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Life Skills: Home Ec in the New Millennium. How many chores do your kids have?

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When I was a kid, Thursday was cleaning day. Every Thursday the entire house was cleaned from top to bottom. I can’t remember at what age I began doing chores but I remember doing chores as far back as I can remember. These days, it seems that fewer children are doing chores. Is this media hype, a misconception, or sad truth?

Ah, cleaning day. Out come the old clothes, sponges and cleaner. We would start upstairs working our sponges downstairs while doing laundry every step of the way. My brother and I were required to participate on cleaning day, though I remember my brother being AWOL for many of those Thursday’s. 

Chores have been a small part my routine as an adult and, I’ll admit, it’s because I don’t like cleaning so I chose not do it as often as my mother would like. In my house, Thursday is just another weekday.

There have been times when I’ve looked for guidance, in paperback form, on instituting chore lists and routines. The idea didn’t get farther than the idea stage. And it really is my fault. I’m not much for structure around chores. Impulsiveness runs my life more than I care to confess and housework is easily pushed aside – OK, yes, I’m a procrastinator. 

Perhaps I am scarred from Thursday Cleaning Day. Perhaps my college job as dorm janitor reopened the wounds and left deeper scars, maybe even creating a phobia? These days, I don’t get a cash bonus for cleaning up puke in the bathrooms. My reward is helping my child regain their health and an all-expenses-to-be-paid-on-the-next-bill trip to the laundry room. 

Out of the the corner of my eye, I see these short people running around the house, playing, romping with puppies and an idea flashes, an epiphany dawns. (Cue the rising crescendo orchestra.) I’m not alone. (Cue choir.) Help is available. (Bring in more bass drum.) The. Children. Can. Do. House. Work! (All instruments rise in satisfying climax of sound with angelic tones of the choir.) 

Too much work and too little time means the kids need to step it up. So I’ve decided to add a new subject to the homeschool curriculum: Life Skills. 

When I was growing up they called it chores. In junior high and high school, it was called Home Economics – an elective. The name has been updated, overhauled, glamourized and corrected in a political way to now be called Life Skills. It’s cooler that way? 

In our homeschool, Home Economics has been a part of curriculum for many years. My kids have learned to bake and garden as part of their school work, the kids practice their money counting skills at the grocery store. As homeschoolers, we get to count all of these Life Skill lessons as school work. 

I have a fantasy of devoting all of our Thursday homeschooling schedule to Life Skills, where the kids clean the house from top to bottom and I have a spa day or take a nap. Call it Home Ec – immersion style.

It makes sense, right? Kids need to learn the necessary skills to eventually manage their own home, to understand time management, to know that responsibility means if they don’t wash their clothes there will be no clean clothes. 

In the dorms at college, my neighbor arrived without knowing how to clean up after herself, or do laundry, or grocery shop, or cook. She told us her mom had picked up after her and did all the housework every day of her life. 

I picture her mom as June Cleaver decked out in pearls, poofy skirt and, of course, high heels happily vacuuming and cleaning up after Wally and The Beav. With a team approach, her roommates taught her the basics of life skills. Eventually she earned her degree, got a good job, and moved to a big city. She had gained an education in being capable and responsbile for herself.

After homeschooling the kids, making meals, errands and writing there’s not much time left in my day. The dishes pile up and the dust becomes more noticeable. Feelings of anxiousness and being overwhelmed have crept up, a dark shadow if you will, or is that just the dust? How and when will it all get done? 

Both kids have long been responsible for cleaning their room, feeding the animals, picking up poop, pulling weeds, raking leaves. This year, their education has greatly expanded. 

We started with the dishes. They said they didn’t like getting all wet. I replied that they shouldn’t splash themselves. They said their legs got all itchy standing at the sink for so long. I replied that they should work faster and that my legs get itchy when I have to cook meals so I think I should stop. They worked out a plan where they switch between washing and drying/putting away duties so they can both move around a bit. 

Folding the laundry is a group activity with the kids putting their clothes away too. Laundry education has been taken to the next level. I taught my son to use the washing machine. The next day, without prompting, he taught his sister how to run the washer and dryer – an unexpected bonus. 

It’s been a struggle, there have been arguments, and privileges, such as using the computer and watching TV, have been withheld until the job is done. It could have been worse, they could have called the police claiming slave labor like the 11-year-old in Germany. True story! 

The BBC reported in August, 2011 that a boy called the German equivalent of 9-1-1 to say he was forced to work all day. His mom got on the phone and explained he was asked to pick up paper and sweep the terrace. Oh, the injustice of it all! He’s just lucky he didn’t grow up with Laura Ingalls churning butter by hand, carrying water from a well, building his own house out of mud. 

