Domestic Arts: Chores

I am not a fan of chores for children under the age of seven. In my mind, chores are things you have to do whether you feel like it or not, and there may be some sort of punishment if they don’t get done. I don’t feel like this is appropriate for young children. Remember, in having children help with household tasks, we are setting patterns and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of helping out around the house, of pitching in, of feeling proud that they are contributing. In this vein, there are two important points to help set yourself up for success: first, don’t expect children to be able to do tasks by themselves, and second, don’t get into power struggles over tasks.
Don’t expect children to be able to do tasks by themselves. With young children, household tasks should always be done together. Children want to be with us and connect with us; while they’re happy to forget about us when they are immersed in deep play, household tasks and self-care tasks are things that WE want them to do, and we want them done in a certain way. Therefore, they should be done together. Adults frequently overestimate what the 3 or 4 year old child can do. That’s because we assume that because a child is CAPABLE of doing something, they should be able to do it whenever we want them to. And that’s simply not the case. Just because your four-year-old is capable of putting on every item of clothing, doesn’t mean that you can simply ask him to get dressed and then go downstairs to fix breakfast while he does it. Chances are you’ll go upstairs ten minutes later to find his clothes still lying on the bed, while he’s playing with his fire-truck. In fact, even if you stay there with him and talk him through the process (“it’s time to get dressed and your clothes are on the bed. Where’s your shirt?”), he may well only be able to actually dress himself sometimes. Even though he’s CAPABLE of it, at this age he will only be ABLE to do it by himself sometimes. Some days those clothes zip right on, and some days you are doing almost every piece.
How competent children at this age are on a given day depends on how tired they are, how distracted they are, how distracted YOU are, and many other factors that we can only guess at. The trick at this age is to be fully present with them as they do a task, stepping in to keep them on track as much or as little as is needed, without getting mad that yesterday they did it just fine, and today they don’t seem capable of doing anything. That’s how things are at this age. The smoother and more consistent your support, the more and more frequently he’ll be able to do it on his own. If your support is inconsistent, so that he can go a long ways off-track before you direct him back to the task at hand, or your support is angry, or your support is rushed, then he will resist that “support,” and he’ll want to do the things you ask of him less and less. So tasks should be done together.
Don’t get into a power struggle. Although I don’t have chores, I do have expectations about what children help with. There are tasks that I invite children to take part in, and there are tasks that I expect children to take part in. For example, when I set out to chop some veggies, I’ll bring my chopping board, knife and bowl to the table, along with some kid-chopping boards and table knives. I’ll start chopping my veggies, singing a chopping-song. Usually one or two or three children will come over and want to help, but if nobody does, that’s fine. They can play while I chop. Likewise with washing the table before a meal, or sweeping the floor. I do these tasks slowly and mindfully, with room for children, and the children are welcome to help or not, as they choose. Other tasks, such as tidying up, are done all together and I will gently steer a child who is not participating back into the activity by giving her a toy and asking her to put it in its place. And finally there are some tasks, such as clearing your bowl from the table, are expected from each child at the end of every meal.
But what if a child refuses to take his bowl? What to do? Do I MAKE him do it? Or do I just not care? My answer to that is that it depends on why they’re saying no. If a child is just saying “no” to try it out, I’ll say, “Oh, it looks like you need some help getting started,” and I’ll simply go over and help him pick up his bowl, then face him in the right direction. Just getting them in motion (through my own motions, NOT with words) is often enough to get him back on track. On the other hand, maybe he’s saying “no” to test boundaries. For example, perhaps you and your son set the table together every day, but one day your 3 ½ -year-old stands there defiantly and says, “No!” And then looks at you to see how you’ll respond. What do you do?
In general, the best way to meet defiance in young kids is to transform their emotion through humor or imagination, and then continue on with the task being defied, without talking about it. So here’s a response that comes immediately to my mind, if I were in the situation described above. I’d look at that little boy with utter amazement. “What???? Did you say No????? Wait! Say it again and see what happens!” Then he says “No,” but not nearly as defiantly. He’s curious. I take a big breath and raise my arms up high above my head, then say, “Whooooossshhhhh!” and swoop him up and onto the couch. Then I tickle him and kiss him until he’s limp with laughter. (I’ve transformed the emotion away from defiance.) I sit up and make smiling eye contact with him, then take him by the hand to help him up off the couch. Still holding his hand we walk into the kitchen together. “Now, where are the plates?” I say. (I go back to the task, without talking about it.) Usually a child is happy to get back on track at this point. But if he’s not, he might say say “No, I don’t want to set the table.”
At this point the most important thing is not to get into a power struggle. The reason for this is that power struggles do little except give your child practice at saying no, and not doing what you say. Even if you make them do it, it’s not setting them up to want to do it again the NEXT time you ask; power struggles tend to beget more power struggles. So at this point, I’d look the child in the face, and try to get a sense of what’s going on. Depending on what I see, I might try to connect emotionally with him, in an imaginative way: I’ll make a sad face, and say, “I’ll be so lonely if I have to set the table all by myself. Boo hoo hooo! Boo hoo hooo!” and I’ll pretend to cry, looking through my fingers to see his response. But another time, I might look and see only obstinacy. In this case, instead of trying to play further, I’ll simply say, “I can see that you’re not ready to help me set the table today. That’s OK. Why don’t you sit on the couch and look at a book while I do it. I bet you’ll be ready to help me again tomorrow.” I’ll go and I’ll set the table by myself. And the next day, chances are pretty good that I’ll have my helper back.
This is the part that strikes many parents as strange. Am I not simply ‘giving in?’ Have I not just lost my authority? Am I not setting things up for them to be irresponsible for life? But I would answer, no. This technique, of verbally creating an image of your child being cooperative the next time, is a powerful tool. Children will live up (or down) to our expectations most of the time. Often times, when we are trying to force a child to do something, we think we are stating expectations for them to do it. What our actions and attitude are ACTUALLY saying, however, is that we expect them NOT to do it, which is why we have to force them. So, by listening to their desires and letting them off this one day, but saying, “I bet you’ll be ready to help again tomorrow,” this creates a powerful image that children can live up to.
However, just creating the image is not enough. If a child is refusing to help and can’t be jollied into it, there’s something else that must also be done the next time that task comes up. It’s to go back to why doing household tasks together is useful: if your child is not inspired to contribute, and is not inspired to do it to build competency, then you must go back to the foundation: connecting. When the next day comes, take whatever your child didn’t want to do the day before, and make it as enjoyable, as fun, as connecting as you can. When the connecting part is in place, the other pieces will fall back into place, too.


