If You Want Kids To Help Out, Give Them Actual Tools

When You Should Teach Your Kids To Use Tools

August 21, 2020 Updated January 29, 2021

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When my twins were toddlers, I would take them to an open-ended kids’ art studio that had several stations for creativity, play, and construction. One of their favorite spots to play was the workbench that allowed them to screw and unscrew with actual screwdrivers. I never would have thought to give my three-year-olds a Phillips-head screwdriver because it simply seemed like a sharp object they would stab themselves, or each other, with. But they loved using real tools and were more mindful of their use than I expected.

It occurred to me that kids have plenty of toy versions of actual household items and tools—vacuums, tool belts with plastic wrenches and hammers, kitchen appliances and utensils, and lawn mowers. If they love these replicas, why wouldn’t they want to get their hands on the real things? And why was I so reluctant to let them?

Kids can — and should — have safe access to tools, not just for entertainment’s sake, but because I have also learned that giving tools to my kids means they are more willing to learn to use them … and to help around the house.

I have struggled for years with trying to find the “right” way to get my kids to clean up after themselves, pitch in to help others, and to do their chores. I hate reward charts and I don’t love the idea of paying kids to contribute in ways that are basic to teamwork and living in a house with fancy things like water, heat, and 90 billion toys.

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My oldest is nine and my twins are seven; I realize I may be unrealistic in my desire for them to just do their part, but I don’t want some form of currency—money or toy—to be their only motivation. I know it will take a bit for them to hopefully develop that intrinsic drive to just do things because it’s the right or nice thing to do, but I want them to learn skills that will keep them from being lazy slobs.

I’m also tired of yelling. Recently, I caved a bit and now offer a quarter for certain tasks the kids do around the house, and at the end of each month they get an allowance. This works well most of the time for my daughters, but they are all much more motivated when they can use tangible tools to get the job done. Especially my son, who will make LEGO creations to clean up other LEGOs.

Over the weekend the kids grumbled when I strongly suggested that they help me with yard work. I offered a dollar for 30 minutes of hard work. My daughters were all in; they got water and sunscreen and were ready for assignments. My son dragged his feet, but would be damned if his sisters got a whole dollar and he didn’t.

I needed perennials and overgrown bushes cut back. I needed weeds pulled and trees pruned. It was a lot of work, and if I wanted to get it all done, I knew I would have to let the kids do more than put stuff into yard waste bags. My son was still grumbling about something, but when he heard me ask his sisters if they wanted to learn how to use the pruners and shears he became very interested.

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I explained how to safely hold and use the tools. I showed all of them what was a weed and what was not, including some of the cables near the house. They were much more motivated to work because they felt important enough to use something they saw as grown up and important too. I held my breath a few times when I heard one of them say “uh-oh,” but it was usually because they cut the wrong plant and not their fingers, which I secretly worried would happen.

If we don’t let our kids do things that feel a little bit unsafe sometimes (mostly to us), they will never know how to navigate risky situations. Parents often get in the way of a child’s instincts and the benefits of natural consequences. We want to keep them safe, but being overprotective won’t help either. Children won’t know how to protect themselves because they always look to us to do it. It’s better to help them figure out low-risk situations, equipping them with the confidence to handle more dangerous scenarios later.

My kids are also way more eager to help me make dinner when they get to use a knife or peeler. And not every tool needs to have an edge of danger to it — my kids are more likely to make their own breakfast or lunch when they know they can use the toaster and microwave on their own. Just putting toys away for the sake of walking without stepping on something is not enough, apparently, so the use of the vacuum makes clean up more enticing because they get to use the attachment to clean under couch cushions and along the baseboards. And not that I always want the help after one of them clogs the toilet, but they also want to use the plunger to fix the problem they created. (With this I usually hold the plunger with them and we do it together.) It’s gross, but they are getting the sense of how to unclog a toilet. Their future roommate can thank me later.

Even Popular Mechanics recommends several tools all kids should have in their first tool box to spark creativity, dexterity, and respect for things that could injure them or someone else. Those include a tape measure, pocket knife, pliers, and even a small saw.

If it means my kids are up for fixing the toilet paper holder they ripped off of the wall or cutting small branches in the yard before I mow, then I am going to keep giving them actual tools. Because though the risks are minimal, the benefits show up in their experience, their confidence, and their willingness to lend a hand. And that benefits the entire household.