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Teach Your Children to Work

By Rhonda Barfield
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #54, 2003.

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Lisa and Rhonda Barfield


Do your children work? If they're homeschoolers, they certainly do. You expect them to finish daily math assignments, read history books, practice musical instruments.

It's likely that you also expect your kids to participate in household chores. You're busy, and you need help. And your offspring need to learn the importance of contributing to the family's physical well-being by sharing the workload.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, it's easy for overloaded moms/teachers to get wrapped up in the details of planning lessons, cooking meals, and tackling the non-ending piles of laundry. Sometimes we neglect to supervise and train our children in the vital job of learning to work.

Is it important? Yes, says Dorothy Moore in her article, "The Value of Work in Building Character," in Home Educator's Family Times, Winter issue. Mrs. Moore describes a woman who was asked by a rehabilitation center to counsel men who had been classified as unemployable. They were not derelicts, Mrs. Moore reports, but instead, well-dressed and articulate. As the woman worked with these men, though, "she discovered a common denominator. None had learned to work as children."

What a startling realization, that our children's experiences with work can have such a profound impact on their future ability to earn a living! And how, exactly, does a homeschooling family teach work?

The answer is CHORES. Show your children how to complete regular, consistent, and sometimes boring chores, and you'll unlock the secret to teaching good work habits.

Start Early

My mother-in-law gave me this excellent advice, and I took it seriously. Toddlers can learn to put away toys (really, they can!) and arrange five forks on the table. Though a two-year-old's level of helpfulness is very limited, that's not the point. The goal is to get him used to "helping" when he's very, very young, to build a habit as natural as getting dressed every morning.

I remember when our oldest son, Eric, was two, we began assigning him simple tasks around the house. Eric was obedient, but his younger brother had an opposite temperament. By the time Christian was old enough to help out, he was into the "let's wait and see if Mom is really serious about this chore business" routine. At age four, our second child could often be found sitting on the floor in a toy-strewn room, grumbling loudly about his pick-up job. It took a long, long time before Christian finally accepted the fact that if he didn't get his chores done in a reasonable time, he was going to face unpleasant consequences.

Build in a Reward

Don't wait until bedtime to ask a child to pick up his room, or you may face a major battle. You want your daughter to clear the floor of her room, then get into bed; she wants to dawdle and stay up as long as possible. Thus you have created a very volatile situation, especially when you're both tired.

Instead, schedule pick-up and other chores right before a pleasant activity, such as reading aloud a favorite book or eating dinner together. When one mother was asked how she managed to motivate her kids to keep the house so clean and organized, she answered, "They have to eat, don't they?" Her point was that dinner would be served as soon as the children's chores were complete. When parents are consistent about this action/consequence rule, kids quickly learn to do their work on time and well.

Make Your Expectations Clear

Many years ago, I learned that children need to have guidelines on how to do work. If I asked my untrained seven-year-old to wash the kitchen floor, for example, I'd likely get a couple of wipes with a wet paper towel, right in the middle of the floor. A wise parent shows the child how to clean a floor - steps 1, 2, 3 - including use of the right equipment and cleaning solutions.

Recently it struck me that the reason my daughters' room is usually messy is because Lisa and Mary had no clue how to organize their overflowing closet. The girls love to collect and showcase their treasures and crafts, but the situation had gotten out of control, and there were piles of things everywhere. Finally, the three of us sat down together and figured out a system of arranging like items into bins. Now pick-up is simplified because there's a place for everything, with everything (theoretically) in its place.

Check the Work, Insisting on Excellence

Once you explain the basic steps required to complete a chore, make sure those steps are followed. Don't we adults tend to do better work when we know someone will check up on us? The same is true for children.

If a job isn't done right, require the child to do it again, and make the re-do uncomfortable. Perhaps, for example, play time is shortened because a chore must be done well, a second time, before Susie is allowed to join a neighborhood game of baseball.

Pay for Some Jobs, Though Not for All

A child, like an adult, should be expected to contribute freely to some household chores. But there's also value in paying your children for extra work that needs to be done.

I remember visiting my friend Anita, a college professor with one child, and feeling a little envious when I learned she had a hired maid. A few days later I realized that I had four potential maids right in my own house! Thus began our six-month training program on Monday afternoons, an hour or two each week, where I taught my children how to thoroughly clean a house. We now pay the kids not only for routine and in-depth house cleaning, but also for yard work, landscaping, big sorting jobs, and whatever else needs to be done.

Find the System that Works Best for Your Family

Different families approach chores and housework in different ways. Our friends, the Reillys, with seven children in private school, schedule all their major cleaning on Saturday mornings. Other homeschool friends start each day with cleaning jobs, working together as a family until everything is neat and morning chores, complete - then they hit the books.

Many homeschool families assign a job such as bathroom cleaning to a child who's in charge of the job for a week or a month, then rotate to another child. Parents tell me they've found this an effective way to help their son or daughter thoroughly learn one task before moving on to another.

Personally, I get bored with house work, so I like a frequent change of pace. For years our family has posted a rotating chore chart, listing two unpaid chores per child per day. For example, on Monday the chart may read as follows:

Junior Chef 1 Sweep Eric
Alternate Dinner Dishes Christian
Dishes Away 1 Junior Chef 2 Lisa
Lunch Dishes Dishes Away 2 Mary

On a typical day, one of our children - in this case, Eric - helps in the morning with dinner prep, making a lettuce salad or starting a soup in the slow cooker. After dinner that night, he sweeps the kitchen floor.

Christian is assigned to a small morning job (Alternate) such as polishing a pair of scuffed shoes, sweeping the back porch, or sewing on a button. He's later in charge of washing all dinner dishes, pots and pans. (People ask if we have a dishwasher, and I answer "Yes, four of them!")

Lisa puts dishes away first thing in the morning. As Junior Chef 2, she spends about 15 minutes in the evening helping me get dinner on the table. Mary is in charge of washing breakfast and lunch dishes at noon, then putting them all away before dinner.

The next day, everyone rotates down to the next two jobs and continues the cycle.

What chore system works best for you? That's a matter of choice, with as many variations on the theme as there are different families.

My teens and preteen are probably tired of my saying, "You can always get a job as a janitor." The comment is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but only partly. I know my young adults now understand exactly how to clean a house or a building. They've washed so many dishes, cleaned so many bathrooms, and swept and vacuumed so many floors, they've got the procedures down cold. They're fast, efficient, and diligent in their chores. As future adult workers, my children will need these skills, whether they pursue outside employment or are home-based.

That's why I like to think that some day, my kids will thank me for making them stick to their chores.


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