Many families seem to struggle with getting a good chore system to work. Chore charts, rewards, stickers, pocket organizers…there are so many good systems out there that it can be overwhelming!
In our case, I’ve never actually had a problem with chores not getting done. My biggest struggle is ensuring that the chores are assigned appropriately. Delegation comes pretty easily to me: with so many young children in the house, it became essential to find a good way to share the load, and outsourcing was the logical choice.
What has been a challenge is an attempt to keep things even. Now, I don’t believe in teaching my children that things are always going to work out nicely and evenly for them, and I don’t want them to expect life to be completely fair. They need to experience the fact that some things just don’t always work out the way they’d like.
That being said, I do want to do my best to establish a good balance in our home, not just to mete out justice and spread the work around, but also to demonstrate tangibly to the kids that we make a good faith effort to share the load.
When I was younger (AKA before I became a parent), I read plenty of advice on the topic. One common piece of advice was to ensure that chores moved “down the line” of children pretty steadily, so that the youngest person who could do something would be responsible for it. In other words, if your four-year-old is currently assigned a task but your two-year-old could manage it, then shift it to the two-year-old and give the four-year-old something more challenging.
Makes sense, right? It’s a pretty simple economic principle of making the most efficient allocation of labor. But I found that in actual practice, it was hard to implement.
We were off to a galloping start. When I had two small children hanging on to my every word and action, it was natural to involve them in everything I did, so I handed them things to put away for me in the course of my daily routine. Victoria and Elizabeth got used to helping me put away laundry and dishes, and of course I had them pick up their own toys (of which we had few, just to keep things simple).
Gradually they took over more and more responsibility. At two years old, Victoria went from unloading the utensil tray to unloading all the dishes onto the counter. As soon as we were sure she could hold dishes steadily without dropping them, she began to load up dirty dishes, too. By the time they were five and three, the two oldest were completely in charge of loading and unloading the dishwasher. After a few years of helping me put away laundry, they learned where everything went, so they took over that task as well. We alternated dishes and laundry weeks to keep things simple.
For the most part, that has continued to be our system. Dishes and laundry remain the chief tasks of the household. They need to get done—urgently—so for a long time they’ve stayed squarely in the purview of the two oldest, and therein lies the problem. In my family we call it the curse of competence: demonstrate that you’re good at something, and you’re likely to get saddled with more responsibility.
It was partly due to inertia that we stalled out at the status quo for so long, but when I would consider moving the chore assignments down the line, I’d always have misgivings. After all, the two older ones were competent and mature beyond their years; the next two were, well, a bit flightier and more likely to break things. They really weren’t ready to handle dishes, even as they passed the ages at which their older sisters had been assuming monumental responsibilities.
There were also philosophical issues in play. After investing all that time and effort in training two competent workers to get the job done so well, I would question whether I was ready to start at the beginning with unskilled labor and face the inevitable (and steep) learning curve all over again. But whether I wanted to or not, I didn’t want to exploit the good nature and hard work ethic of the older ones. Besides, the younger ones needed a chance to develop said work ethic, too.
Since Grace and Lawrence, Jr.—the next two youngest—are still not ready to assume the tasks involving breakables, I’ve been focusing on finding good and useful tasks for them to do. The jobs need to be necessary to the functioning of the family, because I don’t want to fob my kids off with meaningless busywork. Over the past year, Grace has “apprenticed” with an older sister on laundry duty, and now she is fully responsible for putting it away.
The younger ones can also dump out the compost, take out trash, and of course make their beds and pick up toys. General tidying takes place every day and is assigned as needed. Now that warmer weather is here, we’ll be gearing up with outside chores. That will provide a wealth of training in the work ethic department!
Photo Credit: Photos taken by Rose Focht, edited by Charity Klicka.