You may recall the second law of thermodynamics: “Every system left to its own devices moves from order to disorder.” When my third child was born I realized I was outnumbered in my efforts to keep my home ordered. I had three kids but only two hands, one lap, and only so much time and energy each day for cleaning, tidying, cooking, feeding, laundering, diapers, potty-training, shopping, errands, paperwork, and oh, yeah… homeschooling. I needed a system to thwart entropy and to maintain my home and my sanity.
So I enlisted my kids.
This inspiration also had something to do with my five-year-old bounding from his bedroom one afternoon announcing disgustedly with his hands on his hips, “Nobody made my bed!” After picking up my jaw from the floor, I decided it was time to teach my kids how to make their beds.
Plus, when we began homeschooling, I wanted my kids to have both a morning routine and a sense of contributing to our household. Enter: “morning chores.”
And no, it didn’t go over very well at first.
After a week of constantly nagging (wait, I mean) reminding them of what needed to happen before school started each morning, a friend gave me a great idea. She said she used the five fingers of her hand to represent what the kids needed to do each day. Genius. I started with the hand idea and a new attitude of making chores simultaneously fun and important. Consequently, for the next 17 years, my three kids helped keep the house clean and it was a win all the way around.
Below are examples of what our kids did for chores at various stages. At each level, their work was completed before we started school (some years it was 8am and some years it was 8:30am).
I traced my open hand and drew a small picture over each fingertip that represented a particular task. Examples included: make bed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, and for the fifth finger, either put dishes away, sweep floor, wipe bathroom sink, empty trashes, dust living
room, or tidy toys. We had a chart near the traced hand with their names listed vertically. Every morning when their chores were completed (by school time) they’d put a little sticker next to their name and each sticker earned them a quarter at the end of the week.
Each week I printed a grid chart with the kids’ names down the left side and the day of the week across the top (Monday through Friday). Each square on the grid had a job listed and these jobs remained the same for an entire semester. There were some areas that needed tending every day and they were skills I wanted all three kids to learn (like “kitchen: sink, dishes away, sweep, trash, counters”) so that chore showed up five times on the chart, twice for each of my two older kids and once for the youngest. Other jobs included dusting, glass/mirrors, bathroom 1 (yes, including the toilet), bathroom 2, bathroom 3, trashes, vacuum, basement tidy, and laundry room. The kids earned a sticker on the chart after their chore was done and they had made their bed, gotten dressed, eaten breakfast, brushed their teeth, and tidied their room. At this point, a sticker on their chart meant a quarter and a token that represented 15 minutes of “screen time.” The screen time motivated them to get their chores done more than their allowances (which did increase with time, BTW)! Payday was every Saturday.
Around age 13 our kids learned how to do their own laundry. (Can I get an amen?!) They got to decide how often they needed clean clothes and whether or not their clothes would get folded, hung, or simply shoved into a bin in their closet. One child chose the bin option for all clothing; one bin for clean clothes and one for dirty clothes. Yes, they got wrinkly (sigh). The kids’ daily morning chores continued and became second nature to them at this point and we added some bigger areas (like “clean the basement”) and more detailed cleaning jobs (like the microwave and fridge). In addition, during the high school years our daughter opted to plan and make dinner for the family one night per week as her chore for that day. Our family’s chore chart stuck around all the way through the high school years, marked with “X”s to represent each day’s completion. Birthdays were paid vacation days. They would get to mark an “X” on the chart without doing their chores for that day. (They even got to work ahead for school so if they wanted, they could have their whole birthday free of regular responsibilities.)
The benefits of our kids consistently contributing to the upkeep of the home are manifold. It teaches them responsibility, ownership, stewardship, and life skills. (It also takes a big share of the burden off mom!)
My kids learned that when they worked they reaped the benefits and when they didn’t work, they reaped the consequences - without me needing to lecture or nag. (They either earned the X for money and screen time or they didn’t. They either had clean socks for their soccer game or they didn’t.)
When my oldest (the one who complained about the bed not being made) moved out, he came home a few weeks later appalled at his roommates’ lack of personal responsibility in housekeeping. This time my jaw dropped in gratitude that what we had worked on all those years actually stuck. My youngest and most free-spirited child (now on his own for over a year) takes pride in organizing all his belongings. Heck, even his vehicle is remarkably well-kept. And my daughter (middle child) is now teaching me some cooking techniques and is navigating good housekeeping practices with her new husband. My adult kids,“left to their own devices” (thermodynamics metaphor), are showing they can now move from disorder to order as adults, even without a chart. ;)
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.