The ABCs of C-H-O-R-E-S

How to Get Kids to Help Around the House

Laurel resident Lisa Cobb gets help from son Noah Gross, 2, in the kitchen. Cobb decided against hiring a housecleaner to set an example for her son.
Laurel resident Lisa Cobb gets help from son Noah Gross, 2, in the kitchen. Cobb decided against hiring a housecleaner to set an example for her son. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008; Page H01

My career as a television remote control began at about age 5, when my parents bought their first color TV. For those of you unfamiliar with this occupation, it is exactly what it sounds like. When my father wanted to watch a different channel, he would say, "Annys, change the channel."

Looking back now, my stint as a channel changer ("Content Manager" on my résumé) was more significant than I thought. It influenced my beliefs and my choice of spouse. (Surprise: I picked someone who shares equally in housework.) It also taught me to value children and anything with a remote control.

Now that my daughter, at 20 months, is old enough to do things such as put her shirt in a hamper and wipe a spill -- or at least some portion of it -- I realize that this is my opportunity to strike. The second her masticated Cheerios hit the floor is a teachable moment, a chance to explain that half-chewed food lives in the trash and not under our feet. By showing her how to clean up after herself, child development experts tell me, I am instilling a sense of accomplishment and helping her master the subtle variation in skill required to scoop up squished cereal as opposed to squished peas.

The problem is: What if I can't and she doesn't? What if I can't teach her and/or she doesn't learn to pick up those peas, ever? Or 10 years from now she decides she is not responsible for any dish or room she did not personally dirty? When she is older, how likely are we to harangue her? Or will we decide we're just wasting our energy on something that she'll figure out how to do eventually?

For starters, children today spend less time on housework than they did 20 years ago, according to Sandra Hofferth, director of the University of Maryland's Population Research Center, who has been studying how children spend their time using detailed diaries.

In 1981, children ages 9 through 12 reported spending 5 hours 18 minutes a week on such activities as repairs, meal preparation and cleanup, pet care and outdoor work. By 2002, that figure shrank to 3 hours 5 minutes.

So what happened? The short answer is everyone is doing less housework. Hofferth broke it down like this: More women are employed outside the home. Children, as a result, are spending more time at school, in child care or in structured activities such as soccer practice or tuba lessons, Hofferth said. Mom and Dad are also more likely to outsource certain domestic tasks, such as cleaning the bathroom or mowing the lawn, because they don't have the time or inclination to do them.

"Cleaning toilets . . . I don't think any of us wants to do that," said Bill Breskin, who lives in Vienna with his wife and two daughters. They pay a housecleaner to come twice a month, and they use a lawn service during the summer.

Another incentive for parents to outsource is not wanting to "spend their scarce time with children yelling at them or further harassing them about finishing household chores," Hofferth said.

Hiring Merry Maids and eating takeout, though, still leave plenty to do around the house. There are always toys to pick up, clothes to put away and dogs to walk. That brings us to the issue of motivation.

Starting Young

Any parent drawing up his first chore wheel has to start with basic expectations. What is a reasonable contribution to the household? Most parents don't have trouble with this one. Feed the fish. Load the dishwasher. Put salad mix into a bowl.

When children are young, getting them to help is easier. They want to be like you, even when you're taking out the garbage. For this reason, you can encourage helpful behavior as early as their second year.

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