Getting kids started on chores

Why bother? Why try to get your kids to do chores? It will save you time and energy but only in the long run. In a very long time, actually. It’s tempting to not bother – the emotional energy needed to get them to comply exceeds the physical energy we would spend doing the chores ourselves. I’ve read that 25 percent of all children are born with an inner motivation to help (one of those meaningless unfounded arbitrary statistics you often see in parenting books) but I think, with my own children, that got averaged out – each of them has only 25 percent of the motivation needed to do chores.

Typically, children are not interested and will look for any chance to avoid work. So, if you are going to persevere, resign yourself to a supervisory role for a long time. (How long? See above.) But there are benefits, benefits that do make it worth the hassle. For example, they learn skills – how to care for themselves, for things and for others. They learn the value of teamwork and connection as they work together. It instils a sense of caring for others and prevents ‘the world revolves around me’ attitude that will, in time, stink. Helpfulness is part of good character.

Competence in any area leads to better self-esteem. My wife commented that at school camps – where there will always be chores – kids who knew how to do things like sweep and clean were more confident and less likely to feel distressed and helpless when there was a bit of work to be done. It teaches time management – if they want to do the things they really want to do, they have to learn to get on and do the things they have to.
Here is a little phrase to galvanise yourself with as you brace for resistance from your kids – anything you do for your child that they can do for themselves is robbing them! Robbing them of coping skills and confidence. It is the equivalent of ‘institutionalising’ – giving them a learned helplessness. Here’s a real long term bonus – they can move out of your home before you die.

Typically, young adults now hang around home until parents get the Police to evict them. The median age for males to finally leave home is 26 (Australian figures from some years ago, but possibly applicable in New Zealand). The main reason they normally give for staying is economic, but I suspect another very real reason is that they don’t know how to look after themselves. A goal of parenting teenagers is to make their life at home increasingly resemble the world they will eventually have to survive in – budgeting, bill paying, appointment making and chores all need to become part of a young person’s regime while they are still living at home with us. Thus equipped, they can leave, cope and flourish. A person who has been well broken-in and house-trained will be much nicer to live with. They will make better flatmates. And what a gift to your sons and daughters-in law!

Not only will they be nicer to live with, you will probably be nicer too. So many parents spoil the atmosphere with the simmering resentment that they are taken for granted. They believe their children are lazy and don’t care about their hard work for them. Could I suggest that your children probably notice the sourness and simmering, but have got no idea why you are in such a bad mood. Because children never notice a ‘tail wind’. When I am cycling, I always notice head winds – they buffet me and slow me down – but if I have tail wind, it speeds me up and helps me wonderfully, but I don’t notice it. We give our children a great tail wind – we give them good homes, encouragement, a great lifestyle, good education, but they never notice it. (All they notice is when one of their friends has a better phone.) Dr Sylvia Rimm says, “Indulged children are as miserable as deprived children”. Are we indulging them? The way we serve our children in our homes is part of the tailwind – it’s been there all their life, and so it is invisible. Chores will help them reset their experience.

Starting off

Any task worth doing is worth doing badly – at the start, anyway, so expect a new regime of doing chores to have a few teething problem. Reward charts are a good way to start. I don’t like reward charts as a long-term parenting strategy, but they are good for initiating new habits. They focus on small, attainable goals. They keep you focused on progress and success, rather than only looking at the failures. The offer of short-term rewards raises motivation until a habit takes over. The real reward of tidying a bedroom is having a tidy bedroom, but until they understand that, the offer of some treat will keep them on task.

The downside of reward charts, or any type of ‘payment’ system is that the progress may evaporate when the payment stops. My strong opinion is, in general – don’t pay them for chores! Instead, children should learn that there are privileges, like pocket money, and duties which you do just because you are a member of the family. You can stop pocket money as a consequence for not doing their chores, and you can pay them extra for extra work, but in general try to avoid the understanding that they are being paid for doing things they should just do anyway. Otherwise they could legitimately say, “I’m earning more from my after-school job, so I don’t need to do my chores anymore.” Does anyone pay you for the kind things you do for your family? No? You do them because of love-led duty, which is a beautiful thing. Duty can be wonderful and positive but often it is undervalued. Let your children learn its value.

Ease them into their new tasks. Make sure they know clearly what to do. Talk it through first. Some tasks, like cleaning, actually require quite a lot of practice and technique. Sweeping, for instance, is a real skill, so don’t mock them if their first efforts are poor. Especially with new tasks, monitor and encourage them as they get the hang of it. Commenting on progress is more effective than picking up on mistakes.

Family meetings are great for clarifying chores. You can discuss how and when they will be done, and also what will happen if they are not done. You will be amazed at how willing your kids are to prescribe penalties for malefactors who default on their chores – they are always imagining that it will be their siblings, not them, receiving the punishment! There is always more compliance with a scheme they helped to plan.

Praise and encouragement

If only the centurions in charge of galley slaves had been to one of our seminars. They would have got around the Mediterranean far faster in their triremes if only they had used a bit of praise and encouragement on their oarsmen instead of whips and manacles. Not only does it work better than whips, it works better than the default parental techniques of nagging, whining, threats or growling. As I saw in one management book, “Praise is the fastest route to change”.

Praise and encouragement are not the same! Praise acknowledges that they have done well, and when they fail to do well, you can use encouragement (which is when a lot of us would have been inclined to use criticism). Encouragement is a statement of your belief that they can achieve something, put in a way where we lend them our hope. It’s not a ‘put down’, it’s a ‘lift up’. Praise when deserved, encouragement when needed. Sylvia Rimm adds a tip for increasing its effectiveness – “If you acknowledge what a child does in front of someone else, you maximize the effect by about four times”.

Chore sandwich

Sometimes you might meet surly resistance to the requests to chores. More typically you will get passive aggressive resistance – feigning compliance, not quite hearing what you said, forgetting what you asked them to do, getting distracted and not following through to completion. It may be because they are deliberately plotting to destroy you mental health, but another reason for resistance, especially from boys, is that they are not sure they can actually do the task. Boys would far rather be thought bad than dumb.

If you do need to correct an area of under-performance, sandwich the negative comment between two positive statements. “You’ve made a good start on your room, but the clothes in a heap are not acceptable. However, you’ve got your desk really well-organised. Now, what can we do about those clothes?” If you can’t spot anything positive, you all need to go and have a play in the park!

  • Make it clear – break the task into list of sub-tasks
  • Give a time deadline – “I’d like it done before…” – save, “Do it now!” for really urgent tasks
  • Check they can repeat back to you what you’ve asked them to do
  • “Will you need a reminder?”
  • Grandma’s rule – “You can do what you want to do after you’ve done what you have got to do.”
  • ‘Family task force’ – tackle the chores as a team
  • Have a set time to do set tasks
  • Race the timer to do a task
  • Put music on – see how much they can do before the song ends, make a game of it
  • Make sure there is a beginning, an end and a celebration

What chores when?

Preschool

  • Clearing their plates from the table
  • Hanging up their kindy bag
  • Hanging up their own towels
  • Put some things on the table
  • Feeding the cat
  • Tidy away toys

Primary

  • Put out rubbish
  • Set and clear table
  • Load and unload dishwasher
  • Vacuuming
  • Bathrooms
  • Making beds

High school

  • Cooking
  • Washing
  • Shopping
  • Lawns
  • Budgeting their own money
  • Car washing
  • Everything!

Family Coach Jenny Hale talks about how chores are good for kids

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About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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