Chores Can Be Child’s Play

Marco works on our garden every day. He does this on his own – it’s his passion these days.

Yes, chores can be play for kids. That’s not a misprint. They’re not opposites, or at least, not necessarily.

This isn’t intuitive, folks. If you haven’t seen this happen with your own eyes, you’ll need to re-read this article a couple of times.

We all know that kids like to accomplish things. We’ve all seen our kids get immersed into building a fort or creating an art or craft project. When they’re done, they’re usually very proud of themselves.

Well, kids can also direct their productive energies in directions that help out the entire family. My wife and I have started to see this happen with our three boys.

Marco, age 8, absolutely loves gardening. You can often find him in our backyard garden planting a seedling, harvesting some veggies, tying branches to a trellis, or watering. He actually goes there on his own every day, looking for things to do.

Right now, he’s super-focused on becoming a small-scale, commercial farmer. I told him that our family and his other relatives around here would pay him the going rate for organic veggies and fruits at the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market. So, I just bought him a food scale, and he’s going to bring his notebook to the Farmer’s Market this Sunday to write down the prices there.

The next step is for him to pay for his own costs – raw materials (seeds & seedlings), work tools, and to pay us rent for the land he’s using. That way, he’ll be running his own business completely. We’ll get there!

Meanwhile, his younger brothers are also starting to do their own chores, albeit at a more modest scale. Nico, age 4-1/2, likes to help clean and cook. He’s not very good at these things, but he’s learned a heck of a lot for a kid his age.

For instance, after he yanked all the sheets out of our closet and threw them down the stairs, I demanded that Nico help me fold them and put them away. He was so enthusiastic about doing this task that, once we put all the sheets away, he pleaded with me to let him throw the sheets down the stairs again so that we could fold them again!

What’s most impressive about Nico is that he’s also proactive about finding things that need to be done. A couple of Sundays ago, he yelled to me from our front yard, “Daddy, help me clean our fountain!” Believe me, I hadn’t said to him or anyone that we should clean the fountain, but I was very happy that he had brought it up. I went out there, and he was standing next to it.

“How can we clean it? What can we use?” he asked me. I brought out two rags and two abrasive sponges, and we got to work. A few minutes later, his younger brother, Leo, age 3, yelled out for me, so I had to leave Nico and the fountain, but Nico stayed there for ten more minutes, working his way around it with the sponge, on his own. This was hisproject. He only needed me to help him figure out how to do it.

So, how do we get our kids to take on these household responsibilities? I’ve figured out a few important things that my wife and I do with our boys to make this happen:

  1. do household work during their free play time: Remember the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence? This wasn’t simply a case of Tom fooling the other kid. Kids actually like feeling useful, but they need to see someone else show them the way. That’s what Tom did, and that’s what my wife and I do often on evenings and weekends.
  2. curtail or eliminate screen time: Kids become zombies in front of a TV or computer screen. When they’re interacting with the physical world, they’re far more likely to notice it, to think that they’re a part of it. At our house, kids have zero screen time, so they’re always interacting with our physical world. Thus, they’re far more invested than most kids in their garden, their yard, and the inside of their house.
  3. give them time and freedom to tinker at home: Our kids have a lot of time and freedom at home, without the option of vegging out in front of a screen. So, a great deal of “play” for them is active tinkering. They embark on a lot of projects on their own, some of which happen to be useful for the entire household. (The others are personal projects.)
  4. indulge their household passions: When we see that one of our boys wants to dive into some household project that might benefit the family, we encourage him as much as we can. So, we encourage Marco’s gardening obsession by buying him seeds, seedlings, and gardening tools whenever he asks. If Nico wants to throw the sheets around again so he can fold them, we oblige. If he asks for a sponge to clean the fountain, we run to get it immediately, and then we cheer him on.
  5. consistently demand that they clean up before important transitions: Boyyy, this can be difficult, and we haven’t been perfect by any means, but we strive every day to ask our boys to clean up after themselves before important transitions – meals, leaving the house, and going to bed. We try to figure in enough extra time so that their delays don’t force us to let them get away with not fulfilling these responsibilities. These demands of ours go hand-in-hand with our indulging their household passions (see above). Our hope is that through their household passions, they see that they’re becoming responsible contributors to our household, not just little princes who get waited on. We’re doing OK on this so far, but we still have a long way to go. In our minds, the passions should come first, and then we’ll make sure the sense of responsibility follows. Forcing responsibility on kids without passion requires iron-fisted totalitarian rule. We’re just not big on that…
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