parenting,  raising kids

Teaching Kids to Work: It Can Be Done

It can be difficult teaching kids to work. (Let’s be honest, it can be more than difficult). I’ve been raising kids for over 30 years (that’s a long time), and I still struggle to teach my kids the importance of work (especially when it comes to dishes). However, I am convinced that helping kids learn the value of work is a lifelong lesson that will serve them well throughout their lives. It goes right along with, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Both my husband and I have felt it’s vitally important to teach our kids the concept of “learning to fish,” so we’ve insisted that our kids have chores over the years (and we’ve never paid them an allowance, but that’s another post). When we lived in rural Colorado on 37 acres, my kids had plenty of work to do from digging fence post holes to building fences to feeding animals to weeding our big garden to daily house chores. As a result, my adult kids have learned how to work, and how to work hard. Even now that we live in the city, we put our kids to work mowing the lawn, pulling weeds (because there always seem to be weeds), cleaning the pool, moving dirt, cleaning out cars, and organizing the garage. Learning to work also helps kids feel confident in solving problems.

I’m a big proponent of self-sufficiency and teaching children that it’s important to learn how to work hard, so when they are adults they can take of themselves and their families.

Kids working on a farm pushing a hay bale

Set the Example

It’s difficult enough to motivate children to work, especially if the work is physically challenging. I’ve found, over the years, that I have to set the example of working. If I am doing household chores regularly, it’s much easier to get my kids to do the same. If a fence needed to be mended or built, it was much easier to get the kids to help if my husband or I, or both, were out working on the fence.

No one wants to be told to go out and work by someone who isn’t working (no one likes Bossy Betty who tells everyone what to do from her couch while she’s eating donuts). If I am setting the example of working, then I can expect my kids to also work. And working beside my kids has often led to discussions about life that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Man shoveling snow

Explain the Expectation

I’ve found that kids need to know exactly what it is I want them to do. I need to be very clear about my expectations. When I ask them to clean their room, I always need to add, “Clean it the way I would clean it, please.” If I don’t add that, I can expect to find dirty clothes shoved under the bed or toys hidden in the closet.

My parents died when I was young, so my younger sister and I lived with our grandparents. We never had a chore chart or anything remotely close to job expectations. We never had discussions about helping Grandma with dishes or laundry or cleaning the house. Neither my sister nor I had any idea what the expectation was. Sometimes, Grandpa would get angry with us and tell us to go into the kitchen to wash dishes and as soon as we went into the kitchen, Grandma would tell us to get out and let her take care of everything in the kitchen. That left both of us very confused.

To avoid confusion for my kids, I’ve used a chore chart (usually a white board). I try to add details to the jobs. I’ve made posters and printed out sheets of paper with all the details for specific job. For example, under “Clean Room,” I’ll add:

  • tidy room
  • vacuum carpet
  • clean out under the bed
  • clean off dresser
  • hang up clothes
  • vacuum inside closet
  • clean mirror with cleaner
  • refold clothes in dresser

With this kind of list, there isn’t much room for excuses when I come to check the room. Specific, clear instructions on what is expected can avoid meltdowns for both me and my kids.

Vacuuming up confetti

Give Out Plenty of Praise

Kids love to be praised. They love to feel like they’re doing a good job, even if it isn’t up to my “standards.” A little praise goes a long way.

As a parent, I’ve found it more effective to positively reinforce a behavior rather than to criticize or punish. I want my children to know that I appreciate their hard work, and that I think they are awesome for sticking with a chore that is difficult.

We live in an area where it is very hot and humid in the summers. Some days, it feels like I’m walking through a sauna. One of my son’s jobs is to mow the lawn. We live on half an acre, so we have some significant lawn that needs to be mowed at least once a week (sometimes more) in the summer. I know this isn’t a fun job and I try to be very appreciative to my son and praise him for going outside in the heat and humidity to take care of the lawn.

I always want to be generous with my praise because I want my kids to feel good about the work they are doing.

Talk About What Went Well and What Didn’t

Sometimes, jobs don’t go so well. For example, there are times when the dishes don’t come out clean from the dishwasher. If that’s the case, I’ll talk to the child whose job it was to load the dishwasher and we’ll discuss how the dishes were loaded, if they were rinsed off beforehand, or how this job could be done in the future with better results.

Talking with my kids about the jobs they’re doing helps keep the communication lines open and allows us to evaluate the job, which can be a valuable life lesson as well.

I’ve had lots of discussions over the years about dishes, sweeping the floor, mopping, setting the table, clearing off the dishes, etc. The best discussions are when I ask, “How do you feel this job went?” I’d like to say that’s how I’ve started these talks, but it isn’t. It’s way less productive when I look at the job and start complaining about how it wasn’t done properly, but there are too many times to count when that is exactly what I did. Fortunately, my kids are very forgiving.

Family hands together

Be Consistent

Consistency is a big one in all aspects of parenting. As in my example with my grandparents, they were never consistent in what they expected. Sometimes, Grandpa expected us to do the dishes and yelled at us when we didn’t do them and other times he never said a word about it.

Doing dishes seems to be a hot topic at out house pretty regularly and, honestly, it would’ve been easier a lot of times to have just done the dishes myself. Far fewer tears, loud voices, and kids falling apart. Doing dishes should be a simple thing, but at my house, it was HUGE. Even though it would’ve been easier to do them myself, I believed that teaching my kids to consistently do chores was important enough that I insisted they do it. Even when they didn’t want to. Even when they were tired. Even when they were busy.

One evening, it was late and my daughter was on dishes. She’d gone up to bed with a sink full of dishes waiting to be done. Instead of letting it go, we went upstairs and got her out of bed to take her turn doing the dishes. She wasn’t very happy, but she learned that we wanted to be consistent in doing the jobs. She now has her own young family and has learned that dishes do need to be done every day.

Use Job Charts

I have done job charts for years. When most of my kids were at home, it made the most sense to use a whiteboard so I could rotate jobs and add any extra jobs that came up.

As mentioned above, I made a poster with all the details of the job because I got tired of repeating myself all the time. This seemed to work because I could just point to the poster.

Job charts can be as detailed as you want. I kept mine pretty bare minimum (which is why I needed to make a poster) because I had so many kids to add to it. We had dishes, wipe/sweep, set/clear as daily chores and added weekly chores like cleaning different rooms in the house. We also had daily chores like feeding and watering animals and hoeing weeds in the garden during the summer. I added other things to our job chart like: homework, read a book for 30 minutes, practice piano, and brush teeth (for the kids who thought chewing gum was an acceptable substitution for dental hygiene).

We have recently changed dishes, wipe/sweep, and set/clear to be weekly chores, so one kid has dishes all week and another has set/clear for a week. This has resulted in much less arguing over who did or did not do the dishes the day before.

Family of five

Conclusion

Despite arguing and meltdowns, I absolutely believe that children need to learn to work and the best place to learn this is at home with parents guiding them.

Life is hard. It takes work. And sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to. Teaching kids the value of work also helps with their self-esteem and helps them feel like they’ve contributed. It also helps with family unity.

Setting the example, stating clear expectations, freely giving out praise, being consistent, talking about what went well and what didn’t, and having job charts has helped me show my kids how to work (even when it comes to the most dreaded job of all: doing the dishes).

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