What are Domestic Skills in Childhood?
Domestic skills in childhood are essential skills, such as tidying up, cleaning, and helping parents around the house.
These chores fall in an important category of Daily Living Skills, which are day-to-day tasks that reflect independence and involvement in the home and community life. Daily Living Skills are the best predictor of future success for a child, beyond scores in intelligence even.
Independent skills are important and can be taught. They are slow to develop for some children, which is not a cause for panic. Instead, working together as a family, where everyone pitches in and parents teach kids a solid work ethic via kid’s chores, is the best-case scenario.
As we think about independent living skills and life skills for adulthood, these developing skills are important as your child moves out of your home and starts college or enters the workforce. Early work on daily living skills will help your child build responsibility and prepare for adult life.
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Symptoms of Poor Domestic Skills in Childhood
- Refusing to do chores: Saying, “Make my bed?” “What dishwasher?” “Put my clothes in the hamper…No!” Your life as a parent feels like a constant power struggle.
- Tantrums: Going from 0-to-60 in a moment when asked to do a simple household task. One moment you are having a good time, and then the simple request for help setting the table seems to ruin the day.
- Constant arguing over chores: Making mornings in your home feel like a warzone. You may wake up wishing your child could go to a friend’s house right now.
- Grouchy behavior: Behaving in a way that leads you to feel guilty for having yelled at them all morning because they were so slow getting ready.
- Non-completion: Failing to take dishes to the sink and dropping dirty clothes on the floor
Some children do not seem to mature with chores as quickly as others. They need more support to complete day-to-day tasks. You may find you keep announcing, “If I had a dime for every time I told you to clean your room, I’d be a millionaire by now.”
Causes of Domestic Skill Issues in Childhood
If your child does not do chores, it is entirely possible that they are typically developing.
Some level of refusing or avoiding household chores is normal.
- Lack of motivation: A typical child may not participate in domestic tasks due to lack of motivation. It is always more fun to do a preferred activity, and your child may need encouragement and coaching to complete household tasks.
- Unclear or inconsistent expectations: If you sometimes follow through with a request and at other times let your child out of a task, your child will know they can get out of it if they wait long enough. It is important to only assign tasks that you can follow through.
- Bad habits that have been reinforced over time: The family needs to work on good habits together, as domestic chores are necessary for independence as your child approaches adulthood.
- Lack of maturity: Most kids will eventually learn to do chores if their parents persistently provide direction and guidance while also holding them accountable.
- Disabilities: Children with disabilities often have challenges in one or more adaptive areas. For children who struggle with organization and focus, completing household chores may seem impossible. They need step-by-step instructions, hand-holding and immediate reinforcement to get tasks done.
- ADHD: Children with ADHD may struggle with attention and domestic and self-care skills. They may have difficulty keeping up with the sequence of tasks. When helping with the laundry, they may become distracted in the middle of doing something, only to be found playing with a sock rather than emptying a full laundry basket.
Emotional challenges: Children with emotional challenges may also be delayed in their adaptive skill development. Anxiety, trauma, and emotional overwhelm can paralyze the development for a child who may need calm hand-holding and clear, simple tasks as they build trusting relationships.
Anxiety or depression: These conditions can lead to poor task completion, a messy room, or an unclean bathroom. Children who are emotionally struggling may not be able to complete tasks they used to be able to do. You may see hygiene and domestic skills lag as emotional concerns increase.
What To Do About Domestic Skill Challenges in Childhood
While doing chores around the house can be beneficial in teaching responsibility and maturity, these duties may bring discouragement, disrespect, and frustration into your home. It is important not to let chores cause a constant battle.
- DO learn to assign chores that are appropriate to a child’s age and ability: It is appropriate to ask a 2- or 3-year-old to help you put toys away in the toy bucket together, 4- to 6-year-olds can put their shoes away in the shoe closet, 7- to 9-year-olds can help empty the dishwasher, sweep the floor, bring their plate to the table, 9- to 11-year-olds can put their clothes away, take out the trash from the bathroom and put it in the main trash, put dishes in the dishwasher, etc.
- DO choose your battles: Getting some children to do chores may feel like fighting a losing battle. Parents may give the assignment, yell and scream about it, provide reminders, and then do it themselves. As clinicians, we find that some parents sigh with relief when we give permission to let a chore drop.
- DON’T assign something you won’t enforce: It is better to not assign the chore at all versus giving it, making it a constant issue, and then eventually doing it yourself.
- DO pick one or two chores: make them straightforward, tie completion of the chores to something fun and meaningful for your child, and make sure your child either does the chore or has to skip out on the fun and meaningful reward.
Tip- don’t make skipping out on the reward a battle. It may help to come up with the reward together with your child and add it to a visual chore chart. Share with your child that they can look at their chore chart to be given a reminder of the chore.
