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How to Get Your Kids to Do Their Chores

How to motivate kids to help around the house without having to ask

Published on: May 01, 2017

clean socks

In her TED talk “How to raise successful kids — without over-parenting,” author Julie Lythcott-Haims highlights two important factors in a child’s early life that predict success in adulthood.    

First: The child grew up in a loving home. No real surprise there.

Second (and perhaps not quite as intuitive): The child grew up doing chores.

That’s right. It’s not socio-economic status, not education, not I.Q. Although those factors can and do play a part in a person’s successes, Lythcott-Haims, a former counselor at Stanford University, believes it is more beneficial to teach our children the long-term value of chores.

Time to roll up the kiddos’ sleeves.

For those of you who’ve already taught your children to pitch in, my hat is off to you. You’ve given them skills that will not only help your home (and perhaps save your sanity), but you’ve taught them an attitude that will serve them well as adults because they will understand the concept of giving back.

For the rest of us who are sheepishly uncrumpling the half-finished chore chart from the trash can (which we, not our children, empty weekly), read on. It’s well worth trying again, and there may a method or two you haven’t tried before.

Rebranding

First, stop using the word “chores,” says Gloria DeGaetano, founder and director of Parent Coach International. Instead, DeGaetano says, call them “contributions,” because when we contribute to something, “we feel a sense of belonging.” (Think about organizations where you volunteer or to which you donate; you give to a group with which you want to be associated.) This mindset also moves the child away from “I’m doing this because Mommy or Daddy said so” and toward “I help out because in our home, everyone pitches in.”

North Seattle Community College parent instructor Glen Osborn agrees; belonging and learning to help others are the end goals of kids doing chores. He also says that a lot of skill building has to happen first, and the earlier we start, the easier it may be in the long run.

girl with laundry basket Start ’em young: ages 3–5

When DeGaetano’s boys were ages 3 and 5, she was a single working mom. She made it to Friday evening crawling to the finish. Still, she wanted to wake up to a clean home on Saturday morning. So, every Friday night she’d put on music and let the boys ride the vacuum. Together, the trio would dust, dance and pick up toys. Pizza was usually involved, before or after. “I made it fun and joyful and a bonding experience,” she says. Bonus: DeGaetano’s sons grew into teen boys who kept clean rooms.

While DeGaetano says this ritual was a “happy mistake,” we can all learn from it.

Work together. The adult needs to model the behavior. “Kids are really perceptive to adult moods and attitudes,” Osborn says. “If your attitude is avoidance, if it’s something you don’t like doing, they will pick up on that.” If you’re all in it together, you also have more opportunity to encourage each other.

Designate time every day/week. Having a routine sets up the expectation and helps you stick with it, while also allowing time for practice. A 3-year-old probably wasn’t the most magnificent duster in the beginning, but he’d always have another opportunity around the corner.

Use music. “Music is golden,” says Osborn. Many preschools have a special “cleanup song.” If your children have music they love, you can incorporate it as an incentive. My family’s current go-to tunes: the Trolls soundtrack and KEXP-FM’s Saturday-morning show Positive Vibrations.

Make it fun. Is this always possible? No. But if you can make it entertaining, it’ll be an easier sell for the young set. Sometimes pulling a piece of paper from a hat or rolling dice to see who gets which item on the list can give a task enough of a spin. Or add a little competition. Heck, even “gross” can be fun. I once put “toilets” on the list, thinking I’d be the one to do them, and both my 4- and 7-year-old wanted in on the toilet brush. (I had to supervise very closely.)

You don’t need a chore chart. There are lots of chore charts and apps out there with reward systems. If they work for you, I don’t think anyone’s going to tell you that you’re doing something wrong. (The goal is to do the chores, right? Plus, Osborn notes, allowance for out-of-the-norm chores can help with the older set as they begin to learn about money.) Still, both DeGaetano and Osborn advise caution with external motivation. As they point out, adults fulfill tasks without compensation every day. It’s the sense of responsibility that drives us, not the reward.

And here are a few other ideas for the younger set:

Keep the directions simple. Take it slowly. Let your kids master one skill at a time. Remember that if not everything has a designated place to go, the directions “put away your toys” may not be so simple. (I have learned this the hard way.)

Narrate what you’re doing. This might feel silly, but this practice can help a child recognize the small steps that add up to a completed task as well as help to convey how you feel about the end result. (“When we put the Legos away, the floor is clear, so no one will step on them and hurt their feet. That makes me happy!”)

Use “if/then” statements. In the jargon of early childhood education, this is called “priming” — you’re giving your kids a heads-up. If you notice, for instance, that it’s nearing time for a library trip but your child has made a mess, you might say, “If we want to go to the library, then we’ll need to start putting these things away.”

Time it. For younger children with shorter attention spans, don’t assign tasks that take hours. Keep it short and sweet.

Keep it up: ages 6–10

The “huddle.” Both Osborn and DeGaetano advocate a weekly family meeting. Osborn’s family used these meetings to divvy up the chores and to reflect: How did that go? Would I do it differently? Is there another way?

Give your children autonomy. Ask them what they think needs to get done and what they want to contribute. If they’ve had a hand in choosing the task, they are far more likely to complete it. I admit I had to hold my tongue when my daughter suggested the chore “put art on the walls.” I almost said, “Nice try —  that’s not a chore,” but I looked up at our empty walls and realized it was a good idea. Will she get to do that every week? No. But it got her interested.

Some daily, some monthly. In Osborn’s family, everyone drew lots once a month for the really grimy tasks, and whoever drew the short straw had that task for the month. The kids were always allowed to trade chores outright, which, he says, helped them with their negotiation skills. 

Pay attention to what your child gravitates toward. One child may be great at making her bed, while the other prefers getting food ready for the next day’s lunch box. One of Osborn’s sons really liked food shopping when he was younger; now he has his license, and Osborn can text him the list.

Talk about the results. My good friend and neighbor Hue Ho, a middle school science teacher and mom of two children, likes to make sure her children know how they’ve helped. “I’ll tell them, ‘Because you helped, we have 15 minutes free to read together.’” She also reminds them that they clean up to “make space,” which means more space to play. The chore becomes a win-win.

Meeting “la résistance.” Let’s be realistic here. There will be pushback. DeGaetano suggests backing off if a child resists. See what else they might want to do. If we think more long term, the process becomes less about the power play and more about encouraging the habit. “We want to help the child feel autonomy, ownership and responsibility,” she says. “We want them to find their sense of self — that’s the North Star.” 

You know your child best

The following list is meant to give you some ideas, and if your 3-year-old is folding laundry, go with it!

Chores for 3- to 5-year-olds

  • Put away toys
  • Interpretive dusting and sweeping
  • Set the table (with unbreakable plates)
  • Clear the unbreakables
  • Assist in making the bed
  • Put clothes in the laundry
  • Take items from the washing machine and put them into the dryer
  • Find pairs of socks
  • Put away the vegetables after a shopping trip (pull the crisper out from the fridge so they can reach)

Chores for 6- to 10-year-olds

  • Remove lunch box from backpack after school
  • Clean out said lunch box
  • Remove important paperwork like homework and permission slips and put in a designated place
  • Prep food or snacks for the following day
  • Lay out clothes for the next day
  • Choose a meal and do the shopping (then create that meal together)
  • Wash counters/wipe down table
  • Feed and/or walk the pet
  • Make bed
  • Sweep
  • Vacuum
  • Wash floor
  • Clean walls
  • Take out the trash

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