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Raise a can-do kid

When Allison Carter, an organization coach, got tired of doing the endless piles of laundry her family generated, she didn’t hire a housekeeper. Instead, she taught her 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to wash, fold, and put away their own clothes. Not only has this step lightened Carter’s amount of housework, but it has also been good for the kids.

“If you run a full-service household, your kids may never learn how to do practical things like laundry or pick up after themselves,” Carter says.

Indeed, studies show that having children pitch in around the house provides an opportunity for them to learn about responsibility, organization, regard for others, and a general sense of being a capable human being — all of which can serve them well throughout their lives.

Still, a recent Wellesley University study found that parents now typically only give their kids trivial jobs, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher. Schoolwork is their main task.

“Although homework and academic curriculums can be much more demanding than in the past, children may not be doing enough to help around the house to develop a sense of competence,” says Markella Rutherford, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who authored the study.

Sound familiar? At my house, I often find myself setting the table while my kids do their homework, which just feels, well, wrong. Isn’t setting the table a kid’s job? It sure was when I was growing up. And I had a paper route, too.

Of course, chores aren’t something that you can expect your kids will want to do. Even you probably don’t look forward to scrubbing the toilet or taking out the trash. But because doing them fosters so much more than just getting a job done, they’re worth incorporating into your child’s busy schedule.

Here are five ways you can help your kids learn to clean up their act — and also teach them invaluable life lessons.

Stop being a pick-up artist

A natural place to start with household chores is teaching your kids to pick up after themselves, which likely means resisting the urge to do the tidying.

“Every time you pick up after everyone, you reinforce the behavior and condition them to keep cluttering,” says Josh Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Your kid learns that if he leaves his stuff around, you’ll bail him out.

Instead, teach them to keep the house clean by stating a rule such as, “I’d like you to take your dirty dishes into the kitchen before going to bed, so we don’t come down to a messy living room in the morning.” If dirty dishes are still there in the morning, let them pile up, even if several days’ worth amasses.

Consistency is key. Whatever you do, don’t touch the dishes, no matter how much they bother you. Then, just keep stating the rule, emphasizing that, as a family, you all need to do your part to keep the house neat. When kids finally get the message (and they will), reinforce that behavior with praise, as in, “Thank you for bringing your dirty dishes into the kitchen. I love how clean the living room is.” In time, picking up will become as much of a habit for them as expecting you to do it once was, Klapow says.

Focus on the outcome

Meanwhile, you can also encourage your kids by offering an incentive to clean up. For example, tell them that once they’ve picked up their toys, they can go to the playground. Or, once they’ve cleaned the den after their slumber party, then you can all go shopping. Or, once they’ve emptied the dishwasher, then they can go to their friend’s house. That’s not bribing. Rather, it makes them understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible.

Keep it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom, or whatever room they’re tackling, will look when they’re done. Concentrate on public areas in your house, the common ground you all inhabit, where kids get the greatest sense that “we’re all in this together,” and consider letting them do what they want with their bedroom.

“Short of breeding MRSA, I think a child’s bedroom should be off limits to housekeeping rules,” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Mass.

Assign tasks based on your child’s age

It’s never too early to enlist your child’s assistance. Even preschoolers can put napkins on the table, help match the socks, put their toys away, and help you look for specific items at the supermarket from their perch in the shopping cart. From preschool to the lower elementary grades, you’ll need to do the task with them until they’re old enough to do it themselves. Even a first grader isn’t likely to clean the living room solo. Emphasize, “We’re doing this together,” without getting angry. Over the years, you can expect kids to do more without your support or reminding. Eventually, the process will become ingrained and your kids will tidy up automatically.

Based on your child’s age and stage, the tasks he can be expected to handle (from toddlers to teens) might include putting his toys away, putting his backpack away after school, putting his clean clothes in his dresser drawer, loading and emptying the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, setting the table, vacuuming and dusting, mowing the lawn, washing the car, doing the laundry, making dinner and, later, doing household errands around town with the family car.

Rotate chores as much as possible, given your children’s ages, so that no one gets stuck with the same job. One idea? Put all the chores that need to be done into a hat. Whatever gets drawn is your child’s job for the week. You can also encourage your kids to work together, which fosters cooperation and problem solving.

“See if they can sort the tasks out by themselves,” says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, president of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, Fl., as in ‘you dust the furniture while I pick up the dog’s toys.’ That teaches another life skill: teamwork.”

Don’t be a nag

If you’re always reminding your kids to do their chores, they’ll learn to depend on you for that cue. Instead, help them remember to do tasks without prodding by teaching them to evaluate their own work.

“If you go into the bathroom and see the towels on the floor again, for example, instead of saying, ‘Pick up the towels,’ ask your child: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” Panaccione suggests. Another option is to assign your kids to their own designated towel. If it ends up on the bathroom floor again, so be it. That’s what they get to use next time, which is a logical consequence for not hanging the towel up.

Pile on the praise

“Giving lots of praise, especially in the beginning, for every helpful thing your child does, even if it’s small, helps reinforce the behavior,” Panaccione says.

But rather than, “You’re the greatest laundry folder in the world,” you might say, “Oh, wow! You’re doing such a great job folding all the laundry. I’m so proud of you for helping out.”

“Make your accolades authentic,” Panaccione says. “Kids love it when you recognize their contribution and honestly express gratitude; it’s a competence and confidence booster.”

Sandra Gordon is a journalist and author of “The Reunion Diet” and “Consumer Reports Best Baby Products.” E-mail her at Sandra@sandrajgordon.com. For more, visit www.sandrajgordon.com, or her blog at www.shopsmartmag.org/sandra-gordon/index.html.