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The dishes CAN’T wait: Why chores are important for everyone in the family


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Calah Alexander - published on 03/28/17

They're only young once ... The chores can wait ... The reality behind these very unrealistic bits of parenting advice.

This morning, I gazed around the at the empty-plate-and-half-drunk-milk kitchen chaos of a Monday morning, rolled my sleeves up, poured myself another cup of coffee … and sat down with Facebook.

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Lo and behold, Facebook was ready for me with an article called The Dishes Can Wait … and Other Lies to remind me that eschewing household chores to mindfully help a toddler complete the same puzzle for the 17th time this morning will make a lovely soft-filtered meme, and also give you ants. As author Rhiannon Giles writes:

Those cute sayings and washed-out memes are meant to give us perspective! To relieve us of the pressure we put on ourselves! All they do is give us another thing to feel guilty about. Another way to question our priorities, and to worry that we are doing it wrong. By the time I re-clothe super princess Barbie for the 2349234902nd time, I can feel my inner spring coiling tighter and tighter. The visual chaos of a house where everything is waiting for “later” makes me want to escape my skin. Because if I don’t do it, and if my husband doesn’t do it, who will?

Preach, sister. (And ten thousand high-fives for working in a Doctor Who reference!) Part of being a good parent actually is maintaining a basic level of order and hygiene in your home.

Granted, how deep that level of order and hygiene goes depends on many elements, including personality type. I have a deep respect for my friends whose homes are oases of tranquility and order, and part of me wants to be that kind of mother. The rest of me is realistic enough to admit that an artistic temperament and ADHD do not lend themselves to that kind of homemaking, but do lend themselves to spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen during after-dinner chores. We work with what we’ve got—but it’s important that we do work with what we’ve got. In news that will surprise exactly zero mothers, doing daily chores can help keep a heart attack at bay. It’s not just the physical benefits of moving around, either—washing dishes “mindfully” reduces stress. If you can’t muster up the “mindful” part because you’re half-distracted by an endless, convoluted story involving recess, don’t worry—not having to look at a sink full of dirty dishes will also reduce your stress.

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Because I know you’ve got stress. Housework seems overwhelming because it is. It’s too much work for one mama, but we have these awesome indentured servants children to help us out. And they should help us out—research shows that kids who do chores are more successful than those who don’t. Interestingly, chores don’t just teach kids responsibility and empathy, they help children develop a key component of psychological well-being, distress tolerance. This is the ability to accept unhappiness and distress and learn to cope with these emotions, instead of avoiding whatever causes them.

One of the great paradoxes of being human is that we are fulfilled by work, but we also hate it. No one loves chores, but chores exist. We can’t control the fact that life requires work, but we can control our reaction to it. Requiring your kids to help with chores teaches them this one, essential fact from an early age. And it helps you keep the house clean. Win-win, right?

Except … how do you get them to do it?

Listen, I could proclaim the virtue of chores all day, but I’ve totally folded in the face of the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s hard to fight the battle of a strong-willed child and a floor full of toys. Butit doesn’t have to be a battle.

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With my kids, writing their chores down changes everything. The difference it makes to write down my expectations and have clear consequences (no dessert without chores, no playing without working first) is astounding. I’m not fighting because I’m not asking. They are reading for themselves what today’s work is, and they get to choose to complete it or not. Spoiler alert: they always choose to complete it, and every single one of them is downright giddy about checking things off the list. I use a whiteboard, but I have a friend who uses laminated picture cards on a key ring—her kids can clip it on their belt loops in case they forget, and the pictures make it easy for preschoolers to see their work as well.

With older kids, there’s even an app for that. Stridepost is a free digital calendar and chore chart for the whole family. There’s no way I’d be organized enough to use it, but if you’ve got teenagers with devices, I can see this being super helpful.

Whatever method you choose, the important thing is that you expect your kids to help you out around the house. You’re not superwoman, cleanliness is actually important, and your kids need to learn how to work at least as much as they need you to enjoy their childhood. Which you will enjoy a lot more in a clean house, with no ants.

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