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Whistle While They Work

Laundry, vacuuming—even making skateboards—build kids’ skills and confidence


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One of my preschool students once told me he wanted to be a waiter at The Squirrel coffee shop in Lafayette. It was not the typical grand aspiration of suburban youngsters—mostly budding racecar drivers, princesses, or astronauts—but I considered his attraction to food service just as important.

This four-year-old was interested in skills he saw adults using every day: carrying plates and pouring drinks without spilling. Although it may seem trivial, accomplishing simple adult tasks gives children confidence and provides crucial training in what it means to be a grown-up. If he had been tall enough to see over the café’s tables, I would have told my miniature garçon to pursue his dream.

Most children today do far fewer chores than did, say, my father’s generation. When conveniences were fewer, kids had many opportunities early in life to feel competent at practical tasks. Today, with schedules full of sports and tutoring, kids may miss out on learning basic living skills at an age when they’re still young enough to find these simple but essential tasks interesting. The awkwardness of not knowing how to do a job such as laundry becomes more embarrassing as they get older. I know one young woman who bought new clothes rather than ask other people in her college dorm how to use the washing machine.

Many parents feel they simply don’t have time to stop and teach kids chores. As one mom said, “I can do it in five minutes or teach my four-year-old in 45.” But postponing—or neglecting altogether—lessons in laundry or scrubbing floors until they’re older does children no favors.

Marilyn Rossman, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota has done research that shows that kids who learned tasks between the ages of three and five did remarkably better—academically and socially—as they grew up. The young adults remembered that being trusted by their parents to do hard jobs gave them confidence.

Like most of us, Katie Smith, a Walnut Creek mother of four, did her best to rope kids into chores when she could. But one day she realized how little her children knew about how to take care of their living space. In a burst of determination, she pulled out an old deck of cards and started a system for getting housework done that she calls the Clean Deal.

After writing each of her household tasks on a different card, Smith called her children together on a Saturday morning. Then she dealt each of them a hand. “The results have been miraculous,” Smith says. “Our house got really clean. Since they get a different hand every week, they’ve learned so many different skills. One of the boys runs off to clean all the mirrors; another does the toilet bowl.”

Smith’s daughters have even taken their work ethic outside the home. Ashley, 17, works part-time at Color Me Mine, a pottery-painting studio in Walnut Creek. She also uses her artistic skills in an entrepreneurial venture with her younger sister, Kelsey: Together, they create and sell personalized books for children.

The Clean Deal successfully blurs the distinctions we make between work and play. Turning working together into a game tricked the kids into enjoying their chores, and doing the chores gave them a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

“It’s a matter of understanding that kids learn to work responsibly with others by actually doing it,” says Eric Schaps, Ph.D., president of the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland. “We want kids to know their contributions to our family and to the world are important.”

Diana Helfrich’s three kids all pitch in at their Lafayette home. The team effort delights Helfrich, but she has gotten special joy from watching her two sons, David, 12, and Mark, nine, develop the confidence to take on the world. David earns money working as a referee. And, inspired by watching construction workers use tools, the boys started their own business designing, making, and selling skateboards. “We supported their belief that they could do it,” she says, “Now their skateboard business [called Ko-Dog] has taken off.”

When it comes to kids gaining real-world skills, the sooner they start learning, the better. Doing tasks together provides role modeling and chances for us to praise their efforts. Like the boy who coveted a job at The Squirrel, kids begin contemplating their capacities for self-sufficiency early on. So when planning your spring-cleaning, include an interesting job to do with your child. And come summertime, consider jobs that will give your children a taste of the kinds of work they don’t get enough of during the rest of the year.

Susan Isaacs Kohl is the director of the White Pony School in Lafayette and the author of numerous parenting books. Send her your questions at parenting@maildiablo.com.

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