Saturday, 4 April 2009

A little help with the housework

To hear my mum talk, you’d think she was Cinderella as a child. She was the eldest of four children. Her parents worked in their factory in the back yard (her father was a furniture designer and manufacturer; her mother essentially ran the office). She was brought up by nannies, none of whom spoke much English (she didn’t speak herself until she was three, though she came straight out with a complete sentence, none of this Ma-Ma and Da-Da stuff), but was largely responsible for bringing up her two younger sisters. Among her chores were the daily shopping, cleaning out the fireplaces and setting the fires (which, because matches were banned in the house, involved walking from the boiler in the basement, holding a burning splint of wood or newspaper and walking through the house to each of the fires, often dropping and stamping out burning embers on the route) and washing up. There may have been more, though the shopping was a fairly big chore, taking an hour and a half round trip.

From the age of about seven, my main chore was the washing up. Doing the washing-up every night gained me my £5 a week pocket money. Other than that I had to help out intermittently with cooking, hoovering, washing, hanging washing out, etc. But not much. When I was older (from mid-teens, I think), I cooked once a week.

I had a boyfriend many moons ago, who had three siblings and they had a rota of housework, including washing up, feeding pets, cooking, and some general cleaning, though they had a cleaner who came in twice a week to do the hoovering and clean the bathrooms.

At secondary school, I had a friend who did absolutely nothing. Not because she didn’t want to, but because her mum wouldn’t let her. Her mum still tidied and cleaned her bedroom and made her packed lunch every day. (My friend claimed that she wasn’t allowed to make her own packed lunch, because then her younger sister would insist on doing so, too, which would not be a good thing.)

There seems to be such a variety of ways of dealing with children and housework. Rosemary has been helping out (often it ends up being the opposite of helping out, but hopefully not forever) since she has been physically capable of doing so. She helps put the washing on – puts clothes from basket into machine, gets the tub of washing blobs out, puts a blob in, presses the buttons I tell her to (used to be ‘Press that one. Good. Now that one.’; but now it’s ‘Press the cotton button twice, then the drying button, then the start button. Now press and hold the lock button until it beeps.’; later in the year it will probably just be ‘Set in for a low cotton wash and iron dry.’) and sometimes she’ll hand me the pegs and/or clothes when hanging them up.

She loves sweeping up and is obsessed with wiping any surface she’s allowed to. She quite likes hoovering. She would love to wash up, but only gets to try that occasionally with a few wooden spoons and her own plastic plates and cups. But she already knows that she has to rinse after scrubbing (with the right cloth) and put the items to drain, not dry them with a tea-towel (I am ridiculously fussy about washing up). She’s very hit and miss about tidying up. Sometimes she’s really into it and sometimes she’ll scream and kick if someone else is threatening to tidy the room. But she does know where most things go and can tidy up when willing. She would love to help with the cooking all the time, but there are limited things she can help with. She will often stand on a chair while we’re chopping vegetables and pass us the items we need, but she gets bored of that quickly. She’ll be happier once she’s allowed to cut them herself (not for a while yet, I think).

I’m looking out for signs for her to be ready to be given her own job. Not sure yet what that might be. Maybe wiping the table after dinner (actually, she could probably do that now) or bringing the dirty laundry downstairs or something. Personally, I think it’s really important to give children these kinds of responsibilities, though I do realise there’s a line to be drawn (see my mum’s story above) between teaching responsibility and taking advantage. I want my children to grow up knowing how to wash up, wash clothes, sweep, hoover, clean bathrooms (and even loos), cook, etc. etc. I don’t want them to grow neurotic about any of it (which would be difficult in our house, to be honest), but I want them to know how to look after themselves when they leave home. And that will, of course, go for Number 2 whether they are a boy or a girl. In fact, I think it’s so important, that I’m loathe to get a cleaner again, in case it takes away the opportunity for the children to learn these skills.

So when do your children start helping with the housework? Is their pocket money conditional on their doing their chores? Or do you not ask them to help? Do you consider it slave labour or teaching important life skills?


  1. My d#1 is very, very good at helping out; often find myself asking her to find me a nappy/wipes etc now s#2 is here (I'm very disorganised!) But I'm reluctant to push it too much; she's also really scruffy though. S#1 resists chore at the moment but is obssessively neat; he's the only 4 year I know who will wash their hands before food without being asked to. I expect them to do small stuff; clothes in wash basket; plates to the sink after eating; living room cleared of cups etc and we'll do a really good tidy up of their room together. My mother was very reluctant to let me and my siblings do chores bacause she though her way was the right way and I admit, in some ways, I am becoming very much like her. I don't think I could have a cleaner as I would clean up before she/he arrived.