The time I’ve put into explaining and standing beside my kids while they slowly get the hang of a job has paid off. Some jobs take longer for them to learn and some, like Washing Machine Use 101, are quick and included a spontaneous pay-it-forward training. 

How do you know when your kids are ready for chores and which ones they can tackle? Each child is unique in their abilities and skills, much of that decision is based on where your child is at. My son has handled responsibility much earlier than my daughter. I know that for her, we need to take things slow and that she’ll need a little more help, a little more instruction. 

Michelle Caskey, author of, has put together a great list of age appropriate chores for kids (boys as well as girls) as part of her article Should Kids Do Chores or Should They Play? 

Here a sampling of chores, by age, from Ms. Caskey’s blog. Click on each age category for Ms. Caskey’s full list of chores. 

9 Months – 24 Months

  • Picking up toys and putting in toy box (don’t really expect them to sort and organize too much at this age)
  • Cleaning with mom (give child a dust rag, child size broom, empty spray bottle for “pretend” cleaning).

 2 Years – 3 Years

  • Picking up toys and books, beginning skills of learning to put items in their proper place
  • Dust with socks on their hands or by holding a cloth. (This one is just too cute! Have the camera ready.)
  • Help with meal preparations (learn to measure, stir and use small appliances).

 4 Years to 5 Years

  • Make bed and clean room.
  • Help do the dishes (rinse items or put dishes in the dishwasher).
  • Make own sandwich or simple breakfast and clean up.
  • Put away clean clothes (children may still struggle with folding “properly” as this is an emerging skill)

 6 Years to 8 Years

  • Make bed/change sheets (without assistance)
  • Use the washer and dryer (sort, measure detergent, fold clean clothes and put away.)
  • Oil and care for bike.
  • Increased responsibilities for younger siblings (dressing infants/toddlers, entertaining them for longer periods by reading to them/playing records, etc., helping school them).

 9 Years to 12 Years

  • Complete responsibility for their rooms on a daily basis (make bed, put clothes, toys and projects away and straighten dresser drawers and closet)
  • Wash dishes independently. Make more complex meals/snacks (pour and make tea, coffee, and instant drinks, beginning meal planning). More difficult cleaning projects (scrubbing floors, etc.)
  • Sew buttons and sew rips in seams.
  • Help with car maintenance (help with minor repairs, learn tool usage, wash/wax).

 13 Years to 17 Years

  • Buy groceries using a list and learn comparative shopping.
  • Responsible for preparing family meals.
  • Clean out refrigerator and other kitchen appliances.

 So, Mile High Mamas, what chores are your kids responsible for? What age did they begin?

Photo credit: Stuart Miles, David Castillo Dominici

Heather Ruch
Author: Heather Ruch

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  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck January 19, 2012

    Great recommendations! I’m on the cusp of implementing a more demanding chore chart. Right now, my kids (5 and 7) make their beds every morning, keep their rooms clean, help clear the table, clean the kitty litter box, occasionally vacuum, etc. I need to be more consisting with these expectations by writing them down!!!

    • comment avatar Heather Ruch January 19, 2012

      Amber, I think a chore chart is a great idea, as long as you can stay consistent. In my house, it would end up as a decoration vs. a tool. Setting aside some time each day to chip away at the jobs works better for me, but still, I need to be consistent as well! It’s a challenge but the teamwork payoff is priceless!

  • comment avatar Catherine January 19, 2012

    GREAT piece!!! I, too, am starting to get my kids to do more. It suddenly occurred to me the other day that at their ages…I was vacuuming, doing dishes, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, etc. And it’s NOT fair to send these kids off into the world, having no idea how to do any of these things. My oldest has started doing all of the kids’ laundry AND folding it!!! Do you know what a time saver that is?? Ahhhh…the freedom.

    And I had to laugh about your friend in college. I had a roommate who was the same way. Sweetest girl ever, but had no idea how to clean a bathroom or make spaghetti out of a jar. I know her mom thought she was doing so much for her, but in the long run…was she really?

    • comment avatar Heather Ruch January 19, 2012

      We were in the same boat Catherine! I was the lone cleaner and then it dawned on me that my kids are more than capable and I certainly did the same jobs at their age. The many hands approach does bring surprising freedom! Your oldest is learning some valuable skills and responsiblity. If his college roommate happens to be anything like the folks we knew, hopefully not, he’s going to be a great teacher! You’ve taught him well!

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