Chores teach kids how to care for themselves

April 12, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

"Cleanup time!"

With a shout, Meghan Lynch springs into action after a few quick flicks of the light switch.

Joining her 18 4- and 5-year-old classmates, she piles blocks into her tiny arms and returns them to their rightful place on a corner shelf.

Other children pick up puzzles and plastic animal figures, and close books. Jamie Guske prepares a table for lunch - five groupings of Styrofoam plates, plastic cups, and spoons and napkins ready for lunchtime.

Their chores complete, pre-kindergarten teacher Cindi Zsittnik corrals her kids on the floor in front of her before unleashing them for the next activity.


At Surrey Child Care Center, daily chores are as much a component of the classroom experience as math or spelling. The life lessons serve as important building blocks to foster self-sufficiency.

"They've learned to respect their room," Zsittnik says. "And they want to take care of things."

As National Week of the Young Child comes to a close, Surrey Director Charles Wainwright says one of the center's cornerstones involves teaching its children self-reliance.

And efforts cannot begin early enough, particularly if you are taking care of up to 250 children each day ages 6 weeks through kindergarten. Chores are one way educators and parents can prepare children to take care of themselves.

Wainwright says teaching begins at 18 months as children are encouraged to behave well and to help teachers in an activity.

Help hang your coat up and get a gold star. Assist in setting a table and be rewarded with an encouraging "Attagirl!" or "Good job!"

"The real goal, as soon as possible, is to get away from those things to make them realize these chores are right and good to do, not because they get something," Wainwright says. "You get a ton of mileage out of tokens: Stars, happy faces, stickers. The earlier you start, the earlier they'll be weaned off the gimmicks, so to speak."

Eventually, praise will recede as children realize they are expected to help out, whether at home or in the classroom.

There is another, more practical reason to start incorporating chores with youngsters - cooperation.

"Children as young as 2 can start helping with things and want to help. Children need to feel like they belong to a group, so helping in that environment makes them feel like they belong," says Terry Kitchen, director of the Children's Learning Center at Hagerstown Community College. "It makes them feel big and most kids want to be big."

Of course, early exuberance may not allow families to sidestep the inevitable period when kids drag their feet at the mere mention of washing dishes or cleaning the room.

But encouraging children to help with chores early may stem the tide. As at Surrey, kids at the Children's Learning Center help prepare and serve meals, or clean up after playtime.

At Surrey, teachers like Zsittnik set the pace.

"Chores are a life skill. It's a necessity in life to take care of yourself," says Surrey Assistant Director Dawn Gist. "Teachers set the example, they pick up the toy and put it on the shelf and encourage the children to do the same thing."

Zsittnik says she often hears from parents who are surprised at how neat kids keep the classroom given their habits at home. Wainwright preaches patience, particularly when trying to condition a child to help around the house.

An example is making the bed.

"You don't wait for a child to make his bed to praise him," he says. For a child, making the bed might consist of several big steps that adults easily overlook.

"Reinforce the child in each successive stage, with the goal in mind that he'll be able to make the bed without positive reinforcement," Wainwright says.

Kitchen uses stars and stickers too, but warns that kids might get the idea that rewards are part and parcel of performing chores.

"I think it's more helpful to just expect everybody does their thing," she says. "This is how Mom works, this is how Dad works, this is your job. The reward should be the intrinsic value of doing the job."

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