Liz Fraser ponders the kids versus chores dilemma and explains why it’s important for their life skills that they learn to muck in early
My nine-year-old son had a friend round for tea after school last week. When they’d finished creating a fish-fingers-and-peas installation on the floor they declared their meal to be finished. My son’s friend, whom I shall call Anonymous Peter here for the purposes of not being beaten up at the school gate, got down from the table and made for the door, pausing only to shoot an invisible sniper with his invisible machine gun.
My son followed, shouting, ‘Cover me!’
I looked at the kitchen table, which seemed to be well covered already, with half empty plates and food detritus. Nobody seemed to be clearing it. I called a ceasefire.
‘Boys, this table isn’t going to clear itself – when you’ve done it you can go back and play.’
These two statements seemed to come as a huge shock to Anonymous Peter, who dropped his invisible gun into his invisible conscience, and visibly paled. Tables don’t clear themselves? He was going to have to clear his own plate? And cutlery? And the ketchup? What madness was this? Well, it’s the madness that rules in our house. It’s the madness that says Mummy Is Not A Slave, and You Have To Pull Your Weight Around Here, Buddy. It’s a madness I believe in because it teaches children that they are not gold-encrusted little princes and princesses who will be waited on hand and foot by everybody from their servant parents to their teachers, to society in general. They need to know that they are part of a team, and a community, and have to help out. It also teaches them to be able to look after themselves and cope well with real life when they leave home – which is the main aim of parenting, in my view.
According to a study released last week (by the cleaning firm Vileda, which may just possibly be trying to sell a few more mops), one in four children aged five to 16 does nothing to help around the house. Nada! From making their beds to clearing up their toys, they are living a pampered life where responsibility and teamwork are completely absent.
So what’s to do? How can we encourage children to help around the house? Well, once we’ve tried the usual shouting, hysterical crying and the ‘Right that’s it, I’m not cleaning up after you lot ANY more!’ line, which generally results in a call from Rentokil within a week, many parents turn to the good old-fashioned bob-a-job route. Earning pocket money for doing household jobs is shunned by some parents, who worry that their children are either too young to be handling money at all, or should just jolly well get on with helping out, without the need to be paid for it. Jeni Hooper, child psychologist and author of What Children Need To Be Happy, Confident And Successful, takes this view: ‘Paying kids to help at home can backfire because it says that love, kindness and gratitude matter less than money. Instead of buying loyalty and compliance, use the chores to create time to be together.’
But according to parenting coach Judy Reith from parentingpeople.co.uk, it’s all about a bit of both. ‘We need to teach our children that they’re part of a team and should help out on the daily family tasks such as clearing up toys, but there’s nothing wrong with offering a small financial reward or a tick on a chart, for infrequent, special jobs like window cleaning or washing the car. It teaches kids about putting in extra effort, saving up and managing money – all essential life skills.’
In my experience, reward charts really work. Among the hundreds of letters from school about events I’m otherwise guaranteed to forget, photos of my kids pulling silly faces, and magnetic letters spelling ‘bum’, ‘poo’, and ‘budgiesnugglers’, the front of my fridge is covered in tick lists for everything from hamster-cleaning to laundry-hanging. Each job is worth 30p, and when they hit 20 jobs my kids can cash in their ticks and buy whatever ghastly tat they like. I’m happy because I know my children are learning valuable life skills and I didn’t have to fold away 400 pairs of odd socks yet again; they’re happy because they can buy some crappy merchandise or other without me resenting every penny of it; and my husband is happy because I’m not constantly moaning about all the housework. If that’s not win-win-win, I don’t know what is.