An Approach to Childhood Chores: Follow Their Self-Interest

When to give children chores can be a major parenting battle. Society seems to pressure us to raise “responsible” children. Parents start out on their journey vowing to make sure this happens. Then naturally rebellious, boisterous children are put in our arms. We may throw everything we have at it: education, role modeling, routines, proper coaching, charts, breaking it down into micro-steps. But children remain children. They defy our best intentions routinely. We gain some wins to realize the losses. Their “good” behavior comes and goes: because this is the natural state of childhood.

I propose a method that leans into their development instead of tries to fight it. Instead of getting them on our schedule, let’s get on theirs. Here is what I propose: follow their self-interest. In short, give them chores only in so far as they see the need to get the chores done.

For the most part, I don’t recommend chores until they are about 7 if not 8. I advocate you get them involved at younger ages. Show them how to put toys away. Let them help you do the dishes. My two older children once fought over who got to clean a toilet, as we were all cleaning the bathroom. Thankfully, we had more than one dirty toilet. However, in all this, before they are about 7-1/2, I don’t advocate you make them do any chores. Let them get hands-on practice and skills. But let them be happily oblivious children.

Around 7-1/2, children go through what I call “The Hulk” milestone. They grow in strength from their core out to their fingertips. Like the Hulk, they easily “take over” an entire situation. They become semi-reliable at doing things like turning in homework or showing up somewhere on time. They might ask to do something like learn a new instrument. They really grow in their responsibility and their ability to carry through.

Around this age, I recommend starting to give them some chores that you are rather hardnosed about. By this I simply mean it’s for them to do not you. It’s nothing to punish them about. But you are done doing X for them. A good start is letting them get their own drink. This is something in their self-interest: they want their drink. As they have much better dexterity and strength, they can do it and well.

I did this with my son starting around 7-1/2. He got a bit angry at me sometimes. You should know also that some abuse counselors say abuse doesn’t come down to trauma. It comes down to a sense of entitlement. I am not worried about my son becoming an “abuser.” But I am somewhat conscious about whether or not he develops a sense of entitlement. After pushing through some angry episodes, my son now gets his juice readily.

At the next milestone, closer to 7 years, 9 months, children become sort of Pre-Preteens. They have a certain adult-like swag to them. They can’t believe the babyish-ness of their younger siblings. One of the thing that comes with this is a strong desire to pick out their own clothes and often. They change their clothes every day, on their own, even when not prompted. They have strong ideas about what one wears to bed, during hot weather and cold weather, on Tuesdays, to restaurants, etc. This is a great time to get them doing their own laundry. It will pile up quickly and they want X shirt back for the next Monday. Help them, of course. But now the self-interest lies with them, not you. They want their laundry done.

I am sure this applies in many other areas. I offer these as a few examples of how to lean into their natural development rather than fight it.

See my book about these stages and cycles; Misbehavior is Growth! Admittedly the one for 7 year olds is a ways away. In the meantime, the summaries on my website are free.

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