we always have to do this??" is not okay. And finally, I've felt that the boys are old enough to take on a few more responsibilities.
Getting things ship shape
Similar to my hesitation to roll out new screen time limits, I felt some mild dread at starting to expect a bit more from our boys in terms of chores. I've found that assigning new chores to kids also means a new task of chore management for mom and dad and we've already felt stretched thin lately! But also similar to my thoughts on screen time I reminded myself that our objective is teaching responsibility which ultimately the boys will appreciate and we'll be proud of. If they don't like chores at times that's okay (hey, I don't love taking out the compost so I get it!) and their negative attitudes don't mean we're doing something wrong.
Our first order of business was getting back to the boys' morning checklists which we had sort of forgotten about. So those are back out every morning and work really well. I'm also diligently flipping those over to the afternoon/evening checklists and making sure they've gone through the afternoon stuff before they head out to play. I'm also looking to more frequently add ad hoc chores to their afternoon list, like putting away folded laundry and I'm going to have them start to bring in the garbage and recycling bins on Mondays.
A new expectation I've instituted, and that was inspired by a friend, is having the boys monitor their own laundry. For now I'll still wash and fold their laundry but they need to let me know when it needs to be washed and then take it to the laundry room. I am trying to instill in them that the, "Mom, I don't have any clean shorts!" is really a "you" problem and not a "me" problem as the cool tweens say.
At breakfast and dinner we had been having the boys put their dishes all the way in the dishwasher and had gotten away from it. So we're back to having all the kids clear their own breakfast and dinner dishes and load things into the dishwasher (Maeve is 50-50 on this but that's okay). I'd like to try having one of the boys help us clean the kitchen after dinner at least one night per week but I'm keeping a pin in that for now. Right now the boys still take a fair amount of herding through bedtime plus one of us is doing all the bedtime things with Maeve...it doesn't feel worth adding one more management task for us right now.
A new Team Wharton routine is Saturday morning family chore time (taking suggestions for a much snappier name! Branding is everything...). Here's what we do: when I get home from Orange Theory (around 7:30 a.m.) we get organized for chores. We split into two teams (each with one parent) and each team has a list of 3 – 4 chores to do (things like vacuuming the rugs, tidying rooms, settling the robot vacuum to run, taking out the garbage/recycling, and each team cleans one bathroom). Then Chris puts on some terrible 80s music (which he will say is the greatest music ever written LOL), and we tackle the chores.
Our first one last weekend went great! There was some initial grumbling from one kid but they ended up participating and apologizing for their bad attitude. The other two kids LOVED it and one even said it's his new favorite time of the week so WINNING. Plus I bought home cake pops as a post chores reward to sweeten the kick off. For now we're helping the kids do most of the tasks as needed but if we keep it up they'll be able to independently do a thorough job. We can also rotate through other jobs like wiping out the fridge shelves, wiping down baseboards, even taking the car for a car wash and clean-out. I'm really hoping we can keep this up because I love having the experience. It feels like a good way to build family community and instill the value of working together to take care of our space. Plus our house was so tidy to start the weekend!
(A quick note on the grumbling child...if he had refused to participate in chores we would have saved those tasks for him to help with and he wouldn't have been allowed to go play outside and definitely not start any screen time until he had helped out. Responsibilities = privileges.)
In terms of attitudes around chores, we've been bringing this up at times when we aren't doing chores and it seems to be helping. Before the boys head off for school, I might say, "Hey, you'll have a couple of things to get done this afternoon before going to play and remember we expect pleasant attitudes." Or we'll bring it up briefly at dinner. That often goes a long way.
I've also been addressing a particular obstinate attitude with one kiddo around showers. Luckily he's very receptive to conversations like that and especially when we frame it in terms of responsibility. "You are wanting to have more and more privileges but those come with responsibility. We need to see that you can take care of your responsibilities and with a respectful attitude or we'll need to think about pulling back some of your privileges."
Okay! That is a lot of words about kids and chores. I'd love to hear what your approach to chores is at your house and what your kids do at different ages, and any suggestions for a fun name for our family chore hour!