  2. That's a hard one. I think you have to get your children into the habit of helping around the house but always be prepared to re-do it yourself. Both my girls (aged 2 and 4) love helping and throw tantrums (the little one) if they aren't allowed to. Their favourite is wiping the table after eating. Of course they never do it properly (it's almost worse afterwards as food is smeared all over instead of wiped up), but one day they will get it. Until that day I'll just oversee things instead!

  3. Definitely they should learn. We decided not to link pocket money to chores, because we thought (a) it would end up being a horrible chore for us, doing all the reminding, and chasing up, and checking, and monitoring, and nagging to redo if the first attempt wasn't good enough, and (b) we preferred the idea that helping out is a basic part of family life, and not something which deserves financial rewarded.

    The upside of this is that my oldest sometimes does housework just for fun, and to be helpful. My other 2 haven't got to that point yet, so I suppose they might turn out to demonstrate the downside of the strategy, ie they might just never do very much. We do encourage, and sometimes insist, but I think we're a bit slack.

    I like Katherine's approach of expecting little stuff, and we do try to do that (although again, we're a bit slack).

    A friend of mine had an au pair who was clueless. Had obviously never had to do housework or fend for herself. Not a great candidate for an au pair!

  4. An excellent post. I definitely believe in children helping out. I did all sorts of things to 'earn' my weekly pocket money; shoe cleaning, car cleaning, hoovering...

    The Toddler (27 months) loves to sweep the floor after meals, adores hoovering (alarmingly, he calls it 'daddy's hoover' which kind of indicates how infrequently he sees it in my own fair hands!) and helping with washing. Like Rosemary, he now knows which buttons to press on the washing machine, and can pretty much do a full wash from start to finish, taking it out of the washing machine and putting it into the tumble dryer. I also ask him to put his own rubbish (banana skins etc) into the bin, and he knows what goes in the recycling, the compost bin and so on. My MIL thinks it's slave labour, but I disagree quite strongly.

  5. Katherine: I like the expecting them to do the small things as a matter of course. I'd really like to instill a bit more of a tidying ethic in Rosemary, but her genetics are probably against me, there. My mum also had lots of things she was incredibly fussy about; the way she got round that was to teach us how to do it in exactly the 'right' the way (to wash dishes, hang clothes, fold clothes, iron clothes...). This does mean that we're very fussy too, now.

    MT: Yes, I think it takes a while for them to do it all exactly the way we want. But the earlier you start, presumably, the sooner they will have it all worked out.

    Iota: I think you're probably right about not linking it to pocket money. I think I used to push for extra money for helping out with things that weren't normally my responsibility, where it would have been nicer to just do them happily, like your eldest.

    You would think that the agencies would give au pairs a bit of basic training in housework! I seem to recall my uncle having an equally useless one. My aunt had to go and stay with him in the school holidays (after they were divorced), to take up all the slack that the au pair couldn't deal with!

    MTJAM: Wow, that's pretty impressive. Rosemary does get bored with putting the clothes in and taking them out. She'll usually do about half the basket and then say 'OK. That's enough.' (Of course, there's possibility that she knows the true load that the machine is supposed to take and is trying to stop me breaking it.)

    Rosemary's also good at putting things in the bin, even to the extent that she wants to pick up everyone else's rubbish off the pavement and put it in the bin, too. She also likes sorting the recycling out (cans and plastic go in the same place initially and then are split up on recycling day into separate bags). We haven't (shameful I know) got a compost bin, so she doesn't know about that. Must get one as I feel huge guilt every time I pour veg peelings into the ordinary bin. Both my mum and MIL seem to agree with this attitude, fortunately, and they both get her to join in and help out at their houses.

  6. One of my failures has been to get the boy into the regular habit of doing chores...may be because I leave everything as long as possible myself. But getting your offspring into the swing of contributing to running the house is a good thing...and enjoy the occasional treat as the boy does the odd bit of cooking, or washing or ironing. But never ever tidying

  7. I need to do more of this with the girls, they are ready and capable. Thanks for reminding me...

  8. My 3-year-old helps put dishes away and I let her wash up spoons and bowls. She puts rubbish in the bin and recycling and can sweep a little. I wash and fold her clothes but she puts them away. She also helps tidy her toys at the end of the day. I'm a firm believer in children doing chores and helping maintain the household they live in. I don't like to tie any and all housework to spending money so there will always be a few basics that they will be expected to do without reward and then if they do extras they can earn more.

  9. Rather than chores for pocket money, I do the marble in the jar thing (an old teaching trick) they get a marble everytime they do the agreed chore with a target of about 20; once reached they get to pick a small thing or special day out etc. The target chore then becomes something I know they can do and (in theory) becomes what is expected...I use it to try and encourage behavour, foster good eating habits etc. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but it just a different way of doing sticker charts but I can increase the numbers achieved and they appear to lke the satisfying "clunk" of the marble landing in the jar. It cheap too!!

