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Chores & Young Children: When (& How) to Start

Chores & Young Children: When (& How) to Start

By Amalah

Oh, the irony of parenting: It’s undeniably hard work, and yet most of us are doing entirely too much of the work. We simply do too much for our kids, sometimes because it’s just easier or faster to do the task ourselves, or because we underestimate what our kids are capable of handling on their own.

And while I might be able to swoop through a room and put toys away in 10 minutes (versus the hour it takes my sons, that always results in toys getting shoved haphazardly in random places so nothing will ever be easily located again), doing that job for them is actually lazy parenting on my part. It’s their job, their responsibility, their contribution.

I doubt I need to sell anyone here on the benefits of chores: Chores teach children responsibility, give them an appreciation and respect for hard and/or tedious work, a sense of accomplishment and pride…while also teaching them important, essential life skills they will use throughout their lives. Kids NEED chores.

Have you ever met an adult who’s just plain…helpless? Like they have no idea how to scramble an egg or mow a lawn and seem unfamiliar with the concept that you can vacuum out a filthy car? Have you ever heard those stories about a newlywed learning that their MIL still does their spouse’s laundry?

I totally have, and I would like to 1) not send any more human beings like that into the real world, and 2) I AM NOT DOING LAUNDRY FOR THESE PEOPLE ANY LONGER THAN I ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO, SORRY.

That said, I’ve been guilty of not expecting “enough” from my young sons. Or not expecting enough consistency. The chore charts need occasional reevaluation and revisions, and they can also be implemented earlier than you may think.

Even the youngest children will benefit from an early introduction to chores. Between 12 and 24 months, your baby will become perfectly capable of following one-step requests and simple mimicry. Teach them to drop dirty clothes in the hamper, and give them a basket to put toys in. Once they’re walking, have them put spoons or cups out on the table for meals. At this age, these tasks tend to delight them, because they understand they’re doing things “like you.” They might not understand what happens to clothes in the hamper and have no idea where spoons and cups actually GO on the table, but your praise will go so, so far in teaching them that being helpful results in personal pride and happy faces.

Between 2 and 3 years old, you can begin expecting these early tasks to shift more into a set routine of chores. A sample chore list for a young toddler can look something like this:

  • Put toys away
  • Make their bed (pull up blanket, arrange toys and pillows, etc.)
  • Put clothes in hamper or laundry area
  • Put clean, folded clothes in drawers
  • Help with spills and other messes (just plain towels/water or non-toxic cleaning products only)

Don’t expect perfection, and don’t tie a very young child’s chores to an allowance or other reward. This is about a basic contribution to their home environment, not something “extra” they earn a treat or money for.

Moving on to preschoolers (4 -5  years):

  • Help feed pets
  • Water plants
  • Set and clear the table
  • Load/unload the dishwasher (start with utensils and move on from there)
  • Sort socks and put shirts on hangers (note that they should DEFINITELY be putting their own laundry away at this age, we’re just expanding on the basics from toddlerhood)

(And while not really a “chore” but in the realm of not “doing too much for them,” a preschooler is perfectly ready to prepare their own bowl of cereal, pour a drink and learn other non-cooking food prep tasks, like assembling a sandwich or portioning snacks in bowls.)

And now elementary-school aged kids, which is where I’ll need to tap out because this is as far as we’ve gotten in my house. But between 6 and 10, my oldest are expected to do all of the above, plus we gradually add in the following:

  • Help with basic dinner prep
  • Packing own lunches
  • Prepare own breakfast & help younger siblings (pour drinks, put waffles in the toaster, pour syrup, etc.)
  • Put groceries away
  • Fully load/unload the dishwasher and help clean up the kitchen
  • Sweep the floors
  • Fetch the mail
  • Help with gardening tasks (weeding, watering, harvesting)
  • Clean their rooms (consistently and without help)
  • Sort and put away own laundry

My older boys do get an allowance, but it’s not directly tied to their basic list of chores. We sort of view the allowance as a separate thing, more about money management, math, the value of a dollar, saving up for a goal purchase, stuff like that. If they go above and beyond our set expectations – like say, seeing a mess in the bathroom and cleaning it up themselves– I will reward them, though.

Finally, these lists are just basic suggestions. Your kids might be capable of more, even earlier. And looking over these lists I still see a lot of chores we enforce inconsistently, or still do ourselves out of speed/convenience. (The packing their own lunches one. I am guilty of slapping sandwiches and granola bars five minutes before the bus arrives more mornings than I care to admit.) It’s a process, but a worthy one.

What chores do you expect of your kids, and when?

Published November 24, 2015. Last updated November 30, 2015.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Cristin

    November 24, 2015 at 10:59 am

    The idea of not connecting allowance to chores is actually pretty smart. I learned the hard way after one week of “I don’t want an allowance this week, I’m not doing the chores.” Um, no, child. That’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works.

