Chores – it’s a bit of a dirty word, isn’t it? There are not too many people in my circle of friends who get excited at the prospect of completing chores around the house so it’s not surprising the children aren’t entirely thrilled when they are handed a list they must complete. So what is it about chores that makes it such a dirty word and how can we get kids to do chores without resorting to bribes and threats?
Good parents around the world impose chores upon their children as a way to instill responsibility and ensure they contribute to the effective running of the family home. It really does sound like a great plan and it is, of course, important for children to appreciate that a home does not look after itself and learn to pitch in wherever possible, but how do we get kids to do chores without them resenting it?
Not all chores are equal. A forced chore is very different to a chore done cooperatively. What I mean is that the very responsibility parents are wishing to teach their children can be lost if the approach to chores is not carefully considered for the child.
If the message we want to send children is to understand and believe that their role in the home is important and vital to its functionality, then using bribes or other coercive tactics diminishes that message. The lesson then becomes about the relationship between parent and child as well as what one can seek to gain (or avoid losing) by completing the chores and not so much about the needs of the house – at least, that is how the children will see it.
Commonly, parents decide that they would like to teach children about the value of money and household responsibilities simultaneously. They set up a pocket money system whereby the children complete chores throughout the week to earn their money, much like a worker would in employment.
Is there anything really wrong with this? Well no, it’s not going to damage a child (this is the system my parents used and I am a highly functional and fiscally responsible adult) but what it does do is make doing the chores something to be done only if there is to be payment or a trade off at the end of it. Turning chores into a job, takes away the opportunity for children to be able to contribute to the running of a household for the same reason we do – because it needs to be done.
So the problem is not really in the chores themselves but rather in the delivery of the chores to the children. You see, most parents come up against considerable resistance from children who, like us, can think of a million things they would rather do than go off and make their beds, take out the trash or vacuum the floor. So, convinced that the children must be made to do these chores, parents resort to enticements in a concerted effort to ensure chores are done in a timely manner.
In the same vein, threats are also a commonly used tactic to encourage chores. “No dessert if your room has not been cleaned” or “Vacuum the floor or you won’t be able to go to the party this weekend” also puts a negative spin on chores guaranteed to leave a sour taste in the mouths of the kids.
Children will do them reluctantly and often with resentment, knowing they are powerless in these scenarios and backed into a corner. They no longer see the chores as something to be done for the good of the house, they see them as a punishment or something only to be done if there is something to be personally gained from their contribution.
In the case of both threats and bribes being used to entice kids to pitch in, would the child willingly do these chores the next time they were required to or would they wait to be motivated by some kind of reward offered, ultimatum or consequence for not doing them?
This habit or expectation from kids can be hard to break. Even as adults we sometimes continue operating under this same motivation system. If I get the washing folded I will treat myself to a slice of chocolate cake. It’s not quite the same as it is still actually an internally produced motivation but the message is still clear.
So, what can parents do to encourage children to contribute around the house without resorting to bribes or threats?
Ideally, we would love our children to help out because they are motivated by the thought that they are helping out the family but the reality is that for some children, helping the family is the furthest thing from their thoughts. These children will need support to work WITH you to get some things done.
1. Have faith
We have to believe that a child who does not empty the dishwasher when asked to at age 7 will not grow up thinking he will NEVER have to empty dishwashers as an adult if we do not force him to now. Nor will he never know how to use a vacuum or wash clothes if he isn’t made to do these things as a child. There will come a time in a child’s life that he will willingly do these things simply because it is a part of life.
Does that mean we never ask them to do anything? No, absolutely not. As I mentioned before, it is important for all family members to be involved in the maintenance of the family home.
2. Respect a child’s need for play and downtime
When a child is truly respected and their daily plan for play taken into account, they will be much more willing to get involved in such tasks. If my children are caught up in their world of play, they are not easily swayed from it. They see this as their important day’s work and really, it IS their day’s work. Through their play, they grow, they learn, they develop. When we value this and are careful to seek assistance from them when they are not in the throws of their play, they will be much more enthusiastic about their contributions to the family household.
Wait for a time your child is not engrossed in play. Give him or her the option of helping out now or after their play is finished. “Hey, Sarah, I’ve got all this washing to fold and I was wondering if you’ve got some time to help out? I can wait until you’ve finished that game if you’d like?”
This statement makes the child feel his/ her help is important but also respectfully considers the child’s needs. Even if that child decided in the long run not to help with the washing, I have little doubt that help will be offered in another form at another time.
3. Model graciousness
A child who has had cleaning and tidying modelled for them graciously with words along the lines of “Oh, you don’t feel like making your bed today? I’m happy to help you out just as soon as I have done mine. Come on, let’s go have a look at where you’re at.” will be more likely to willingly help out as they get older.
Helping children to tidy their room or clean up their toys not only models for them kindness and helpfulness, it shows them that you understand how hard it is to do these chores sometimes and that that’s okay. Children will, over time, take this graciousness on board and will want to return that kindness.
4. Make chores part of the daily routine
Each morning, after breakfast the children and I go around the house and make all the beds together. This simple task has become a daily routine. We work together in a little bed-making team and the children really enjoy it. Because, it is part of each day, I can simply say, “Come on, let’s go make the beds.” and they happily race to their rooms. There are occasions they choose not to come with me but I never push the point. I continue with the routine and usually they catch up with me along the way.
We have the same routine with sweeping the floors. I usually have the broom, my eldest uses the stick vac and my youngest follows with the dust pan. They don’t have to but they know it get’s done each morning and enjoy the role they get to play in it.
Having children involved in the day to day running of the house from a young age is important. Their contributions, especially as they get older can help ease the pressure on tired parents and make them feel more confident and connected to the family unit. In order to instill true cooperation and responsibility in children, it is better not to use threats or bribes to encourage their help. Rather, model graciousness, respect and acknowledge their priorities when negotiating your expectations and for young children, make chores light-hearted and fun.
You might also enjoy reading:
How to (Respectfully) Encourage Children to Tidy up After Themselves ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids
Model Graciousness – Robin Einzig (Visible Child)
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury