What chores should kids do around the house? An age-by-age guide

How old should kids be when they are assigned chores? Experts say it may be younger than you think. (Photo: Getty Creative)
How old should kids be when they are assigned chores? Experts say it may be younger than you think. (Photo: Getty Creative)

For parents, it's often shocking how much more cleaning is required once kids are added to the mix. From sweeping up spilled cereal to organizing a playroom full of toys, it can be overwhelming to manage the day-to-day chores that come with parenthood.

But how old should your child be before you start asking them to contribute to the workload? Is it OK for a toddler to have chores? And how can parents motivate younger kids to help with cleaning up the house?

Britnee Tanner is a professional home organizer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tanner's kids are 3 and 5, so she's also familiar with the struggle to maintain a clean home with kids underfoot.

How to teach kids to clean up

"One of the best ways to help children learn to clean is by showing them how," Tanner says. "Parents can't expect a child to just grasp the act of cleaning up — they really need to be shown and taught."

For Tanner, this has meant taking the time to show and remind her children how and when to assist with household duties like cleaning their rooms, tidying up the bathroom or wiping down the kitchen table.

However, Tanner reminds that just because children are helping doesn't mean perfect cleanliness should be expected right away.

"It's not about the house actually being perfectly tidy," she explains. "It's about teaching them how to do it so they develop habits over time."

When should you teach your child to help clean up?

According to Devon Kuntzman, the Cleveland, Ohio-based founder of Transforming Toddlerhood, helping your child develop these important habits and life skills should begin sooner rather than later.

"Toddlerhood is a sensitive period of time for getting kids involved in household tasks," Kuntzman tells Yahoo Life. "[Toddlers] are generally excited to help because they are developmentally driven to want to feel capable and have a role in the family without anything in return."

Kuntzman believes this developmental stage is what can create intrinsic motivation around household tasks for children in the long term. "As kids are still learning, we tend to brush them aside so we can get things done more efficiently," she says, "but children can start helping with daily household tasks around 18 months old or once they are steady on their feet. Start slowly and every week add a task."

As children grow, reframing chores as "family tasks" can be a positive shift felt by children and parents alike. "Chores tend to have a negative connotation because many of us felt forced to do chores as children and it wasn't fun," says Kuntzman. "Family tasks refer to teamwork to help the family function. A great benefit of this is children get to learn life skills so they can become more independent as they grow up."

Should you "pay" kids for household chores?

Paul Sullivan, a former New York Times columnist and founder of The Company of Dads has three daughters who range in age from 4 to 12. The Fairfield County, Conn. dad says, when it comes to household tasks, it's important to be cognizant of how you reward children for their accomplishments.

"Thanking them for helping you, absolutely," says Sullivan. "But paying them or offering up some bribe for basic household tasks? No way."

Sullivan believes these types of rewards can make it difficult for children to understand the meaning of their responsibilities as they grow. "Do any of us get paid by our spouse to take out the trash, do the laundry or grocery shop on a Sunday when we just want to relax? No."

Still, Sullivan shares that every once in a while, there's room for exception. "When it's above and beyond, that's different," he says. "My oldest daughter is hyper-organized and loves to earn money: When the playroom gets out of hand, we'll sometimes pay her to clean it up."

Kuntzman says rewards should depend on your family values and what you want to communicate around chores and household tasks. "Rewards are an extrinsic motivator," she explains. "I prefer celebrations the whole family can participate in such as a dance party, movie night or fun weekend outing over monetary or food rewards."

"This creates a culture of teamwork and celebration for reaching goals," she adds. "These tasks then become life skills instead of transactional tasks."

An age-by-age guide to assigning kids chores

Elizabeth Fraley is a Los Angeles, Calif. educator and CEO of Kinder Ready, an education program focused on kindergarten readiness and private school preparation for children ages 3-12. Fraley shares her list of chores that are appropriate for children of all ages.

Ages 1-2

  • put toys away in a toy bin

Ages 3-4

  • all of the above, plus:

  • feed pets

  • set the table

  • make the bed

  • put laundry in hamper

Ages 5-6

  • all of the above, plus:

  • load the dishwasher (with adult help)

  • set the table

  • clear the table

  • wash dishes (with adult supervision)

  • wipe the countertops with wet wipes

  • match laundered socks

  • water indoor plants

Ages 7-8

  • all of the above, plus:

  • pack lunch for school

  • load and unload dishwasher

  • help with cooking

  • fold and put away laundry

  • sweep floors

  • rake leaves

Ages 9-10

  • all of the above, plus:

  • vacuum

  • do laundry

  • clean mirrors

  • dust furniture

  • sweep porch, deck, garage or sidewalks

Ages 11-12

  • all of the above, plus:

  • wash the dishes

  • clean the bathroom

  • clean the kitchen

  • help with meal prep

  • wash cars

Randy McCoy, a Philomath, Oreg. child development expert and vice president of programming for The Little Gym shares that when trying to teach children the tasks and responsibilities behind cleanliness, sometimes it's best to just keep it simple.

"Sometimes parents can expect too much, too soon," he says. "Having unrealistic expectations can lead to negative hurtful feedback when the child can't live up to them. Be patient with your kids as they learn to do chores, as they learn to take pride in their work and as they learn what it means to do a good job."

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