It's the dirty work of home life: dusting the shelves, mopping the floors and doing the laundry, load after load. Yet asking kids to help has gotten harder for some parents, caught up in the blur of today's competitive, time-pressed, child-focused world.
"Parents feel very conflicted about getting their kids involved in housework," says child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, who sees a wide range of what kids are asked to do and how strongly the completion of chores is enforced.
Parents feel resentful if their kids don't help, she says, yet many worry about adding housework to their children's burden, already so heavy with school, sports and other activities that many don't get enough sleep.
"It's another thing on the to-do list, and it seems less important than making sure they did their homework or get to soccer practice," said Kennedy-Moore, a co-author of "Smart Parenting for Smart Kids" (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
Miriam Arond, director of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, notes a change over the last two decades, with parents now feeling "tremendous pressure" to enrich their children, hiring tutors before they fall behind, just for a leg up. And with many parents working, and kids busy after school, family time is more precious.
Yet kids should still be expected to pitch in, experts say. Through chores, children gain a feeling of competence as they learn skills that will carry into adulthood, and they benefit by making a contribution to their family.
"It's very important to counter a sense of entitlement," says Arond.
"It's important emotionally because it gives children the sense that they can do something, that they're part of the family, that we're all in this together," she says. "Emotionally, parents don't realize that it is very strengthening for a child. It helps them feel secure, they have a role, they feel rooted. Sometimes parents feel apologetic about giving children chores."
Not first lady Michelle Obama, who has talked about her daughters having to make their own White House beds.
And not Andrea Cherry of Kingwood, Texas, who has passed on her childhood practice of doing chores to her own children. As toddlers, they began with the game of sock sorting, and now, at ages 8 and 6, have graduated to "extensive" daily chores. Lily makes her bed and prepares breakfast for herself and her little brother. She cleans bathroom sinks with cleaning wipes, tidies the floors with a Swiffer and is learning to vacuum. Aiden feeds the dog and delivers toilet paper to the bathrooms. Both help with laundry and the dishes.
For Cherry, 38, who works full time, having the kids help makes it possible for her and her husband to have enough time to take the kids to soccer practices and games. Equally important, it fills them with the same idea of family responsibility that Cherry was raised with.
"They make a substantial contribution to the family, and it's important because it teaches them about taking care of the family, family is first, and they are responsible members of the family," said Cherry. "I'm proud of them."
While Cherry feels that she requires more of her kids than most parents in her area, Andrea Cameron, a San Diego mother of girls ages 2 and 8 who works occasionally, believes that she asks less than most. Her third-grader, Siobhan, has been dancing since age 2, aspires to be a ballerina or own a dance studio, and dances every day after school — weekends too, during performance season. The family is always pressed for time, driving back and forth to school and dance class.
"We try to throw in a few (chores) here and there, mainly her room, whatever we can squeeze in," says Cameron, 33. "I'd rather let her do what she loves and what she looks at as her future career than take it away from her and make her stay home and clean the house."
Cameron, who grew up having "very consistent" chores, believes that Siobhan is learning responsibility through the discipline of her dance classes, getting there on time with her bag packed with the right gear.
No matter how busy a family is, Kennedy-Moore advises parents to ask kids for at least the minimum effort. "You don't want to set it up where the kid is the honored guest and the parents are the servants," she said.
The best way to start is to enlist kids when they are young, about 2½, so it becomes a regular part of their lives, Arond says. A toddler can clean up toys and sort socks; make it fun with songs or by making it a game. By elementary school, kids can hang up wet towels and can dust. They can load the dishwasher by 8 or 9. Teens can do their own laundry and take care of sports equipment.
And if parents haven't required that their kids do chores, it's never too late to start.
For kids who are new to chores or resistant to the idea, Kennedy-Moore recommends that they be given some say over how they do them. Parents should consider: Will the jobs be assigned or rotate through the family? When is the best time to do them? And perhaps most important, is the workload fair for all siblings?
Parents need to invest time teaching kids how to do the household jobs.
"You have to give up a sense of perfectionism," Arond says. And be patient: "This is going to have a long-term payoff for them and you'll have a really good helper."
Whether kids' household labor should be rewarded is a disputed point, with one camp believing that kids should get an allowance as payment for chores, and another saying the work is for the good of the family and should be done without financial reward.
Either way, experts say giving kids a pass on chores is a disservice.
"A child who is spoiled, it's going to work against them when they're adults," Arond says. Employers can't afford to hire divas, she said. "Don't raise divas at home."