How Chores Can Help Kids With ACEs

How Chores Can Help Kids With ACEs

If you have children – especially ones who’ve experienced significant hardship – you may have felt like chores are a burden they could do without.

But research suggests chores are one of the few proven predictors of adult success. “Every child feels better when needed,” says Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical teen and child psychologist based in Fairfield, Connecticut. Far from harming children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Greenberg says, chores can be healing by giving traumatized children a sense of mastery and acknowledgment.

Research shows children who do chores have fewer behavior problems, are more engaged in school, enjoy better mental health in later life and are part of a stronger family due to shared responsibility. “Kids – like all of us – really benefit from the feeling that others depend on them,” says Bob Sege, MD, a pediatrician and professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies ACEs and resilience. “Chores may not always be fun, but the sense of being needed is so important.”

Sege advises parents not to worry that chores are too stressful for kids with ACEs. “You don’t want to coddle them,” Sege said, “because the message they will get is that they are damaged goods. They need to know that the adversity they suffered is only one part of them; it’s not all of them.” Just remember kids are bound to get some things wrong or mess up some chores while they’re learning, he says, and things should be fine.

Kids with ACEs “often struggle with feelings of being devalued or worthless,” adds Sege, whose childhood chores included raking leaves, folding diapers and polishing his parents’ shoes. “Contributing to chores that others rely on allows them to build up their sense of self-worth.”

Here’s how Greenberg, Sege, and other experts advise involving children in chores:

Keep it light-hearted. Even toddlers can learn to put away their toys, especially if you make it into a game. Put on a song, for example, and see if you both can get all the toys in a box before the music ends. “My most important suggestion is that kids be given chores that they can succeed at, and make sure to let them know what a good job they did,” Greenberg says. “If they are struggling with a chore, don’t scold them. Sit down with the child and find out what the challenge is. Always approach this with kindness.”

Make your kindergartener a special assistant. “Kids this age love to spend time with their parents,” says Berkeley, Calif., parenting coach Rona Renner, author of Is That Me Yelling? A Parent’s Guide to Getting Kids to Cooperate Without Losing Your Cool. “While you’re cleaning up, give them pint-sized brooms and dustpans so they can help you… They really enjoy that.”

Remember that small kids may enjoy some chores we find tiresome. That includes almost anything that involves water, such as using a water bottle to spray the table or car and wipe it. A toddler favorite: watering plants with a hose.

Keep reminders matter-of-fact. Kids may have a harder time remembering less-than-fun chores, so just nudge them (politely). “I had to keep reminding my grandson to take his plate to the kitchen when he was done,” says Renner. “It took a while, but eventually it became second nature.”

Think safety. Some online chore charts suggest small kids load the dishwasher or haul out the garbage, but that could lead to an accident. Avoid giving your child a chore that is bigger than he is, Greenberg says: “With chores, like everything else, you want to set them up for success.”

Make chores an opportunity for connection. Sort laundry together, pick out old clothes to donate to a shelter, get your kids to help you make dinner. Boys, especially, are more likely to talk while helping, since they don’t feel pressured to do so.

Don’t worry if your teen makes a fuss about doing chores. Sure, teens may complain about chores and drag their feet on doing them, but according to Greenberg, they secretly want the responsibility. “With all the anxiety and self-doubt teens struggle with, chores are very anchoring,” said Greenberg, author of the book Teenage as a Second Language. “Like us, teens need to feel needed. They will protest, they’ll roll their eyes, but they like you to count on them.”  

Avoid power struggles with your teen.  “The way you approach things is important,” Renner said. “If you go yell or go on a rant — ‘this place is such a mess, you don’t do anything to help me, I’m so sick of this’ — you’re likely to encounter more resistance.” She suggests waiting until you calm down to have a matter-of-fact talk with your teen. “You can mention the chores aren’t getting done, and that it’s time to revisit your agreement and figure out how to make it work,” she says. “The key is to hold your child accountable without it becoming a fight.”

References

Arsault, L. (n.d.) Research on Household Chores. American Psychological Association.

Hembree, D. 5 Great Chores for Preschoolers. GreatSchools.org. 

Hembree, D. 8 Great Chores for Elementary Schoolers. GreatSchools.org. 

Hembree, D. 10 Great Age-Appropriate Chores for Tweens. GreatSchools.org.