  10. Know what you mean about the genetic thing. My sig. other is untidy beyond all reason..I don't even try to alter thim's pathological!! My stepdaughter and daughter are the same as dad, while my son is extremely tidy. I'm wondering which path the baby will take...

  11. all my 3girls 3yearold, 2yearold and 17th month old will empty the washing machine and put the wet clothes in the dryer they past each item to each other v.cute! but they also load the washing machine and press the buttons that i tell them too. they do take their plates out and put things in the bin when they've finished. i dont let them sweep or wipe things because it would cause too many rows with sharing one brush etc. i've always asked them to do stuff because i think its important to learn to do things for themselves and they seem just to join in with what i'm doing which is nice. 17month old toddles behind her sisters copying them so i'm on a winner even tidying up toys!!! a miracle! but it helps me alot especialy with new baby being only 6weeks they are mummys little helpers x x

  12. NB: I think that's a problem I'm going to have. I'm fairly certain my lax attitude to tidying is why Rosemary is not into tidying. Not sure why she wants to dust and wipe, though, as I avoid both of them, too!

    Susanna: You're welcome. Would be interested to hear how it goes once it's under way.

    NS: Sounds very good. Earning money for little extras is a good idea, I think, while expecting certain things to be done as a matter of course. It's nice when they're young, as they tend to enjoy helping out; I don't know if our efforts will reward us when they hit puberty, though!

    I'd forgotten about putting clothes away. Rosemary used to do that, and somehow I went back to doing it myself while she's out (when the towering pile is threatening to fall over, anyway).

    Katherine: Oh, the marble jar. I have a friend who used to be a primary school teacher and she told me about that. I may try that out, as Rosemary's getting a bit blase about star charts - even when she knows there's a potential treat at the end of it.

    Amy: Aww, I have this very cute image in my head now of your girls lining up by the washing machine passing clothes to one another. Sounds like they're doing really well. I know people who have children close together like yours and they found similar things that the younger ones followed in the older ones' footsteps (though sometimes that could be for ill as well as good!), so the younger one was potty trained and reading really early because he wanted to join in with his older siblings. I'll have to see if that works as well with a 3-year gap!

  13. My husband was bloody rubbish when I met him. Now, with training, he is able to iron his own shirts, wash up, cook a decent meal and 'do' the bins on a Thursday night.
    Hopefully my son will grow up knowing he needs all these skills to survive out there.
    I can't stop my daughter at the moment. Every time I look she's either elbows deep in the washing up bowl, sweeping the floor or going hell for leather with a wet wipe.

  14. I get my daughter to do some stuff but I think it's more important for her to learn to do things; cooking, gardening etc rather than just plain old chores. But then again, I'm crap at housework too! Happy Easter x

  15. Definitely they should get involved. My two boys are getting into wiping down tables, helping me hanging up the washing and, if I really get it right, sweeping and then mopping the floor. Obviously they make a complete mess - so I have to do it again once they have gone to bed. But it is important for them to learn to help and make it an integral part of their lives, like brushing their teeth. I'm ever hopeful anyway. Maybe I'll be able to retire shortly and spend more time blogging and less time tidying!

  16. Mine have helped since they were babies and they do a bit more each year that they get older. I don't link it to pocket money.

    I'll admit to using a bit of reverse psychology on them - no, you can't wash the car until you are older - to make them want to do my 'less favourite' chores all the more. They might also get an extra 20p for tidying a room I don't have time to do.

    Works well so far but I'm waiting for the first strike action...

  17. Nixdminx: Forgot to mention the gardening. Rosemary does quite a bit of that with her dad - I have anti-green fingers; I kill any plant I try to grow or look after within about two weeks. We do some cooking together, too, but would do much more if we had a better (or just bigger) kitchen. Those things are very important. And, actually, I think we probably end up unconsciously being more inclined to teach them the things we enjoy more and that are more important to us. So, for one parent that might be gardening and cooking; another it might be hoovering and tidying; another it might be washing the car and doing DIY...

    BiB/FM: You've hit the nail on the head there, of what I'm aiming for - making it an integral part of their lives. So they aren't chores, but instead it's just normal to help out. That's my ideal. Whether it will work or not in the end, who knows. Maybe we'll still have blogs when they're going off to university and can report back!

    Ella: Reverse psychology. I'll have to try that. Maybe I'll tell her she can't clean the loo until she's older. Wonder if that will work? To be honest, I think she'd quite happily clean the loo. I'm a bit worried about GERMS, though! Probably why I hardly ever do it myself either ;)