Life with a new baby, a middle-schooler, and three in-between is still wild and wonderful. Diana is deliciously warm and snuggly, and even though she is still waking at least three times a night, I have help. Sofia, who gets up early for chorus every day, has started making breakfast for Luke when he patters down to the kitchen in the dark morning. And when I can’t make it, Virginia, who is in fifth grade now, picks up Mark from kindergarten and walks him home.
The most intense part of the day for sure is after-school until bedtime, when eating, spilling, singing, fighting, racing, whining, cleaning, begging, and cooking are all happening at the same time. But when all the stories have been read, homework logs have been signed, and bedtime chats have been had, the house is serene. Even though I should go straight to bed myself, I love getting really sleepy while reading a magazine or newspaper.
Something stood out to me in an article about getting kids to help around the house in this month’s Better Homes and Gardens:
“A chore is more likely to stick if it’s done at the same time every day, like setting the table for dinner. As [Kim John Payne, M.Ed., coauthor of Simply Parenting] notes, “That’s when the task becomes something soothing that helps ground your child.”
My kids have been doing various chores since my oldest was in first grade, but when I think about it, the one chore that they never argue about is the one that has always been the same no matter where we have lived, what we have going on, or how old they are: that is, setting the table before dinner.
You often hear adults saying that they find it therapeutic to iron, or wash dishes, or mow the grass, but I’d rarely thought about the predictable routine aspect of chores. But it makes perfect sense: kids (and adults) crave structure and familiarity.
Boring is Good Sometimes
The repetitive, familiar, sun-up-sun-down nature of regular chores must make it seem like the work is part of life, part of a family’s revolving world. Assigning regular responsibilities to a child — whether it rotates by week or alternates by day — is also easier on the parent. I find that while one-off assignments are met with a lot of resistance, routine chores become more automatic, like brushing teeth and getting dressed in the morning.
(That’s not to say that my kids don’t complain or negotiate, or claim that “No one has as many chores as they do.” But fights are rare when it comes to regular chores, especially ones that always happen at the same time every day.)
We’re All a Little OCD, Aren’t We?
I once read that tasks that require repetitive motions, like sweeping, raking, or shoveling snow, evoke a relaxation response in the body that helps reduce stress. Just like walking, knitting, or meditative chanting can give us a feeling of restfulness, so can activities that help the whole family, such as scrubbing pots, folding laundry, or vacuuming.
Don’t you also find that any chore that offers instant visual (or aural) feedback is very satisfying? For example, one of the most popular chores here is mopping the kitchen floor. Kids get to see the floor become shiny-wet and clean as they progress around the room with the steam mop.
We also find that vacuuming is almost more fun when the floor is really dirty. We love to hear the clickety-click of crumbs, sand, and pebbles as they are sucked up through the metal wand of our canister vacuum. And of course, the clearly visible results of blowing leaves and cutting grass make us feel like we’ve really accomplished something.
Everyone Wants to Be Needed
But I wonder if a chore’s most powerful calming effect comes when it gives us a sense of purpose. We all crave meaningful work, right? Household tasks give children a sense that they are doing something worthwhile and that is essential to their family’s overall well-being.
I love getting assistance with the work of running a household, but expecting my kids to help around the house has grounded them in a way that I deeply appreciate.
How Our Kids Began Helping
Sofia was seven and Virginia was five (Mark was only three months) when we moved to New York City. Maybe it was the move to a big new place, but the girls seemed untethered and antsy, and they were becoming more disrespectful and wild in their play. What’s more, I was feeling overwhelmed with cleaning and laundry (done down the hall with handfuls of quarters), and in the mornings before school, I felt like a barking gym teacher in need of a whistle.
I began making the girls responsible for getting themselves ready for school (with checklists, timers, and rewards and consequences). Then I gave them everyday tasks that would help with rush hours: before going to school, they alternated tidying up their shared bedroom or the living room; in the evening, they took turns setting the table, playing with the baby, and sweeping after dinner.
Once those helper assignments were established and people seemed happy (and very capable), we began sharing the cleaning tasks on the weekend. I taught them how to clean the toilet, to dust, and vacuum. I no longer felt like Cinderella, and at least to my eyes, they looked less like the spoiled sisters. We were like partners, and the kids became responsible for themselves, but also for their apartment and their siblings.
Where We Are Now
When Enrico insisted on professional cleaning help (at least while Diana is a little baby), I resisted because I knew that working together was good for us. But since I wasn’t sure how my recovery would be, I conceded. The girls now help us with childcare by giving the boys a bath and putting them to bed some nights. With a big house there is always stuff to do, so they can choose from tasks in the garden (pruning bushes, weeding, and raking leaves) or in the house (like organizing closets and cleaning inside cabinets and drawers).
And they still alternate setting the table before dinner and vacuuming after. On the odd day, Sunday, I ask Mark and Luke to help. Mark, who is five, will whine and make excuses until Luke, three, says he wants to do it, and then they start fighting over who gets to do it.
I guess it’s time to include the boys in our regular routine.