At the beginning of this most unusual school year, my son’s occupational therapist sent me some sample at-home activities, since we wouldn’t be meeting in person. Well-intentioned, but clearly this lady doesn’t have kids. Who has time to sit around and crumple paper together?
In the interest of raising semi-functional adults, I decided this would be a good year to work on motor skills through real life skills. Folding laundry. Washing dishes. Unscrewing the toothpaste cap.
In the pre-pandemic days, we had to race to the bus stop at 7:06 a.m. sharp. I did everything for my son to execute the morning process at top speed. Rouse sleepy kid at 6:35 a.m. Breakfast, brush teeth, bathroom, then shove his feet into shoes, zip up his coat and hurtle out the door.
Now our commute consists of sauntering down to the kitchen table. At-home OT means my kids, 5 and 9, have (mostly) mastered getting dressed themselves, even if it means sweat pants and Velcro shoes. I think that’s OK, though. Thanks to working from home, leisurewear is here to stay.
I used to rage-fold the laundry alone late at night. Now that everyone is home, we do the chores together. The problem isn't that the kids aren’t enthusiastic (they actually fight over who gets to help); the problem is I'm a control freak and chores take 10 times longer with their “help.” I can’t help hovering and micromanaging, and I have to hold myself back from refolding the laundry after the kids have “folded” it.
I recently spoke with child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, who had a specific message for parents of special needs kids: Don’t give your child a chore that you’re going to come along and redo after them.
“What you’re teaching them is they’re not valuable,” Gilboa said. “Give them a different chore, or a crucial part of the chore. If they can’t sweep up the broken glass, then you say, ‘OK, you hold the dustpan.’”
Gilboa, the mother of four boys, started her kids on chores at 2 1/2. Their responsibilities increased with each birthday: At 7, they did laundry for the whole family once a week. At 9, they packed everybody’s school lunch.
“Everything you want your kids to do when they leave your home, they have to learn while they’re in your home,” Gilboa said. “There’s no ‘It’s too late to start chores’ if your kids still live with you.”
The irony is, I never did chores growing up. As a Chinese kid, your full-time job is studying and getting good grades in school. There was definitely an adjustment period after I moved out when I lived in squalor. At one point, I had a college roommate who must’ve grown up with a household staff. After making her coffee, she’d toss the used packets on the kitchen floor where the pile of litter grew unchecked.
There’s an actual college class you can take to learn life skills, but is that where you want to spend your tuition money? Sweeping, grocery shopping, cleaning the bathroom — it’s not rocket science.
“I would much rather pay for my child to go to college to learn things I can’t teach them,” Gilboa said. “God willing, you might visit your child in his apartment and you might have to pee. ‘Oh no, I saw your bathroom, I’ll go to the gas station around the corner.’”
So let’s get to it and raise children who grow up into adults with decent bathrooms. Here are three strategies that worked for getting my kids started on chores:
Keep it simple.
I whittled the kids’ closets down to capsule wardrobes.
Each shelf used to be overflowing with clothes that sort-of fit, maybe a size up or down, pants with buttons we never bothered with, out-of-season pajamas. I removed everything except the five or so outfits we need for each laundry cycle. Bonus: now the kids know it’s time to run the laundry when they see they’ve run out of clothes.
In the kitchen, our utensil drawer was crammed with every gadget under the sun. Melon baller, ebelskiver turners, garlic press, carrot peeler ... some of which I hadn’t touched in years.
I relocated all of it to a far corner of the kitchen, so the utensil drawer just holds utensils. Imagine that!
Same with the dishes cupboard. Make it easier for the kids to do things themselves. Out went the precarious piles of mismatched dishes. The lower cabinets, the ones the kids can reach, are now stacked neatly with our everyday plates and cups. There have been a few casualties, but breaking cheap IKEA dishes doesn’t break my heart.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Some kids pick up on these things right away; others need more practice. Not a problem, since we’re experts at creating dirty dishes and laundry.
I don’t do a chore chart, because that’s just one more thing for mom to keep track of. And Gilboa cautions against paying kids to chores, because then they can just quit if they don’t want the money.
“Chores are just required. They're part of living in your home and being a good citizen in your home,” Gilboa said. “Don’t do allowances, unless you yourself get paid to clean your bathroom.”
Lower your standards.
Let it go. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Are the towels hung exactly centered on the rack? As long as it’s not a damp pile on the floor, I’ll take it as a win.