How Can I Get My Kids to Do Chores?
Pitching in benefits children, as well as the whole family
Chores can be a pain, whether you’re a kid who has to do them, or a parent who has to tell your kid it’s time to do them.
But the potential for some familial friction is worth it, say experts in child development. Pitching in teaches children empathy, responsibility, and the importance of belonging to a community. “Chores teach children how to do tasks that they will need throughout their lives — like doing laundry and the dishes. And they teach skills that will benefit them in the classroom and on the sports field, such as how to work together and be a part of a team,” says Caroline Mendel, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
And the sooner you start the better. Researchers have linked doing household chores at an early age with feelings of competence, self-confidence, and a sense of responsibility to other people. In a University of Minnesota study of 84 adults in their mid-twenties, the best predictor of their success (in terms of career, relationships, and not using drugs) was that they participated in household tasks when they were three or four; those who did not begin doing chores until they were 15 or 16 were less successful. The implication is that the sense of responsibility learned by doing household task is best learned when children are young.
With the pandemic keeping us corralled at home most of the time, kids doing chores is more important than ever. We need everyone pitching in to keep the family functioning under pressure. And taking on household tasks will help kids practice skills that ordinarily they might be working on at camp, while interacting with friends, or during sports.
Here are some tips for making chores manageable for your child and beneficial for the whole family.
Make chores part of the routine
Routines and structure are really grounding for kids, says Dr. Mendel. She suggests that children be told what the expectations are upfront and have some choice (when possible) about the chores they want to do — set the table or clear the table, for example — to help them feel invested. A chore chart that provides a visual schedule for what exactly each child will do on each day of the week is helpful; family meetings or “check-ins” are also good for reviewing expectations.
Break it down
Kids are likely to be more successful, and therefore feel more of a sense of accomplishment, if they are given a job that is not only developmentally appropriate, but very specific. Instead of telling your child something vague and potentially overwhelming like “clean your room,” for example, first tell them to put the Legos back in the bin and then tell them to put the books back on the shelves.
For children with executive functioning challenges, including those with ADHD, this approach is especially important.
When introducing a new responsibility or behavioral goal, Dr. Mendel employs a technique known as “shaping.” So, you might tell your child to make their bed, but you change the definition of what that means gradually, over time. Initially, “making the bed” could mean simply spreading the sheet on the bed. Next time, it would mean spreading the sheet and placing the bedspread over it, and so on. Or, you might first expect your child to make the bed once a week and increase the frequency from there. “You’re progressively building on to what the definition of making your bed is in order to receive the same reward, whether that means earning allowance or praise for doing a great job.”
Focus on skill building
The best chores are related to things you know your child is going to need to be able to do down the line, says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, head of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “An elementary or middle schooler could be involved in laundry, clearing the table, washing dishes, helping with meal preparation,” she notes. “In taking on those chores, your child will learn more about how to do those things for themselves in the future.” Even preschoolers can pitch in on household tasks, beginning with putting away toys.
For older kids, Dr. Lee recommends linking chores, when you talk about them, to future independence. If you want to be able to make a cool dinner for your girlfriend or boyfriend one day, or If you want to make your favorite food when you go to college. “I think the more you can link chores to real life circumstances and experiences, not only are they more functional,” she adds, “but they’re a little bit easier and more palatable for kids and teens to take on and understand.”
Rewards for chores
Ideally, children would be eager to help out just because it’s the right thing to do. But that’s not always how it works in reality. The issue of whether kids should be rewarded for doing chores, either with money or privileges, is controversial. “Giving some sort of extrinsic motivator is often what’s needed to get the job done,” says Dr. Mendel.
Dr. Lee notes that paying kids for work around the house — whether in earned activities, parental attention, point towards a coveted object, or actual coin —is not that different from parents getting paid to do a job. “It’s an agreement you make with your child proactively,” she explains. “You’re saying, ‘I know this is hard for you. Here is the paycheck for putting out that hard work.”
What about the argument that rewarding kids for chores is bribery? “Bribery is reactive. It’s waiting for your child to misbehave and then suddenly offering them all these bells and whistles,” says Dr. Lee. “That is very different than deciding beforehand on a contract. We want to try to be as proactive as we possibly can about behavioral contracts from the start.”
When kids resist doing chores—and they will—Dr. Mendel stresses that it’s important not to make them feel bad or allow the situation to escalate. “You say it as neutrally as possible, just sort of matter of fact: ‘You did not do your chores, so you did not earn your allowance.’”
If you’re using a different reward system, you could point out that they didn’t do the laundry, therefore their soccer uniform isn’t clean, or they didn’t wash the car, so they won’t have the earned privilege of using the car this weekend (in the case of a teenager). In this way, kids begin to understand accountability and that their decisions affect them.
“And then you predict success next time,” suggests Dr. Mendel, by saying, ‘next week is another chance to do your chores and earn your allowance. I know you can do it!’”