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The case for children and chores

They aren't just nice things for kids to do. They are a must for healthy development.

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One of my children’s most memorable sibling spats revolved around who would claim the privilege of making ham-and-cheese crepes for dinner. The youngest beat the older one to the kitchen and began cutting up ham. After some elbowing, they finally compromised on a division of duties.

The whole episode tickled me. Don’t children usually bicker to get out of chores? I never thought that my kids would fight over cooking dinner.

We live in an era of convenience, with meals available on demand from Seamless and errand-running outsourced by TaskRabbit. And many parents worry more about their children’s math facts or soccer skills than whether they can grill an omelet or do laundry. They have a vague idea they’d like their offspring to do chores, but falter when kids resist. When shuttling from Latin class to baseball practice to viola lessons, it’s hard to make setting the table a priority.

But social science research finds that starting children on household chores young boosts their success in education, careers, relationships, staying off drugs and being self-sufficient. This is important, because the youngest generation faces rising rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and attention challenges. One in two children will develop a mood, behavioral or substance use disorder by 18, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. It’s not just over-diagnosis: The suicide rate doubled among children 10 to 14 and rose 41 percent in older teens between 2006 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chores aren’t just a nice thing for kids to do — they’re a must for healthy development. Compared with other generations, our children are unemployed. Their days are full of homework, music, sports and extracurricular commitments, but lacking work. Few rely on them to care for a younger sibling, to clean the kitchen or to put food on the table. If you’ve been jobless, you know how demoralizing this can be. It shouldn’t surprise us that children without these real-life responsibilities feel increasingly anxious and depressed.

Regular chores feed a sense of competence and accomplishment. Children see the immediate impact of their efforts with chores — and the benefit to others. A just-made bed gives a sense of order to the room. The dog gobbles up the food you put in his bowl. Parents thank you for the delicious omelet.

Parents might need to confront our reluctance to get our hands dirty. Sure, we’re happy to Instagram perfectly themed birthday cupcakes, but there’s less glamour in scooping dog poop or pulling hair from a shower drain. We assume that we’ll need to bribe or strong-arm our kids into doing chores. Is it any wonder our children pick up on this distaste?

It doesn’t need to be this way. When parents approach chores with a positive attitude, children follow. Consider using the term jobs or contributions to avoid the stigma of the word chores.

Begin by asking what skill your child would like to learn: cutting vegetables with a knife, cooking eggs on the stovetop or folding toasty-warm laundry. Kids often gravitate toward something slightly dangerous (knife or stove), so be prepared to train them on safety first.

Accept that their initial performance will be imperfect and slow. As they grow more confident, they’ll be open to tips. It’s worth the trouble to raise a child who’s independent, capable and proud of the impact of her contributions to the family.

When I started looking at household chores as an opportunity to connect with my kids, the mood and rhythm of my day shifted. Now, we chat while sorting laundry. My husband and I thank them for their contribution to the household. We’ve discovered that chores don’t have to be, well, a chore, if we change our mindset.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is the author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.”

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