I ♥ Love Child Labor

Morning chore time for our young kids creates a cheerful, productive air to our mornings.  It’s now my favorite time of the day.  It simply feels good to all be working together to get jobs done and make our home a nicer place to be.  

For the last few months since we’ve moved into our house, I’ve been a fool. I thought sleeping even less and working even more was the solution to making progress on unpacking our things and managing the ordinary tasks of being a mom to four.  I felt like I was too busy to direct our kids in productive directions. Who has the time to make kids do chores when there is so much work to do? Hey, wait a minute…

When summer vacation started for our kiddos, I had a small revelation: our kids need to have daily chores.

This concept of daily chores for children isn’t exactly a new phenomenon I just invented.  As commonplace as the concept is, it just didn’t occur to me to assign regular chores.  No, putting our kids to work for the greater good of the family, that’s an idea that came from my friend. At a BBQ, my friend since forever mentioned that using “chore sticks” has been extremely helpful in preventing disputes over chores with her own two children.

A chore stick sounds like some sort of punitive device employed when someone needs a little extra encouragement to do chores, as in, “If those dirty clothes aren’t picked up in the next minute, I’m going to get out the chore stick…”  But no, a chore stick is simply a Popsicle stick with a specific chore written on it.  Her kids draw chore sticks to determine their daily chores.  Drawing sticks prevent disputes over division of labor, and gives an easy visual of what needs to be done.  When I heard her describing her two kids, similar in age to our own, productively helping around the house, it wasn’t just a light bulb that lit up in my head, it was more like fireworks.  Eureka!  What we need is some good old-fashioned child labor!

So one morning over a cup of coffee out on the porch at the beginning of summer vacation, I sat down with our three oldest kids and we made a list of 12 daily summer chores.  The chores ranged from the quick and easy, like Feed Spot (the dog) to more daunting tasks, like Clean Living Room and Clean Toy Room.  I created chore cards out of summery orange construction paper, with words for the readers and simple pictures for the non-readers, and stored the cards in a clear plastic bag in the dining room.

Each morning, our new kid routine is have breakfast, get dressed, and do chores.  Our oldest, a six-year-old event coordinator and manager by nature, took charge of dividing up the chore cards each morning.  She flips the cards over and randomly divides them among herself, and her five- and two-year-old brothers.  Each child has an envelope with their name on it, and she lays the chore cards on the respective envelope to make an easy distinction of who has what chore. Our oldest gets the most chores and our two-year-old gets the least, and they all are ok with that, because they understand that being older means being able to do more things, work included.

Getting water for Spot is one of the coveted “easy chores” around the house.

So basically, each kiddo finds his/her name, looks at his/her chore cards, and gets busy.  After completing a chore to Mom’s standard, the child puts the card away in the bag with great satisfaction.  “Ah…done.”

It doesn’t take a degree in child psychology to make it all work, it just takes knowing each child and how they operate.  I use the same chore cards for all of them, the chores just evolve to an age appropriate level.  “Laundry” for our two-year-old means helping me load or unload the washer and dryer.  For our very capable five-year-old, “Laundry” means collecting all the dirty laundry upstairs and hauling it downstairs to the laundry room, sometimes proudly making four trips down the stairs with a wash basket of clothes.

Proudly showing off the collected laundry.

I also vary the amount of guidance I give to each child, depending on abilities and temperament.  My six-year-old daughter loves being in charge of things, and does almost all of her chores by herself with just a little verbal guidance here and there.  My littlest helper, not quite three, gets lots of guidance with me by his side.  He also prefers to clean as a robot, so I heavily use robot voices on his morning chores.  In my drone, monotone voice I’ll say, “Put. the. shoes. on. the. shoe. shelf. Beep. Boop.”  And he’ll respond, “Ok. Mom. Beep,” and off he’ll scamper to put the shoes away. We do what works.  Beep. Boop.

And the results of our new daily chore routine?  In one word: fabulous.

Morning chore time for our young kids creates a cheerful, productive air to our mornings.  It’s now my favorite time of the day.  It simply feels good to all be working together to get jobs done and make our home a nicer place to be.

I especially love that the chore cards create a visual, tangible guide of what needs to be done.  Even our two-year-old can tell what jobs he needs to do by a quick scan of the pictures.  The cards help eliminate Mom as Task Master, and enable the kids to be independent and self-guided in getting their work done.  I’ve even heard some work management skills going on, like “I’m going to do my hardest/easiest ones first” and “I’m going to feed Spot, and then water the plants while I’m already outside.”

The work our kids do isn’t particularly fast or efficient, but the sum total of a morning of chores means a much more livable house for all of us.  We all feel less stressed in a tidier house, and when someone shows up unexpectedly at the door, it’s great to not have that sense of embarrassment when scanning the living room before opening the front door.

My husband noticed that after a morning of chore time, our kids are more pleasant through the rest of the day. Laying on the couch too much makes anyone sluggish and irritable.  Our bodies are meant to be used, and we feel better when we use them.  Working, and the sense of accomplishment that goes along with it, feels good at any age.

Our children are also learning life skills, like good old cause and effect.  If you make a big mess in the toy room, it takes a long time to clean it up.  If you mess around instead of working, the chores don’t simply go away.  Man, I still struggle with that as an adult.

Finally, our new child labor…ahem…morning chore time, ties in with the ultimate goal of parenting: planned obsolescence.  The best thing we can do as parents is to give our kids the skills they need to eventually not need us around.  Chore time is just one more step in raising kids that are self-sufficient, independent, and capable.  As my daughter describes chores, “They make me sweat, and they’re sometimes a little fun.”

So there you have it.  A little child labor is kid-approved.

Written June 18, 2012.

© 2012

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