One of the homemaker’s inescapable responsibilities is keeping the home clean and pleasantly livable. The task may seem too much to handle if she has to do it alone, but she needn’t. Children can help—and the so-called chore of keeping the house clean can become an enjoyable family activity. I’m speaking from my own experience as a child in a home where we were expected to do our share; some of my own childhood memories of housework are among the fondest.
Many mothers may feel that it would be so much easier, quicker, and neater if they did the jobs themselves, but children don’t gain anything by this. If anything, they only learn to be sloppy, selfish, and inconsiderate of others’ property. Parents have the duty (and challenge) to instill in their children a sense of responsibility and respect and to teach them skills they’ll need to know after they leave home.
Habits are formed early in life. You can’t wait until the children are teenagers and suddenly expect them to keep their rooms neat and their clothes hung up and to help with the laundry and cooking.
They need to start learning to help as soon as they are old enough to pick up their toys. Very young children are usually eager to do the things their mother does, so she can take advantage of their enthusiasm and teach them household responsibilities geared to their age level.
Mother needs to work with the young child, helping him make the bed and hang up his clothes, until he is able to do these tasks sufficiently well himself. The preschool child can help the older children set the table by placing the napkins or silverware. (A picture of a place-setting might be posted on the kitchen bulletin board, to help him.) He can scrub the bathroom sink and tile, or shake the kitchen rugs, or help older brothers and sisters do the dishes.
Elementary-school-age children might be assigned to help prepare meals; they might even be given the responsibility of preparing a simple salad or dessert. Working alongside mother also gives an opportunity for talking together on a one-to-one basis, a special time for closer companionship.
Parents can teach their children more efficiently if the home environment is designed to make the work more convenient. For example, bars and shelves placed low in closets allow small children to take care of their own clothes. They need a place to put their toys and books, such as a toy box and low shelves. (An inexpensive toy box can be made with wooden crates stacked and nailed together and painted or covered with colorful adhesive paper.)
Once-a-week jobs, different from each child’s daily responsibilities, can be rotated by the use of a paper “job wheel” posted in a prominent place, with the children’s names listed on the outside wheel and chores (such as garbage detail, vacuuming, mopping the bathroom floor) on the inside. Another method is a slotted chart with names listed across the top, where job slips can be inserted daily. The slips can have chores listed on them or a bonus, such as “rest today,” or “go to the matinee movie—here’s 50 cents.” Children may wish to “take their chances” by drawing slips from a hat, one of which will be a “free” one.
Charts help children of all ages take more pride in their work. A list of their names and the chores to be done, with a space for a star when the job is done, may get them moving. But the stars shouldn’t be placed until Mother has inspected the work and found it satisfactory. Children need to learn the importance of getting the job done, but also of doing it well.
When I was in the eighth grade, I left home one morning without making my bed. When my mother discovered this, she called the junior high school and asked that I be allowed to return home to take care of my responsibility. The counselor complied. You can be sure I never left a bed unmade again! This may be an extreme situation, but tried once or twice, it may work.
Other forms of discipline can also help children realize their responsibilities. If they are too tired or too busy to work today, perhaps Mother can feel the same and let the house go until they all get tired of a cluttered home and resume their duties. If a teenager continues to leave his clothes on the floor instead of in the dirty-clothes hamper, Mother can ignore him. He’ll soon discover that he needs some clean clothes; then Mother can show him where the washing machine and ironing board are and let him take care of himself. (This is also a proven cure for the one who puts on two or three clean outfits a day.)
By the way, housework is not a sissy thing for boys to do. Young men in college, on missions, and in the service are expected to care for their own clothing and their living quarters, and this training will be valuable to them then. In addition, it may also help them gain greater appreciation for their mothers and sisters (and future wives) if they have to iron some of their own shirts occasionally.
Some parents may feel they’re infringing on their children’s time if they ask them to help around the house. Not so! Requiring some household responsibility of your children is a great service to them. I had one roommate at college who didn’t even know how to scrub and wax a floor, and when it came her turn, she sprinkled it with cleanser and poured wax over it! I have a neighbor whose mother felt her daughter needed all her time to study; she refused to let her daughter do any housework, although the daughter begged to, and it has been a very difficult adjustment for her since she got married. Children need to work and to know how satisfying it can be.
As you assign housework to your children, be consistent. A regular work schedule should let the children know when their jobs should be done. (They will be more willing to help if they have a voice in what they must do and when.) We were expected to have our beds made, clothes put away, and rooms straightened before we left for school each morning. The house was picked up each evening before we went to bed. (I like to do that still. It makes the morning start off so much better!)
Saturday was a regularly scheduled work time, and other activities weren’t ordinarily allowed until the housework was done. If we had some special Saturday outing planned, we did the work Friday after school. I like to clean on Saturday; it seems to give Sunday more specialness and serenity. Mothers may also find it helpful to have a short middle-of-the-week cleanup one morning or evening, with a special breakfast or dessert session afterward.
Make work fun whenever possible. Children enjoy racing the timer to get their jobs finished, and the younger ones will have fun seeing who can pick up the most toys before mother counts to ten (slowly). And it’s fun to sing while you work, just as it is to sing carols as you decorate the Christmas tree.
Parents must remember to give ample praise of their children’s fulfillment of household responsibilities as well as other accomplishments. Verbal recognition or a special loving note of appreciation will keep the youngsters going and going well. Chances are, when they grow up, they will cherish some of their housework memories the most.