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How to Teach Children to Help with the Laundry
In a completely unscientific survey of my friends and neighbors, I've found that the average family in the U.S. does between five and seven loads of laundry each week. That means hours and hours of sorting laundry, loading the washing machine, moving the wet clothes to the dryer, folding the dry clothes, and putting them away, every single week. Last year, I hit on an exciting way to lighten my load: I enlisted the help of my nine-year-old daughter.
I had considered having the kids help me when they were even younger, but I decided there were two criteria that would make the difference between playing at being helpful and actually being helpful.
- My child had to be strong enough and have good enough balance to bring her hamper down the stairs.
- She had to be tall enough to reach the bottom of the washing machine without falling in (we have a top-loader).
Nine turned out to be the magical age.
Step 1: Lower Your Laundry Standards
Teach your kids to do their own laundry first, so that the inevitable accidents (red t-shirt in with the white undies, for example) happen to their clothes rather than yours. Accept also that your child may forget to pretreat stains or may shrink some clothes on his way to becoming a laundry master. That's okay! If your child has some expensive or delicate items, have him throw them in with your laundry for a while until he gets the hang of doing it himself.
In my house, I don't even ask my kids to sort their clothes, since 90% of their clothes are easy-wash school uniforms, shorts, and t-shirts. This saves a lot of time, and keeps laundry from being too onerous a chore.
Common Washer Settings
Mixed fabrics; lightly soiled loads
Men's underwear and socks; for use with liquid bleach
Heavy clothes and towels; very dirty loads
Women's underwear and bathing suits
Step 2: Teach Your Child About the Washing Machine and Dryer
Your kid has been watching you do laundry pretty much since the day she was born, so you think she would have absorbed some knowledge about how it's done. Not so! Assume she is starting completely from scratch, and explain to her all the settings on both the washer and the dryer. Don't forget to explain why some laundry needs hot water and other laundry needs cold; otherwise she WILL try to save time and wash (and dry!) everything using as hot a setting as possible.
While you're there, show her the correct amount of detergent to use. Don't let her use bleach yet, since it's so toxic and can splash easily. Stain sticks or spray bottles are fine for responsible kids to use, as long as you're nearby to help. And don't forget the fabric softener — kids will find dryer sheets the easiest form to use.
This may seem obvious, but don't give your child this responsibility until she's ready.
- Laundry detergents and stain removers can be toxic, so she has to be able to read labels and have the fine motor skills to pour a heavy bottle carefully.
- Clothes hampers are heavy, so help your child on the stairs if necessary.
- Keep younger siblings away when your older child is doing laundry; horrible accidents have occurred when toddlers have climbed into washers or dryers.
Step 3: Help Your Child a Few Times
The first few times your child does laundry by himself, he's liable to feel nervous that he's forgetting something or doing it wrong. Stand with him as he loads the machine and starts it up to make sure he's doing it properly, but let him try on his own before offering any advice.
When it comes time to transfer the wash to the dryer, do the same. Be a reassuring presence in the laundry room, but don't interfere (unless he's doing something dangerous, of course).
After the first few times, you and he will both be confident in his laundry abilities, and you can let him continue by himself (although you'll probably want to stay within shouting distance just in case).
Step 4: Folding and Putting Away Laundry
Folding and putting away laundry are chores that even younger children can take on. In our house, six marks the age of putting away your own laundry that Mommy has folded, and your eighth birthday marks the opportunity to fold your own laundry, too. Some kids start even younger, pairing socks and folding underwear at three or four.
Once again, your kids standards are not likely to be as high as yours, and they may look a little wrinkly from time to time. It's all part of the process of learning responsibility; eventually they may meet or even exceed your standards for laundry, or you'll come to some sort of agreement. Either way, the important thing right now is to get them started doing it, so they gain important life skills and confidence around the house. (Now that I think of it; eight is a pretty good age for unloading the dishwasher, too . . .)
Even More Laundry Help
As your kids become more proficient, you can ask them to take on loads of linens or their siblings' clothes, at least occasionally. Just remind them which settings to use for anything they're not used to. I often have my daughter move the wash from the washer to the dryer if my hands are full cooking or cleaning, and she does a great job. It's not a difficult task, but it makes her feel grown-up and valuable in that moment, and that's worth even more than the clean laundry itself.