Teaching Good Work Ethic

Along with responsibility comes the necessity to teach a child how to work. Work is becoming a dirty word, but it is an essential life skill. You cannot expect your child to grow into a productive member of society if they do not understand that they must do things they do not like to do, and that there is a reward for doing so. Sometimes that reward comes only after time. But in general, children need to learn to work both for money, and to do routine chores as part of being a member of the family. Because life requires work.

Our solution to chores has been to teach our children as they were old enough to take on tasks. First they learned to do self care. Then they learned to do chores that were a direct result of their actions - picking up toys, cleaning up their own messes, etc. Then they learned to do routine tasks that were a result of their living - doing laundry, fixing simple snacks, sweeping up the hair after their haircut, etc. Finally they learned to take on a fair, age appropriate, share of the “family work”. Work that needs to be done because everybody helps create the need for it, so everybody needs to help do it. Things like dishes, vacuuming, dusting, and other upkeep chores.

Each child has different ages at which they can accomplish things. These may vary widely for special needs children. In general though, a two year old can pick up toys with instruction. A three year old loves to get clothes out of the dryer and drag the basket to Mom. A four year old can be learning independent self care, and can be learning to fold washcloths. A seven year old may be able to fill the washer to a set level with clothes, put in a measured amount of detergent, and turn the dial to a certain point to turn it on. They won’t be able to sort laundry very efficiently, so we always made sure their laundry did not need sorting (in fact, we put a laundry basket for each child in their bedrooms so that they could put their clothes in immediately, and so that no sorting was necessary, we always knew who needed to fold the laundry coming out of the dryer).

Teaching responsibility and work is a step by step process. What you choose to teach, and how you choose to teach it, is dependent on you and your child. But keep two things in mind:

1. It is about teaching, not forcing. When teaching is done correctly, no matter what the principle, it makes the relationship between the parent and child stronger. Teaching chores very much benefits from this concept.

2. You, as the parent, must be the one to judge what the child is capable of. Ideally we challenge them with something that requires them to stretch a little in order to accomplish it when we teach them a new task, but we make sure that it is not so hard that they cannot do it. It is sometimes very hard in the midst of protestations to know whether we really are requiring something too difficult or not, but no one but the parent is qualified to make that call. Teaching them to overcome difficulties in this way helps them to learn to face hardships in their lives without crumbling.

When I want a child to learn a set of skills, I teach them one step at a time. When they have fully learned the first step, they can go on to the next one. I structure our home in such a way that the process is as simple as possible for everyone, using organization to eliminate needless steps (like the laundry baskets in the kids’ rooms).

For example, when a child learns to vacuum a room, they first learn to pick up the toys, and someone else vacuums. Then they learn to pick up the toys, and to use the vacuum. Later they learn to move furniture if that is needed, or to do a more detailed job.

Our children have learned to cook at an early age also. I use a three step process for teaching:

1. I instruct, and the child watches me do it.

2. They do it, but I guide them through, step by step.

3. I watch while they do it, only commenting when they need direction.

Some children need more time on each phase than others do, a very quick child will do it in three steps, no repetitions. A younger child, or one with learning differences may need several repetitions of each stage.

Teaching children to do chores is about gradually, through their life in your home, increasing the tasks and expectations that you place upon them, so that by the age of 17 or so, they have the necessary practical skills to be able to do all that is required for independent living. They need an extra year of experience, partly to cover the things you won't think to teach them until they come up!

Chores are not punishment. They are only an appropriate consequence for wrongdoing when they cause work for someone else by their actions, or when they create the need for the chore by their actions.

We use rewards for some chores. We build them into the routine of the day as much as possible. By scheduling after dinner chores BEFORE dessert, there is a built in reward for finishing. But we don't give that kind of reward for every chore, because we don't want the kids to learn to only work when they can see the immediate reward.

How chores are conducted in each home, and the exact age at which children do specific things is totally individual. Each home has different needs, and children have differing capabilities which must be respected. So the point is not to take what I do and duplicate it – or to figure it won't work that way for you so why try! The point is, to understand that teaching children to work is an essential part of life, and that the way you choose to do so should strengthen your relationship with the child, and then to develop your own way of doing it that meets those goals.