We want our children to have a great childhood. We want to make their lives pleasant and fun. We may even say their only job is to do well in school. But what are we teaching? Dear child, you have only one job in life? Others will take care of the “menial” tasks? You don’t need to know how to cook, clean, care for a home? We may be unintentionally raising people who are bored, distracted, helpless, entitled, and have no idea who they are, or how to take care of themselves.

Children deserve more respect than that. Let’s show them respect, teach them self-respect by acknowledging that they are important members of the family. We can help them build confidence by helping them develop competencies. We develop their competencies by teaching them practical life skills and by expecting them to participate in the family work of the household, including vehicles, pets, family business, and care for relatives and the community.

Say what?!? Yes, actual real life responsibility. But, you say, they already have responsibilities of schoolwork, homework and perhaps arts or sports. Yes, and so do you. AND the house must be cleaned, food prepared, kitchen cleaned, dishes washed, clothes washed, dog washed. Who does all that? Why, Mommy and Daddy! Parents are working their butts off to get everything handled, while their offspring are bored, restless, filling their brains with entertainment, and not learning anything that makes them feel needed.

By teaching your children how to manage every aspect of the household, they become accustomed to teamwork, learn vital life skills, gain confidence through self-reliance, learn to earn and relish downtime, and learn to manage the work-school-rest-home-play cycle. They overcome the dependency-entitlement-resentment of waiting to be fed, waiting to be entertained, waiting to be waited on. The extra time you spend teaching them will come back to you a hundred-fold as you gain housemates who share the work of caring for the home and for each other.

Here is a list of things a child can do, because a child can do a lot, and in so doing feel like an important part of a team, gain a deep confidence from becoming able to care for themselves and others, and learn about themselves, their talents and preferences.

What a Little Child Can Do:

A tiny new walker under 2 years can:
Fetch a diaper or wipes for mommy
Pick up the dropped spoon
Put one item in one drawer
Do those things many times a day

At 2 years she can:
Help clean up her own spills and messes
Help make her bed
Put her dirty clothes in a hamper
Put her shoes where they belong
Bring her plate to the sink or dishwasher
Fold washcloths and dish towels
Help with grocery shopping by placing items in the cart as you hand them to her
Scoop a cup of food from the feed bag into the pet’s bowl

At 3 he can:
Put items in the dishwasher on the low rack, such as put spoons in the caddy
Sweep with a broom of a size that fits the child (yes they make those)
Pour juice from a small pitcher into a small cup for himself
Wipe up the spill
Wash the table
Choose items from a tray of available snacks
Put away clothes shoes toys in 5 minutes cycles with someone helping/supervising
Use a cup to scoop animal food from the bag pour into your pet’s bowl
Put an item in the recycle bin or the garbage
Pull their things and trash out of the car
Help set the table
Put clothes in the washer
Take clothes out of the dryer
Fold clothes
Put folded clothes in drawers
Dust specific surfaces
Pick up yard trash
Walk the dog
Take out the trash
Make a sandwich
Stir food on a stove

At 4 she can:
Learn to cut a banana safely with a real knife
Get items to help the chef
Stir a bowl of ingredients
Wash out small paintbrushes
Start the dishwasher
Operate small appliances like a toaster with supervision
Water houseplants with a small watering can
Brush her own teeth
Choose her own clothes for most days
Get dressed
Put up the towel from the bath
Put her clothes away
Put on laceless shoes
Put away her toys, books, art supplies with prompting
Feed and water the animal
Walk the animal, depending on the animal
Gather trash bags from the small trash cans and put it in the larger trash can
Replace the small trash bags
Bring in small grocery bags
Put groceries away with direction
Select clothing in a store
Choose between options in a restaurant

At 5 he can:
Help cut fruits and veg and plate these or add to a pot
Learn to make coffee for mom
Make his own sandwich
Put away the bread, peanut butter, lunch meat
Wipe up after food prep and eating
Wash some dishes by hand
Load the dishwasher
Sweep and mop with the right sized utensils
Separate laundry into whites, darks and colors
Load the washer, measure and add detergent depending on the container, and start the machine
Pull clothes out of the dryer into the hamper
Fold and stack clothes and put them in the right rooms or drawers
Select some familiar and lowly placed items at the grocery store
Order in a restaurant
Make a transaction over a counter
Rake, pull weeds, water indoor or outdoor plants

At 6 she can:
Complete her whole morning and bedtime routine independently
Walk the dog
Feed and water the animals
Run the vacuum
Start a load of laundry
Wash dishes by hand or load the dishwasher
Straighten her room for 10-30 minutes at a time
Help a younger child make a sandwich
Cook an egg on the stove
Help substantially in the kitchen, house, yard, office, farm
Wash a car
Read to younger children

Kids can do a great deal if you take the time to teach them how. A 12 year old can just about run a household. The trick is in a couple of parental intentions and habits. The main thing is realizing that kids can do, enjoy doing, and benefit learning the skills of everyday life. They gain precious things from doing: confidence in themselves and a sense of being needed as part of a homemaking team.

Making It Happen

We start by having them help, even when it would be more efficient to do things ourselves. We increase over time the help and the expectation, as we teach them skills and let them practice. Eventually they string together longer chains of behavior until they can make the sandwich, wash the dog, make the bed more independently. We continue close supervision over potentially dangerous situations such as cooking, until they have the thing mastered and show good judgement, even when things start to go wrong. We expect them to clean up after themselves, including mishaps like spills.

Kids have differing talents, some easily acquire the kitchen skills but struggle with organizational skills like sorting or putting away. The key is to watch each individual child, and carefully note what level of complexity in a skill area is displayed, and what would be the next lesson and/or next level of responsibility. It is absolutely a parent’s job to make sure that by age 18 our kids know how to do all the skills of daily living- money, budgets, food, housekeeping, nurturing others, clothing, yard, cars, pets, dealing with larger communities (teams, clubs, extended family, church) merchants, etc. The point is to keep the lessons and expectations moving forward at a rate that reflects the unique child’s capabilities. This is how we respect them, and how they respect us, and how they respect themselves.

Skills training only works if the parent(s) are willing to expect the participation of their child; and teach their child how to do things bit by bit as the child is able. We teach kids to pick up after themselves by introducing the ‘ten second tidy’ at a very young age, and do it often, many times a day, every day. We are talking literally thousands of repetitions over a young lifetime.

So in any one instance, we are not expecting more than the child can deliver. Kids have fewer resources to deal with moments when they are tired or stressed or craving some distraction. We are patient yet firm. If the two year old won’t put her dirty clothes in the hamper, well we can’t have the bedtime story until it’s done. We may offer one buy-out option per week to lessen the power struggle, but we, like the tide, come again and again with our expectation. Figure out your consequences for chore refusal ahead of time. And/or build a reward for good citizenship or clean room into the weekly routine. That’s actually another article, so I will leave this here. You might be amazed at what a little child can do.