Thursday, September 28, 2017

Chores: Building Self-Esteem

I'm not particularly fond of the word "chores".  Chores are routine household jobs that we do without thanks and without end.  The word rings of drudgery.  It brings to mind the endless responsibilities of running a farm:  milking the cows, feeding the chickens, weeding the garden, mending fences.....  But even in urban households, chores are essential to the smooth functioning of a family:  cooking, shopping, laundry, cleaning, etc.  Chores are a necessary evil for adults, but they bring rich rewards to children. In fact, assigning chores to children is at the top of my list for building self-esteem, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. I wish there were a different word for chores that would better reflect their positive effect on our children.

Assigning jobs to children is routine practice in early childhood classrooms.  The jobs rotate, usually weekly, so everyone has a turn at each.  Common jobs are weather watcher, line leader, snack helper, attendance monitor, pet feeder.  Children love jobs.  I once overheard a 4 year old say to his friend, "We have the best school because we have jobs".  Jobs for children need to be real; they visibly contribute to the smooth running of the classroom.   Completing these tasks makes a child feel competent; "I can do this. I have value."  The child learns the importance of cooperation and respect.  We are all equally needed to make our group work.  We take care of the school environment because it matters to us.

As early childhood director, I often used jobs as a strategy for helping children who displayed behavioral issues in class.  A spirited child, with lots of energy, can use that energy in positive or negative ways.  Making her responsible for an important class job, say picking up newsletters from the office or holding the door at recess, helps channel that energy positively.  Her ability to complete a task successfully,  combined with her sense of importance to the group, are the makings of self-esteem.  Such a child is much more likely to cooperate with class activities.

Chores at home enforce the same lessons.  Each member of a family assumes a share of the responsibility for the smooth functioning of the home.  A small child can pick up his toys, throw out his trash.  An older child can set the table, clear the table, make his bed.  The older the child, the more she can accomplish.  I like the expression "carry your weight".  The load of the chore should be commensurate with the size/age of the person assigned to it.   Keep in mind however, that you must accept the best your child can do.  She is unlikely to fold towels or slice fruit  the same way you do.  Decide where you can compromise in order to afford your child the feeling of accomplishment.

Children who are expected to do chores at home will gain all the benefits of self-esteem, responsibility, and respect.  In addition, they will acquire important knowledge of how things work, and how to take care of themselves.  One of the most rewarding emails I ever got was from my daughter the year she spent in Israel, between high school and college.  She shared an apartment with several other girls who had no experience keeping house.  She apologized for all the complaining she had done over the years about her household jobs, and explained how shocking it was to wake up to dirty dishes and sticky countertops. Finally disgusted by the dirt, one girl picked up a mop for the first time in her life. She ended up stuck in a corner until the floor dried!

I do not believe that children should be paid for chores.  Every member of the family should be expected to contribute, for the good of all.  I think a weekly allowance is a great idea for kids, but it should not be connected to chores.  The only time I might pay for a chore is if it is something above and beyond expectations.  For example, a child may be expected to put his outdoor toys away, but not necessarily to rake the yard.  Raking might be worth something to a parent, and could teach a lesson in negotiating.  Unlike routine chores however, if a child is to be paid for something, we can expect a higher standard.  My children made their own beds, but I had to train myself to look away and not re-do them.  I wouldn't feel the same way if I were paying for the job.

Many people mistakenly think that a child's self-esteem comes from parents or others telling him how great he is.  No.  Self-esteem can't come from other people.  Self-esteem comes from the knowledge that we are capable; we can contribute to the world.  And the only way to gain that knowledge is to be given the chance to prove ourselves.  Give your child chores, and watch him grow.

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