How Much Should Kids Help Around the House?

Child: "Whaddya doin'?" Adult, holding a huge knife: "Chopping vegetables." Child: "Can I help?." Adult pauses, then says, "Sure!", handing the huge knife to the child.

Sometimes kids don’t want to help around the house with even the smallest request. A major fight will break out over something simple like asking them to put a sock away.

Other times they offer to help…with something dangerous. Or maybe they’ll offer to help with something and you know their “help” will actually be a real hindrance to getting done whatever you need to get done in a timely manner.

In general I find the best thing to do is have the kids help as much as possible. If you’re working on something that could be unsafe — say, using knives or cooking something on a hot stove — try to get them involved as much as you can safely manage. Mostly, kids are pretty careful. They have a decent sense of how to navigate the world safely.

I think as parents we often are overprotective of our kids. In the words of Peter Gray, “I doubt if there has ever been any human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today.” Ok then. That article I just linked to contains a fun tidbit about children on the Marquesan island of ‘Ua Pou, in the South Pacific. In that culture, the parents leave the kids alone all day. The kids sometimes find machetes lying around and manage to play with them without getting hurt. The parents don’t like this — not because they are worried the kids will get hurt, but because they are worried the kids will damage the machetes.

Meanwhile, it’s true that the kids, in their desire to “help”, might actually be more of a hindrance. Sometimes you kind of just want to get something DONE and you’re not feeling very patient. I think the best thing to do is just breathe, acknowledge the kids might damage the machetes, realize that you most likely don’t have to be in such a rush, and decide to enjoy the extra chaos and mess. Also, realize that the more you involve the kids in tasks around the house, the sooner they’ll learn to be self-sufficient.

What about the other side of the coin, when kids aren’t willing to help with chores at all? One thing I took away from reading Simplicity Parenting is the idea of having regular routines. For example, in our house, we do an end of day cleanup. We do it as a family, all working together, before the kids go to bed. We do this consistently every day. I think the kids respond well to this because it’s a regular event and because we do it all together. It still takes a fair amount of badgering to keep them helping. They tend to slack off or get distracted by the toys they’re putting away, which is only natural.

The other option we’ve tried is to make a particular chore the child’s responsibility. So for example, instead of all working on cleaning up, we’ll tell the kids it’s their responsibility to get the living room cleaned up on their own. The upside of this approach is the kids have a clear responsibility they can make wholly their own.  I perceive this approach to be more stressful though — I find it requires more badgering than doing things all together as a family.

Does anyone else have troubles with this or different approaches to consider?

2 Responses to “How Much Should Kids Help Around the House?”

  1. Gary Gutcher
    January 22, 2012 at 3:08 am #

    I have this theory that our view of how terribly dangerous the world has become is more a function of bias on the part of the observer than any real change in the frequency of the danger in question. It’s a numerator/denominator penomenon. When a (newsworthy) tragic event occurs in Smalltown, Virginia and makes the national evening news, the Smalltown numerator for that event just went from “X” to “X+1,” while Virginia’s rose from “Y” to “Y+1,” and the national from “Z” to “Z+1.” While perhaps a substantial increase in that sort of thing for Smalltown, or even Virginia, its impact on the national risk of such an event is usually vanishingly small. Thus while the risk of a repeat of this event on a national scale rose by a vanishingly small amount, its impact on our view of our local world is magnified by the reporter’s need to have us empathize with those unfortunates who were personally affected by the event…inherently emphasizing the numerator and ignoring the denominator. If we are to maintain perspective, we need to put the genie back in the bottle (censor the “news”) or begin to teach critical thinking universally. I’m not optimistic. In my darker moments I’m inclined to view the human cortex as a slow-growing cancer with no evolutionary advantage whatsoever. My evidence is kamakazi pilots, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Evidence to the contrary? You, Jordan, Luc, Rowan and this blog. This, too, is a numerator/denominator thing.

    • Pierre Bastien
      January 23, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Gary,

      I think you’re right about those newscasts blasting things way out of proportion. Tragedies get replayed over and over until people get scared to even walk out of the house.

      There must be something about us humans that really reacts viscerally to that and overplays the likelihood that something bad will happen to us. I remember once reading about a psychology experiment. They asked two slightly different questions to two separate groups of people. The questions were something like:

      1. What are the odds of a major earthquake occurring in the United States this year?
      2. What are the odds of a major earthquake occurring in California this year?

      The group that got the second question rated it much more likely to happen than the group that got the first question, even though it’s impossible for that to be true.

      I guess we’re just as a species really open to suggestion. The best solution is probably just to stop watching the news altogether. They’re preying on us!

      I’m still willing to be optimistic though :-).