Hi ho, hi ho

It started out as a way to get them out of my hair while I stumbled around the kitchen in the early morning and late afternoon, trying to put food on the table without stepping on a child. “Why don’t you guys, uh, uh, feed the cats!” I said. A brainstorm: the cat food and dishes are all within easy reach and scooping out dry cat food is a task without serious consequences for errors.

Did you know it takes a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old approximately five minutes to fill three bowls and chase down three bemused cats? And can you imagine how very seriously they take this task and how very proud they are when they complete it? Very seriously and very, very proud.

And so the first “chore” in our house was born. My sisters and I had chores growing up, along with complicated systems for doling them out fairly, and I always assumed I would expect the same of my kids. But, how and when to get them started?

According to a University of Minnesota study from a few years ago, the answer to “when” is early — as young as 3 or 4. In fact, the study found whether kids participated in household tasks as preschoolers to be “the best predictor” of their success as young adults. Waiting until kids were 15 or 16 to start giving them chores, however, “backfired” and these kids were less successful.

Giving kids chores isn’t about toughening them up or breaking them down, and it’s not — well, not always — about getting them out of your hair. It’s about making them feel like contributing members of the household. It’s about giving them confidence and helping them see that they can, in small ways, take care of themselves and other people.

When I was talking to Jodi Ohlsen Read about life with four boys on a working sheep farm (see page 14 for her story), she spoke of her faint regret that her sons work as hard as they do and her pride that the work they do is not busy work but absolutely necessary to the farm’s and the family’s success. I’m so glad that she could share this story here.

My own kids aren’t raising chickens or bringing sheep in from the pasture. Right now, all I ask is that they fill the cat bowls without squabbling. But I make it clear that the cats need to eat and they need to feed them. The four-year-old, however, is already displaying age-old wiles: This morning I caught her sitting back and directing her brother’s work.

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