Why Chores are Important in Developing Executive Functioning Skills

Chores are an extremely important tool in the teaching of executive functioning and lifelong skills. The honest reality is, your child will someday want to be independent. S/he will want to make decisions, do work that they enjoy and earn money they can use to pay for things they want and need. It’s inevitable. It’s as ingrained in us as learning to walk, talk and fall in love.

Learning to manage one’s time, possessions and take care of oneself is a life skill. Being a contributing member of a family is a life skill. And these skills do not miraculously appear on our kid’s 20th birthday. Just like learning to read, write and compute, life living skills develop over years.

I know our children are often not good at chores. They turn the laundry pink or leave streaks on the glasses. Sometimes they vacuum half the room and then get distracted and drop the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the floor. It is easier to do it ourselves. It really is.

But if we think of these skills as just as important as academic skills, would we let them off the hook? Would we throw our hands up and say, “Here, I’ll do it”? I don’t think so. When our child gets a math assignment, do we swoop in and do it for them? Do we read all of their books for them for high school English? Of course not. Yet when it comes to daily living skills we leave them uneducated and unprepared.

One hypothesis about why so many kids have weak executive skills in the 21st century is the fact that they don’t do organized chore/work tasks form an early age. These are skills that develop young, progress over the years and carry into their future work and relationships.When children grew up on the farm generations ago, they all had chores from the time they could walk. They were developing executive functioning skills while collecting eggs, herding sheep, riding horses and feeding animals. All require time management, organization and planning.

Just because we don’t milk our own cows anymore, doesn’t mean our child’s brains are any different than those of kids from 100 years ago.  Every kid, regardless of age and ability can support the family in some way through physical and mental labor. And, in many ways, will develop executive functioning skills through hands on learning. Maybe it’s mowing the lawn, matching socks, making coffee, setting the table, sorting the laundry by color. Note that  these are all executive functioning skills – sorting, organizing, sequencing, following directions, detecting patterns, remembering a schedule.

If you’ve tried to give chores to your children and find it tricky, here are a few tips to build chores into daily life:

  • Assign chores to every member of the family. No one gets a “pass.” Even 2 and 3 year olds can pitch in picking up toys, sorting, putting books on shelves, etc.
  • Make chores part of a daily routine. I like to set aside 15 min at the end of every day to do a “family house pick up,” where everyone neatens things up. After 15 minutes the house looks much better!
  • Give chores that are age appropriate. A toddler can match socks. A 12 year old can do laundry. A teen can mow the lawn.
  • Don’t ask for “help.” Make chores something everyone must do to be part of the family. Asking your tween, “Will you help me put away groceries, please?” is asking permission from your child. In my house I come home and yell, “Yo! Groceries to put away!” My son trots out to the car, grabs more bags in one hand than I can carry in two and that’s that. If he balks I say, “OK, I’ll just bring in the food I eat. You can bring in the food you eat.” I get an eye roll and he heads for the car 🙂.
  • Don’t connect chores and allowance. I believe all kid should have an allowance at an age appropriate time and amount. However, I don’t pay for chores. No one pays me to run the washing machine and my son won’t get paid for it either. We wash clothes because we need to be clean. That’s called life. Allowance is a whole different discussion I’ll write about another time.
  • Lower your expectations on thoroughness and perfection. In the CALM Parenting Model, we call this “Letting go.” Here’s a fact. Your child will make mistakes in doing her chores. Just like she isn’t perfect in school, ballet or social skills. Our job as parents is to teach these skills over time. If the vacuum cleaner is dropped mid-swipe, bring your child back to the living room and simply state, “It looks like you’re not done here. Please vacuum here and here and then unplug it and wrap the cord up.” Your child will get tangled in the cord, miss a whole pile of dog hair, etc. It’s ok. Help them each time a little bit and, over time, they will get more efficient and proficient.
  • Focus on what is right, not what is wrong. As human beings we like to do tasks that feel good. If every time your child does a chore, he gets nagged or snapped at, he will avoid chores. However, if when he attempts a chore, you focus on what he did well, he’s more likely to try that chore again. So instead of saying, “OMG, why are the cereal bowls in the cupboard where the coffee cups go?!” Try stating, “Cool, you got the cereal bowls out of the dishwasher. Just so you know for next time, these go over here in this cupboard, ok?” And move them yourself to model where they belong.
  • Keep the long term goals in mind. Teaching chores isn’t about teaching your child how to be the best table-setter on the block today. They are about teaching your child basic life skills, instilling a foundational work ethic and developing self-esteem and pride in being able to be a contributing member to the family. These foundations are required for your child to be a self-sufficient, happy adult in the not-too-distant future and are just as important as all the stuff they will learn in school.

The process toward independence can start today. Plan for the long term, give chores, recognize all forward steps, let go of perfection and watch your child begin to soar toward authentic success and independence!

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