Imagine you’ve just completed a project for work and you’re eager to share it with your boss. Confident you’ve done well and eager for her to sing your praises, you enter her office saying, “Ta-da!,” only to be met with a mild reception. Instead of immediately complimenting you on your efforts, she immediately begins fixing your mistakes. In front of you. Or even worse, in front of others. You’re crushed. Your self-esteem plummets and so does your motivation to begin the next project.
In many ways, the scenario just described holds true for children and chores. Too often, young children receive very little “job training” prior to completing a new task but, because they’re eager to mimic the actions of their parents, they gleefully forge forward. When their work isn’t up to their parents’ standards however, they’re confronted with feelings of failure, negatively impacting their desire to be helpful again in the future.
Parents sometimes allow negative experiences from childhood to impact their present day expectations. Unable to overcome experiences, parents go around behind children straightening up their sheets or re-sweeping and re-dusting, dashing children’s hopes that they’ve met expectations.
Teaching children to do chores is less about perfection, and more about instruction. Children are helpers by nature. Ask any five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and their response is most likely going to be “a firefighter, police man, doctor, nurse, superhero or teacher.” Why? Because children view these people as helpers, and they want to be helpers too. This phenomenon is most evident at the earliest stages of their lives; as soon as they learn how to walk, they insist on throwing away their own diapers.
While that task is very simple, others are not. But, the interest in helping still remains, as long as we accept it appropriately. The key to teaching young children how to do chores is to actually teach children how to do the chores, and then praise them appropriately for their efforts.
There is an art to instruction. After completing chores for years, parents often forget that there is, in fact, a process to learning how to complete these types of activities. But, just as an infant learns to crawl before she learns to walk, older children must learn to master one skill before they can be expected to master another. This strategy very much aligns with Montessori education, which has an entire curriculum focusing on practical life and self-help skills.
This “graduated experience” strategy is not only helpful in teaching children how to master an entire process, it’s helpful for increasing the child’s self-esteem. For example, if a child were interested in learning how to pour a glass of milk, an entire gallon would be too much. Spilling the milk would cause the child to feel as though he’d failed but, more importantly that he had disappointed his parents. But, if the parents are able to pay close attention to the child’s progress, allowing him to pour from an increasingly full jug (without “crying over spilt milk” in the process), the child’s confidence increases and he’s more likely to continue trying to pour more and more milk.
Children require step-by-step instruction. The younger the child is, the simpler the steps need to be. For example, a two-year-old shouldn’t be expected to make his own bed. There are simply too many steps involved. He should, however, be expected to put his pillows back in their appropriate positions. Then, once he’s learned that skill, and is able to perform it consistently with few, if any, reminders, a second skill – like pulling the sheets up first, and then arranging the pillows – can be added. After mastering those two steps in tandem, another skill can be added to complete the chore in its entirety – such as pulling the comforter up over the sheets before arranging the pillows.
Young children don’t need praised on the outcome of their actions – a perfect pour or well-made bed – in reality, praising the child’s progress, or growth over time, is so much more meaningful.
In fact, speaking positively into the child’s character while praising her progress is more effective than praising the child’s end-result. It places value on the child, not on the chore. Saying, “Your bed looks good,” is not nearly as impactful as saying, “You’ve come such a long way in learning how to making your bed. Remember when you only knew how to place the pillows? I’m so proud of you for sticking with it!”
As a parent, remember it’s not so much about helping children want to do chores, or even about getting stuff done around the house. It’s about helping children feel confident and competent as they master new skills by praising their progress, instead of the product.
Beth Nowak is a former Kindergarten teacher and mother of two who wanted to make memories with her children while making a difference in her community. Realizing other families wanted to do the same, she left the classroom to create “Good Mail Challenges,” fun and easy, family-friendly giveback activities that are delivered to parents and children all over the country each month. Learn more about Beth Nowak here or become a member of Good Mail Challenges by visiting GivingFamilies.com.