I hate the word chores, and I can guarantee your kids do too. Asking kids to do chores is like saying I want you to take on this drudgery, this burden. And then when the expectation is that they should do them willingly because of all you do for them—that’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.
First, think of another word. I have heard them called contributions, which has exactly the right intention behind it. Jobs can feel a bit more important than the onus of chores. Do your chores sounds like an imposed sentence.
Second, set your expectations of your kids appropriately. Do not ever expect that your kids will be happy to help. Wanting to help out and having consideration of all you do, comes with maturity. Children are naturally egocentric and care only about their own happiness—frustrating, yes, but developmentally appropriate. They grow into being considerate when their needs are considered.
Third, set your expectations of yourself appropriately. Expect that from a very young age, your children are going to do tasks to be helpful. Just don’t expect them to like it or to think of their jobs without reminders and prompts. The important thing is that they do them, so they learn they are important contributing members of the family. A family is a team. When you are on a team, every player is important to its success.
I have worked with too many parents who wait until their children have learned that they aren’t expected to do housework to then begin setting rules around chores. Remain calm in your expectations; do not try to convince them of why they need to help—just that you want the help. When you yell, bribe, or threaten them to do chores, the underlying assumption is that they should want to, and you are mad that they don’t. If you understand that kids don’t want to do chores, you will be more effective at ensuring they get done.
Remember when your toddler begged to run the vacuum, fold laundry, wash windows, and sweep the floor? You didn’t have the time or patience so you got them out of the way to just get it done. But, you might have missed an opportunity. Little children want to help—until we make them. The key is to encourage their desire and then gently help them cross the gap when jobs become expected. That’s when giving them choices and fun tasks come in. Try to keep them in the helping mode as they grow more capable of difficult tasks.
Try challenges for little ones:
- Who wants to put cups on the table? What color should we each get tonight?
- Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head need to get home for the night. Do you want to tuck them in bed?
- Would you like to help me fold the laundry today? What colors do you want to put in the basket?
- Would you like to sweep or wipe the counter while I finish the dishes?
- Let’s get the bucket. What color Legos do you want to toss in and what color should I toss in?
- Do you want to spread the peanut butter yourself or would you like me to help?
These are genuine questions. They are meant to entice. If your child doesn’t want to, don’t force it. Encourage the enjoyment of doing what you ask instead of the chore of it. “Put your toys away” is a demand and will get resistance.
Let go of how much time they should spend helping or how well they fold or wipe. Contributing is about the act of helping and seeing oneself as a helper. It’s about building relationship and connection. A helping child will be far more invested in family events and planning when she feels like an important member of the team, and she will feel more connected to her family as her source of support (the most important protective factor in anything you fear in later years).
With school-age kids, start with consideration of them:
- Understand and be considerate of their agendas, even things you hate them doing or think of as trite. Remember, your child’s agenda is as important to him as yours is to you. They are not ready to give up what they want in favor of what you want. Kids want what they want when they want it. Maturity opens the perception that other people want what they want, too. Then, consideration and compromises become necessary for relationships. You don’t have to teach your child this (the teaching comes in the doing), and if you try too early, your attempts will fall on deaf, egocentric ears.
- Use motivation instead of threats to insure they do what they shouldn’t be expected to want to do.
- After you put the wrapper in the trash, I’ll give you the granola bar.
- As soon as your teeth are brushed, I’m going to tickle you silly.
- After you bring the dishes to the sink, we can play that game you wanted.
- As soon as you get your toys put away, we can watch that show.
- Expect and allow forgetting. Don’t set up for failure. Asking a young child to feed a pet is problematic unless it’s spontaneous. “Would you like to feed Fido tonight?” instead of “Your job will be to feed Fido.”
- Own your wants. I would like you to set your place at the table. That helps me and makes my job easier. Not, you need to….
- Ask for help on the spot. “Can you bring that bag of groceries in the house? That way I don’t have to make another trip.” This kind of help is important for the ones who are most resistant to taking on jobs. Spontaneous help is what they are best at.
- Stay away from you need to—more distasteful words. They don’t need to. You want them to. Say that.
When old enough for expectations to be more regular:
- Make a list of age-appropriate things you would like help with. Ask your kids which ones they prefer. Offer a change-up plan each week.
- Together go over the past week and ask what worked and what didn’t. “I really needed the trash taken out sooner. What can we agree on as a time for taking it out?”
- When resistance is high, use problem-solving. “What we decided on for jobs last week is not working. I don’t want to be left doing everything. I don’t think that is fair. Maybe what you chose is too hard. What can we agree on that is doable?”
- Don’t blame, criticize or threaten but do make it a you-help-me/I-help-you situation. “I’m happy to take you to Sam’s. As soon as the dishwasher is empty let me know and we will go.”
- Allowance is not payment for household responsibilities. It’s for learning how to use money (see related article). Money is an extrinsic motivator, the feeling of helpfulness is intrinsic.
- Use dry-erase boards to list jobs that can be checked off when done.
- Be sure and express appreciation for their specific help (not, “Good job!”). Focus more on when they are helping rather than when they are not so their helping grows. When they feel your disappointment, they will stop trying. When they feel helpful, they will see themselves as helpful.
It feels good to know that you help your family out. You feel proud of being needed. I once overheard my twelve-year-old son and his friend trying to best each other as they compared household jobs, griping as their chests swelled.