  • Myriam

    November 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    My biggest problem is that my kid is physically too small, even at 5, to do most of these things without a major kitchen remodel. At the moment, short of having her carry a ladder (a step stool wouldn’t be enough) all over the kitchen, and putting on some weight to actually be strong/heavy enough to open the fridge, we’ll have to keep helping her! Any tips, out of the box thoughts, commenters?

    • Kay

      November 24, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      I’m not sure if this would work for you, but when I was young my parents (very influenced by Montessori-type ideas about independence) put a small bench in the kitchen and that was my “work-station”. There was a small pitcher of water that I could serve myself from, and non-refrigerated snacks available so I could help pack my lunch. Note that this didn’t alleviate the work my parents were doing; I think it was more to start introducing the idea of kitchen chores before I could physically handle the bigger tasks. I was also responsible for sweeping under the table and wiping off the table – my parents found tasks I could do at each age and stage and then when I got bigger I “graduated” to washing dishes, etc.

    • MR

      November 24, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      We reorganized our kitchen so that our 4 year old could empty the dishwasher. Originally, all the plates, bowls, etc were too high for her, so we moved everything around so they were lower. The glasses are still up high, so she simply puts them on the counter near the cupboard where they belong, and then one of us puts them in the cupboard. We don’t ask her to put stuff in the fridge, but she is expected to set the table, feed the dogs, etc. Another chore that is great for little kids is cleaning the baseboards (with a wash cloth), or hand them a package of toilet paper and have them stack 3 on the back of each toilet, and put a paper towel roll under the sink in the kitchen. Our oldest also is responsible for emptying the bathroom garbages into the main kitchen garbage, which is then taken out by an adult.

  • Hillary

    November 24, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    We put the kids plates/cups/bowls in the bottom drawer of the kitchen island and the cereal in the cupboard next to the oven – both are very low! The milk is on the bottom shelf of the fridge door. Our kids (3 and 5) can get their cereal! Oh, and I keep all the napkins and cloth rags in a different bottom drawer so they can also clean up their spills.

  • Melinda

    November 24, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Myriam, check out montessori kitchen stuff

    • Myriam

      November 24, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      I ahould have thought of that! Thanks! 

  • AMC

    November 24, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Ugh.  My six year old gives me SUCH push-back and grumbling about chores.  “Why do I need to do chores?”  Ummmmm.  Because YOU LIVE HERE.  🙂

    • Bethany

      November 25, 2015 at 10:43 am

      Or, as an older mom friend told me, “Because I want your spouse to like me!”

    • Kate

      November 27, 2015 at 2:23 pm

      My 6 year old used to be great about chores and now he’s exactly like that. I think it’s the age, probably something about asserting independence. The “you live here” response is good. We talk a lot about doing chores because we’re a part of the family so of course the other day my son responded that he didn’t want to be a part of the family and stomped upstairs. 

  • Sarah in Georgia

    November 24, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    I so need this! My 4.5 yo will not do chores–will put himself in time out rather than do chores. I almost tried to send him to bed without supper the other night because I was so exasperated with him. Of course no one likes to do chores–it’s just what we do! Any tips (short of physically moving his arms and legs for him) on getting him to do what’s asked? (And this is stuff like emptying the dishwasher and his lunch box–nothing big!)

    • Bethany

      November 25, 2015 at 10:45 am

      Have you tried one of the chore apps? I used Chore Monster for a while (because apparently I am four years old), and when chores are completed, the kid can “earn” a monster that does some sort of action when they tap on the screen. (Side note – one of the monsters’ actions is farting. I skipped that one, since my three year old does not need any more encouragement in that area.)

    • Louise

      November 25, 2015 at 10:58 am

      Okay so might be a little harsh but maybe send him with just part of a lunch (the part your prepared) but without fun snacks that he would have if he’d done it himself? That way he can see the consequences of refusing to help (no snacks) but won’t go hungry…

  • Mary Ann

    November 25, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    When I was eight or nine, my mother called me into the laundry room. “Come here, I want to see something. Stand on this stool. If you reach in, can you touch the bottom of the washer? Great! Can you reach that knob? Perfect!”

    And that was that on my mom doing my laundry.

    • Kate

      November 27, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      I just had this conversation with my 6.5 year old. He was whining about putting his clothes away and I said “just wait until you have to wash your own laundry” and when he (whining of course) asked when that would be I told him “As soon as you’re tall enough.”

  • April U

    November 27, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    We got some great ideas about chores from Love and Logic. After dinner, we give our daughter three choices of chores that need to be done (example: clear table/load dishwasher, clean up the rest of the kitchen, vaccuum stairs and hallway) and let her pick one. My husband and I each “get to” pick after she does and then we all do our chore. She also has a bedtime chore (clean up family room) which we don’t remind her about. If she doesn’t do it and we have to do it, then she has to do an extra chore the next day. We started both of these at around age four and a half.