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Study Finds Habits in Children Take Root by Age 9 -- Here's What That Means for Parents

02/26/2015 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
Rebecca Jackson

A recent study out of Brown University has concluded that routines and habits in children, including household chores and responsibilities, are unlikely to vary after the age of 9. For most children, this takes firm root by the third grade. According to the research, which surveyed nearly 50,000 American families, chores remained consistent from the age of 9 through the conclusion of high school. (Pressman et al., 2014)

"The research is eye-opening for many parents who hope their children will eventually take on more responsibility. The evidence is clear; it's not happening without intervention," said Dr. Pressman, Director of Research for the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and lead researcher on the Brown University study.

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While researching habits and chores for my book, The Learning Habit, I incorporated the results from the Brown University study and interviewed parents to deduce "why" they became involved or continued to take on responsibility that their children were capable of handling. I wanted to know what motivated these parents to intervene while other parents abstained.

Here is what I discovered; rarely did a parent intervene because they were concerned their child was in genuine danger. Most parents indicated they "step in" because they are concerned their child is doing something incorrectly. Other parents chose not to give a child additional responsibility because it wasn't worth the hassle; the majority of parents cited both reasons.

I get it. I honestly do. The experience of standing by watching a child struggle and fail is not a pleasant one. Tolerating eye-rolling and back-talk isn't fun either. However, the issue in most cases appears to be purely psychological. Replace the word "fail" with the word "learn." When a parent takes over and says, "I don't want to see my child fail or upset," what we are actually saying is, "I don't want to see my child learn."

Children learn from mistakes. Now, that doesn't mean that unpleasant tasks should go on interminably. Keeping tasks time limited is a great stress reliever for parents and children.

Tempted to step in? Ask yourself these questions first:

 Is my child in real danger?
 Can I live with the outcome?
 What is the best and worst-case scenario?
 What is my child learning from this experience?

Concerned that your child is not taking on enough responsibility at home? Use this guide to keep yourself and your child on the right track to self-sufficiency.

Pre-school:
This is when parents introduce the concept of shared responsibility for self and home maintenance. At this early age, it's a game to them; "First we put our toys away, then we have our (supper, snack, bath)."

TIP: When teaching children a new skill, for instance, making the bed, use praise for effort.

• Pick-up their toys
• Choose an outfit (give children limited choice at this age)
• Help clear the table
• Brush their teeth
• Learn to set the table
• Learn to dust
• Start to make their beds.

Kindergarten (5-6-7 years):
Refrain from criticizing poor technique or asking children to redo chores they have not done to your expectations. This is a process; they will continue to work at improving, as long as their efforts are recognized and effort based praise is used to guide them. Example: "Nice job tucking in the corners of your sheets."

• Lay out clothes the night before (clothes are arranged in drawers in pre-chosen outfits)
• Set table
• Clear the table after meals
• Sort their dirty laundry (whites and colors)
• Unload back-pack
• Dump out contents of lunch bag and sort items
• Choose items for their lunch
• Dress themselves (little fingers may still help for difficult buttons and tying)

1st grade (6-7-8 years):
This is the year it is really important that children start to learn by trial and error. Children are also learning to improve their techniques.

• Set out clothes the night before. They choose (no fashion or weather police, please!)
• Can get dressed fully on their own
• Make their bed neatly
• Fully ready for school before breakfast
• Take out the garbage / carry up empty bins
• Sort the re-cycling
• Dust a room once a week
• Place dishes in the dishwasher
• Straighten their bedroom
• Set table with condiments and beverages
• Pack their own backpack
• Unload some dishes from dishwasher (utensils are good start)
• Can put own clothes in drawer with direction from parents

2nd grade (7-8-9 years):
• Get own breakfast within limited, accessible choices.
• Tell time on analog clock.
• Pack and unpack backpack with limited help
• Make a simple lunch by themselves
• Wash dishes and place in dishwasher
• Vacuum and dust one other room (besides bedroom) in the house.
• Can use microwave and toaster.

3rd grade (8-9-10 years):
• Prepare a menu
• Write a grocery list
• Make simple meals for the family.
• Fold laundry
• Distribute clean laundry
• Put own clothes away - maintain and organize clothing drawers in bedroom
• Takes responsibility for acquiring needed supplies and equipment for school or sports.

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References:

Pressman, R., Owens, J., Evans, A., Nemon, M., (2011). Examining the Interface of Family and Personal Traits, Media, and Academic Imperatives Using the Learning Habit Study. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 2(5), 347-363. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC