“Five minutes till clean-up party time! Choose your songs now!”
After-dinner “clean-up parties” help my family quickly tackle one room in the house that really needs tidying. Each child picks a favorite tune, and we speed-clean while blasting the music. When the music stops, we stop. And if the room is clean before the music ends (and it usually is), we shift to a dance party.
The word “chore” might sound like drudgery. But teaching kids how to do household chores is a meaningful part of growing up for at least two reasons.
Chores Teach Practical Life and Academic Skills
Everyone benefits when kids engage in household chores: Children learn practical life skills and adults have practical help in running the home. But chores can also support school readiness.
For example, sorting and classifying items is a math and science skill, and kids can practice this by sorting laundry by color (for washing) and by type (for folding); by grouping forks and spoons for putting away; or by separating toys that have been mixed together.
Chores also build fine motor, gross motor, spatial and coordination skills. Think of the physical dexterity and mental attention it takes to use a spray bottle, organize a toy shelf, wipe a counter, set a table, peel oranges for lunch, spread butter on bread, sweep a room or fold clothes.
Chores Foster a Sense of Responsibility and Community
Kids thrive when they feel useful and when they know that they have something important to contribute. KJ Dell’Antonia, the author of How to Be a Happier Parent, told me, “Everyone is happier when they are part of a larger community. For kids, the family is that community. When they are part of the day-to-day running of a household, it tells them, ‘I’m part of the team, and without me, things don’t work as well.’”
Bethany, a mom of three kids under nine, tells her children, “We all live in the house so we all have to love it together.” Another parent, Magda, shared, “I emphasize the child’s place in the household community: ‘We’ want to keep ‘our’ house clean, we're in this together, and we all help each other as needed.”
Children can find real satisfaction in contributing to family life and in being seen as responsible.
A friend shared that when her niece was a preschooler, she wanted a toy vacuum. Instead, her parents found a real, small vacuum instead for about the same price. “She loved vacuuming right alongside her parents. I think she could really feel the difference between actually helping and just playing at helping.”
More Tips from Parents
I reached out to several parents of young children to hear about their favorite tips and tricks. Here’s what they shared.
Break it down: Jen said that breaking tasks into smaller little pieces helps her kids find success. “Saying ‘Okay, let’s all pick up all our books, and put them back on the shelf!’ is much easier than ‘Go clean your room.’” She notes that this method is particularly helpful for children of all ages who struggle with attention or who get overwhelmed easily.
Put it to music: Nearly a dozen parents I talked to put music at the top of their strategy list. Playing music while cleaning infuses the time with energy and joy. For toddlers and preschoolers, try singing a clean-up song such as Daniel Tiger’s, “Clean-up, pick-up, put away. Clean-up every day!”
Make it visible: Many parents use some kind of chore chart — from colorful, laminated checklists that can be wiped off each week to index cards to simple paper/pencil lists with boxes to check-off. When children can see what is expected of them, they are more likely to tackle the task independently. Recently, my five-year-old created his own “bedtime chart” with pictures of all of his responsibilities before bed: clean-up toys, put on PJs, brush teeth, pick-out a bedtime story. He has taken such pride in checking off each item (“All by myself!”) that I am pinching myself for not employing a chart like this earlier for morning and evening routines!
Make It family time: When kids work alongside their parents, it strengthens connections and provides them with a model for how to do the task. To keep a handle on yard work, Emily sets a timer for 30 minutes and the whole family tackles it together. Amy uses cleaning as a way to have one-on-one time with her three children: “Using chores as a time for connection (‘Come and fold laundry with me’) goes over much better than directives (‘Go and fold the laundry’).”
Build a routine: Liz shared that “as soon as the children ate at the table, they were responsible for learning to set and clear the table — right into a dishwasher when we had one.” After a while, these small, everyday tasks become a habit. But it takes patience: I spent months reminding my five-year-old to clear his plate after meals before he consistently did it on his own. Caroline shared, “Nobody is born knowing how to do everything, so if I ask my kids to help me with a job and they say, ‘But I don’t know how!’ I’ll reply: ‘That’s because you haven’t learned how yet! And the best way to learn a new skill is by practicing it.’”
Let chores grow with your child: One parent gives a new, age-appropriate chore to her kids on their birthday — so that by the child's sixth birthday, they have six household responsibilities. My friend Margaret uses a similar tactic: “At birthday time, we sit down with the child and review the skills that they should have learned that year and what they will be learning the coming year. We try to make it celebratory: ‘Wow, you learned to make your own lunch, wipe off the table, sweep, and clean windows this year! This coming year, you'll learn to sew a button, make grilled cheese, and clean a bathroom. You are growing up!’"