In my last post, I discussed research showing how household chores benefit our kids. Regular chores can teach them new skills, the importance of a work ethic, and how to tackle the unpleasant tasks that are an inevitable part of life.
Unfortunately, chores are like exercise, always easier to discuss in the abstract than to put into practice. Trying to get our children to do boring or unappealing chores can lead to very frustrating and counterproductive power struggles. Below are some practical steps for actually making the learning-from-chores thing happen.
Know The Point of Chores for Kids
We have to start with the understanding that the purpose of assigning chores is not to get household tasks done, but to teach our kids how to develop good habits and learn important life lessons. It will always be easier to do the jobs ourselves, and we undoubtedly can do them better. Instead, we have to focus on letting our kids learn. That difference means we have to give up control and learn to live with dragging feet, some measure of whining, and less than a great job. Tempering our expectations often can be the hardest part of the exercise.
The purpose of chores also requires that they be limited. There are several reasons for this principle. It’s all too easy for foster children and stepchildren to misinterpret rules and see themselves as having to work harder than other kids in the family. Also, at least one study from China showed a high correlation between depressive symptoms and a high workload of at-home chores. In another U.S. study, difficult or dangerous chores strongly correlated with children’s displaying bullying behavior. Our kids are not mini-adults and they should not be doing adult jobs.
The point of giving kids chores is to help them learn life skills and to feel more a part of the family. Just like homework, team sports, or any of the other things that teach important skills, we need to assign chores in moderation.
We also shouldn’t let worry about their feeling overwhelmed keep us from assigning chores. Perhaps our kids are immature for their age or have shorter attention spans than their peers, and we will have to adjust to that reality. Nevertheless, every child can do something to contribute to their and the family’s functioning, and we shouldn’t hesitate to ask them to do just that. We shouldn’t let our worries deprive them of the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing even a small job well.
A final benefit of chores is that they help our kids feel like part of a team. If they see that these chores need to be done by someone, and that they can get them done, then they can feel that they are making a positive contribution to the whole family. Even if they whine and drag their feet, they won’t be able to escape the fact that we are all in this together. Chores can help them see how the family works together in a way that few other activities can match.
Find Age-Appropriate Chores
Of course, age-appropriate chores are essential. If our kids feel overwhelmed, they won’t learn anything from the process except how frustrating life can be. On the other hand, we often underestimate how much our kids are capable of doing. Sometimes, young children can do a task just as well as older kids. Certainly, kids can learn daily chores such as picking up their toys from an early age, and older children can learn how to help with meal preparation. Some good ideas for balancing our expectations for different ages are available here and here.
Communicate Clear Expectations and Deadlines
An interesting study of Los Angeles families found that parent’s communication was an important factor in whether the kids did chores. In the words of the study, “inconsistent and unclear expectations from parents negatively affect children’s participation in household work.” (The study also found that children reported more work than they actually did, but most of us usually give ourselves more credit than an outside observer would.)
The takeaway from this study is that we need to be very clear with our kids about what the chores involve. “Take the trash out to the curb on Wednesday” may be clear enough, but “clean your room” can mean very many different things. Young kids — and kids who are younger than their age because of trauma — particularly need small tasks. So, instead of saying “clean your room,” for example, you might say, “put all of your toys in the box, all of your clean clothes in your drawers, and all of your dirty clothes in the laundry.”
Similarly, we need to give very clear deadlines. Kids will usually wait until the last possible minute to do their chores (a trait that I have to admit they share with lawyers). So we need to make clear when we expect the job to be done. Telling a child to put his or her toys away before having screen time makes much more sense to kids than saying “clean your room” with no timeline.
Give Them Control Along with Responsibilities
Give kids as much control as possible over planning their chores and getting them done. Some kids will do well with a chore chart or chore list or system of cards, while other children need the structure of the same chore every week. Still other chores, such as taking out the trash, have to be done regardless of who wants to do them. Whatever chore system your family uses, do your best to get input from your kids when developing it.
Even if the kids can’t have any choice in which chores they do, leave it up to them to decide when and how to do those tasks. If the trash needs to be set out by a particular day, don’t start nagging the kids 3 days early. Let them control when they take it out. If they miss a week, see below about consequences.
One principle I stumbled on was reminding my kids that, if they were busy or out of town or otherwise unavailable, they couldn’t just forget about their chores. They needed to take responsibility for asking someone else to do them, or even negotiating a trade with me or siblings. I learned that not letting kids off the hook was an important way to help them develop a sense of responsibility, as well as learn to plan ahead.
Praise Their Effort, Not Their Results
Positive feedback generally is the best way to keep kids motivated and showing at least a semblance of a positive attitude. I’ve written before about research showing that praising our kids for their effort instead of innate qualities helps build self-esteem. The same principle applies to chores. If we focus on the job that the kids did, then we’ll fall into a self-defeating trap. If they don’t do a good job, then we’ll just be nagging them to do better. If we praise them, then they’ll decide that whatever job they did is just fine for the next time they do it.
If, on the other hand, we praise them for sticking with a boring task, or helping a sibling with their chores, or not whining about taking the trash out in the rain, then we’ll be giving them positive reinforcement for things that are more in their control. We’ll also be encouraging them to continue to improve. Of course, none of these reactions will come right away, but the more we praise their perseverance or other positive attributes, the more likely we are to see those good traits.
Have Clear and Consistent Consequences For Not Getting Chores Done
On the negative end of the scale, we need to know what to do when the kids don’t get their chores done. I always favor logical and built-in consequences whenever it’s safe to impose them. For example, we once had a diverse collection of teens and young adults in the house, each of whom was responsible for his or her own laundry. To keep the laundry organized, we negotiated a schedule where each person had an assigned laundry day. If anyone missed their day, they had to either wait another week for clean clothes or negotiate for washing machine time with one of the other family members. That built-in consequence kept me out of the middle of disputes and taught my kids to pay attention to the schedule.
There is some dispute among therapists and experts about whether to use allowances as a reward or consequence. According to the Los Angeles study mentioned above, allowances generally didn’t motivate kids to do their chores. That finding is consistent with my experience. At one point, I tried tying chores to my kids’ allowance, but it proved too easy for them to “buy” their way out of doing unpleasant tasks. So I switched to other consequences. We used out-of-the-ordinary tasks around the house, such as putting in a garden walkway, as opportunities for the kids to earn extra pocket money by doing extra chores. But the normal tasks of ordinary family living required all of us to pitch in, and we learned to treat participation as not optional.
The Los Angeles study also noted that “inconsistent . . . expectations from parents” were related to less participation from kids. In other words, as with all consequences that we impose on our children, we have to be consistent. If they believe that they can sometimes avoid both their chores and the consequences, then they will always try to avoid their chores. You have to be both clear and consistent with the consequences.
Having kids do chores is an important way for them to learn life lessons and develop traits that are important for resilience. Those traits are particularly important for children who have suffered trauma. When it comes to deciding which battles to pick, this is an essential one for our kids. If we keep our eye on the purpose of the chores, allow the kids as much control as we can in choosing and completing those chores, stay clear in our expectations, and remain consistent in the consequences, we are much more likely to successfully help them learn those lessons.