Give one reminder. If they don’t do the chore, they don’t get the reward. Be calm about it. Say, “Gosh, what a bummer, you didn’t do the chore that earns you X. Let’s try again next week. Hopefully, you can earn X.”
This process will help teach your child that their behavior links to a positive or negative outcome. They get to choose that outcome. When first doing the chore, your child may need modeling and guidance.
- DO have evenings and weekends be a mix of task completion and fun: Make sure certain evenings and weekends are a mix of fun family activities and essential household tasks that have to get done. If your children have a busy after-school life, keep chores to putting their backpack away, removing their plate from the table, and other shorter activities. Dedicate an hour or two on Saturday or Sunday for extra tasks. Depending on how busy your child’s schedule is and how much homework they have, they may not have enough time to complete many tasks on school nights.
- DO make chore requests clear and consistent: Most typically developing kids will eventually learn to do chores if parents are persistent in providing direction and guidance while also holding them accountable.
- DON’T take things away as the primary strategy: Instead, provide incentives and rewards for the behavior you want to see. If you don’t see the behavior you want, don’t provide the reward. Keep it that simple. This approach is easier to accomplish if parents have more control over the household. When children are provided unlimited access to electronics and other reinforcement, finding things to use as incentives is more challenging. In this case, work to take control gradually; don’t try to do it all at once. Use something novel as a reinforcer, like a trip to the science museum or a special playdate.
- DO make a visual chore chart: Provide some choice for your child in selecting chores to complete and rewards to earn upon finishing.
- DO provide a weekly incentive: Provide a weekly choice, like family ice cream or a movie night, for each week that a certain number of chores are completed.
- DO model chores: With young children, do the chore with them at first. “Let’s collect your Legos” is more manageable than “You have to clean your room.”
- DON’T give multiple verbal reminders: Direct your child to the chore board. If they are particularly stubborn, add a more immediate incentive like “15 minutes of Minecraft after putting away your clean clothes.”
When to Seek Help For Domestic Skills Problems in Childhood
Seek help when your child is really struggling, your child cannot care for themselves, teachers or school staff are concerned about your child’s ability to do self-care tasks, or asking your child to do simple chores results in significant disharmony at home.
If you’re still not sure about seeking professional help, here are some additional considerations. Please know that it is normal for your child and teenager to avoid chores. Just like us as adults, we may want to ignore the more tedious and boring tasks of a job. However, we grow and learn the importance of doing tasks that are not as pleasant. Taking things away (rather than simply removing the reward) and making a struggle out of chores makes things worse for everyone.
Try positive reinforcements such as having your kids earn extra money for things they want to buy. If they don’t do the task, they don’t earn extra money for toys or desired items. This way, you don’t need to make it a battle. Say, “You know what you need to do to earn money for that toy.”
It is also normal for kids to struggle more with doing chores during extreme stress. What can help is to have a family chore time where everyone does chores together for an hour or two on Saturday or Sunday.
It is usual for young children to need help with doing chores or be given a task and find them playing ten minutes later. It helps to do chores with your young child, model how to pick up their toys, or even better, everyone picks up together.
Further Resources on Domestic Skills in Childhood
- ABA therapist: to help to improve behavior and increase adaptive skills. In-home treatment plans make addressing self-care and domestic skills easier. This therapy is often covered by insurance for Autism Spectrum Disorders but can also be helpful for other diagnoses. With typically developing children who have isolated challenges in an area like completing chores, even a session or two of parent training may help to develop strategies and systems of reinforcement to increase task completion
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to conduct a full assessment to examine symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms as needed
- OT or speech pathologist: to treat any associated motor or language deficits. It is possible to have extremely poor self-care and domestic skills in isolation (without any other challenges); however, if other concerns are present, these issues can be addressed in therapy
Similar Conditions to Domestic Skill Problems in Childhood
- Communication skills: trouble with communication impacts a child’s ability to express their wants and needs, understand rules and expectations, and thus complete tasks without much support. A Language Disorder could have an impact on chore completion
- Intelligence: trouble with thinking and reasoning can cause general delays that would encompass areas like communication, daily living skills, socialization, and motor development
- Motor challenges: trouble with movement can impact the ability to do chores. Motor impairments are a component of adaptive skills, particularly in younger children
- Inattention: trouble with paying attention may lead to difficulties in receptive communication. Your child may get distracted and miss the directions. Children who struggle to focus may have trouble with routines like clearing the table and putting away toys
- Behavior challenges: trouble with compliance and rule-following may impact adaptive skills due to a pattern of poor behavior, self-care, and chore completion
References for Domestic Skills
 Cook, Julia (2016). Planning isn’t my priority… And making priorities isn’t in my plans.
Other Book Resources for Domestic Skills
Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.
Siegel, Dan (2013): Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.