Laundry may be the most Sisyphean of household chores: Unless everyone in your house is stark naked, it’s literally never done. That’s why, when my son turned 11, I decided he could do his own laundry.
That’s right, he washes, dries, folds and puts away his own clothes. Reactions to this news from other moms fall into one of three categories:
- How can I get my kid to do that?
- That would never work in my house.
- You are a terrible mother, and I bet your kid looks like a slob. (They say this with facial expressions, not words. Usually.)
If you’re interested in delegating some of your household laundry to the creatures who create it, here are some hints on why, how and when to get kids doing their own laundry.
Why it’s worth a try:
- Well, obviously, it’s easier on you. When I started working in an office after several years of working from home, I needed more help from the family to stay on top of the housework. That’s when we each took responsibility for our own clothes.
- Kids who do their own laundry are more cognizant of how much laundry they’re generating, creating less unnecessary washing. My son was in the habit of going through three pairs of socks throughout the day and often as many outfits, but he quickly changed his ways when he had to wash it all.
- I’m not a stickler for chores, but I do feel it’s good for kids to contribute to the smooth functioning of the household. I knew a twentysomething guy who didn’t know how to load a dishwasher – I don’t mean he was bad at it, I mean he literally didn’t know where to begin – and that has served as a cautionary tale for my parenting. I have no wish to raise a prince.
- Knowing their way around a washer and dryer will prevent kids from ruining their clothes in the dorm laundromat when they go to college. I recall laundry-challenged freshman boys looking like dorks in pink-splotched white T-shirts and shrunken sweaters, or sporting something absurdly dressy because nothing else was clean. Let’s call it an investment in their independence.
Some common concerns and ways to deal with them:
- “My kids just won’t do it.” Well, sure they will, if you don’t step in to bail them out. It helps to roll out the policy around the time they start caring about what they wear and how they look. If you truly feel that your kid would be content wearing dirty clothes every day, maybe she’s not ready. In our house, allowance isn’t doled out until the laundry’s done (AND put away – this is important) so that’s a powerful motivator.
- “They’ll ruin their clothes, or the laundry room.” Start them out with their play clothes and pajamas instead of their Sunday best or school uniforms, then build up to the rest as you (and your kids) gain confidence. Show them how to load a washer without overstuffing it, and eliminate concerns about too much detergent with a super-easy
pump bottle brand such as Method. Four pumps for each load is easy to remember – it says it right on the bottle – and the container makes spills impossible. Because I’m not wild about my kid pouring bleach, not to mention the fact that he doesn’t have enough whites to make a full load, I do his whites along with mine. (But he folds them!) I also made the laundry process foolproof by marking the correct settings for kids clothes right on the washer and dryer. I used Sharpie to mark the preferred setting on the machine, but you could use a bit of colorful tape if that galls you.
- “They’ll slack off and won’t have what they need when they need it.” Ease them into the responsibility by asking, perhaps on Sunday afternoon, to check and see if they have everything they need for the week. (Or check for yourself, at first, if you prefer.) The important part is not to swoop in and proactively wash that field trip T-shirt or favorite skirt for the dance – just remind them what the consequences will be if they don’t have what they need.
- “They’ll look sloppy, because they won’t do as good a job as I would.” Quite possible. How much does that matter to you? Besides, no one said you had to stop ironing.
- “I will feel like a bad mom.” If you truly feel this is part of your motherly duties, launder away. But this is hardly Cinderella territory. You’re not making them wash the whole family’s clothes, mop the floors, and muck out the stalls before dawn. However, I expunge my mommy guilt by taking responsibility for the family’s sheets/towels/table linens and white loads, so I’m still doing more laundry than anyone else in the house.
Tips for success
- Cover the rookie mistakes. Yes, two wash loads will fit in the dryer – but they won’t actually dry, as everyone who spent $9 in quarters on this in college knows. Teach them how to do a rough sort of lights and darks, but also that washing in cold water helps prevent shrinking.
- Establish rules for folding and putting away, and have consequences if those rules are broken. Is it OK for them to dress out of a laundry basket of clean clothes, or will it drive you nuts? Establish the rules accordingly. Same goes for how neatly clothes need to be folded and put away.
- Lower your standards. Do socks absolutely have to be matched before they’re put away? Do basketball shorts have to be folded? Of course it’s up to you, but pick your battles. We streamlined the process by eliminating dressers and only hanging what absolutely must hang: pants, dress shirts, etc. Almost everything goes in open-topped canvas bins.
- What will you do if your kid announces he or she has no clean underwear on a school morning? I’m not saying there’s a right way to handle this, but it’s worth thinking through what you can stomach to drive the point home. It might sound complicated, but in truth, you might be surprised that if you let something go that makes your skin crawl (like fishing a beloved T-shirt out of hamper for an encore, or inside-out underwear), they’ll decide all on their own that it’s gross and won’t do it again.
- A radical idea: Have fewer clothes. When laundry isn’t so overwhelming, it’s easier to tackle, and fewer outfits means kids have to do laundry every week or so, and it becomes part of their routine. It also makes putting away easier – no struggling with overstuffed dresser drawers. Culling an outsized wardrobe down to their favorites can eliminate headaches in the long run.