  1. Michelle P says

    Wow, this is a very helpful post! I always find it challenging when my son doesn’t “want” to help – but I see how connecting is a way to invite him to come along!

  2. My montra since reading this has been “Connect with him.” The words in this article, especially at the end, are just what I need to hear right now. There are things that you know you need to do, but you don’t know how to make yourself do them authentically and from the heart. I knew I needed to slow down and be present with out trying to do the dishes or what not. My son had a tantrum the other day. This was his first like this. He could not be consoled. I let him cry, laying on the floor where it seemed he wanted to be as I sat near him. Maybe he was expressing his process of coming into his body. And maybe he was expressing frustration with my lack of connecting with him. I feel it was at least in part the latter. This article was exactly what I needed to get me to slow down, have fun and connect. Since doing so I can see he really appreciates it. He looks me in the eyes and gives me kisses. I feel that the more I do this, the less he will need it. Already the connecting time is not that long. It’s just that moment of stepping outside myself and being with him or letting him experience. Thank Faith for the wise words.

  3. This is very helpful. I have a child at the daycare who can be very defiant. I have been doing a pretty good job at staying cheerful but last Friday she really got to me and I found myself in a power struggle. I am feeling burnt out by this one child in particular. Thank you for these tips. I have hope again.

  4. Efrat Kalmar says

    thanks for this post.
    your explanation about power struggle (which I have quite a lot with my 3 yo) is eye opening. I feel sometimes like Justine (above) completely burnt out – with my own daughter!
    I completely relate to the idea of creating a “helper image” for them form future times in case this time does not work. thanks!

  5. Ryoko Onuki says

    I have been working as nanny, I have been struggling a lot of balance of household chore and spend time with 3 years old Aubrey… Since I have to be done the household chore(cooking 3 meals, laundry, and cleaning the house) in my working hour, I have limited of time to be with her and deep play…. Unfortunately if I couldn’t done household chore in my working hour, my employer will leave them till next day…
    I often hear when I’m doing household chore, Aubrey said ” You are my friend!! I love you in the world!”
    I think that is her sign that she wants connect with me more and deep play…
    So I am trying to talk and sing while I am doing household chore…
    Thank you Faith, this post remind me to think about it.

  6. Ryoko Onuki says

    I just talked to my mother who is working in childcare in Japan… and heard thing want to share with. It remind this post.
    My mother’s childcare is children age 0-2. One of toddler teacher was folding toilet paper for children, while free play time. They usually make some ahead of time… A child asked to the teacher “what are you doing?” so she explained. then more children came around her and asked”what are you doing?” The teacher said “when you go to bathroom, you wipe your bum, I am folding the toilet paper for it.” The children asked her if they can do it too.
    My mother was checking supplies in the bathroom one day and those paper in the basket. The paper wasn’t fold they way used to so asked the teacher and knew this story…
    Maybe I used to work this same childcare in Japan before, I used to fold toilet paper when Aubrey was 2years old while she is sitting… I guess she observed me long enough and she told her parents that she can fold toilet paper the other day…
    I really agree when they are interested in is the time to learn things.

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