Ask: What age is right for starting chores?

Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician at UNC North Carolina's Children's Hospital.
Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician at UNC North Carolina's Children's Hospital.

Q. What age is appropriate for children to start doing chores? What kinds of duties can they handle?

A. Asking children to help with things around the house is an absolute necessity of parenting. First of all, you are trying to build good work habits for your children. Secondly, you need help getting all these things done! While the idea of "chores" might evoke images of "Little House on the Prairie" and bringing water up from the well, in our modern world there are still lots of things around the house for which children can take responsibility.

The most logical place to start is having your children take responsibility for their own things. Helping them learn to take care of their things, clean up after themselves and help with the care of family pets are common first chores. Generally, these are things that we all have to do in life, and children can start helping with them as early as 3 or 4 years of age. Set reasonable expectations—they are not going to program calendar reminders into their iPhones to clean and you should plan to not only remind them, but help them. Doing this work together can actually be a fun way to spend time together.

As kids grow older they can take responsibility for other pieces of "family work." For example, helping to rake leaves or take out the trash can both be done safely. Remember that some chores aren’t safe for children to do: cleaning the gutters, blowing leaves off the roof, spreading fertilizer in the lawn and definitely mowing the lawn should not be done by young children. It’s just not worth the risk—find other things for them to do while you tackle those jobs.

In summary, children can begin helping with chores from a young age and it can be a good way to spend time together as a family. Over the long term, helping with these jobs likely builds good habits and responsibility. When children predictably push back about doing chores, just remind them that at least we don’t have to shovel snow here!

Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Children’s Hospital, a group of health-care professionals dedicated to improving the health of children and adolescents through clinical care, research, education and advocacy. The group includes over 35 physicians, practitioners, nurses and other health-care professionals. We supervise the care of children with general medical problems at N.C. Children’s Hospital, including hospitalized children, the newborn nursery, primary care clinic and a complex care and diagnostic clinic that also sees patients at the N.C. Children’s Specialty Clinic located on the Rex Healthcare campus in Raleigh.