Getting kids to do chores

Tired of running endless loads of laundry and constantly cleaning the kitchen? Kids as young as 6 can make a meaningful contribution to household chores. Don’t believe it? Try this three-step program and get your own kids on track in two weeks.

Young Girl Washing Dishes

The dinner hour has just ended and your children have dispersed to the nether regions of the house. The kitchen looks like a science lab after a failed experiment. Your husband is heading back out to the office to finish up a big project, and you’ve got a PTA meeting in ten minutes. “Don’t worry, honey,” says the big, strong man gallantly. “You can clean up the kitchen when you get back.”

That’s true, you could. Or you could implement a chore system and find a clean (if not sparkling) kitchen can be yours every day — without any extra effort on your own part.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because you’ve fallen into the very bad habit of doing everything yourself. But you can unlearn this habit and train your kids to help out around the house at the same time.

Step one: identify the carrot

If your kids are going to do chores, they need motivation. Has your 8-year-old recently lobbied for a later bedtime? Has your teen been begging for a later curfew, car keys, a spring break trip? Your kids want something. What it is? Figure it out, and you’ve got your carrot.

Remember, sometimes the things kids want will surprise you. Maybe you have a tween who constantly asks to help you cook — a task you’d rather handle on your own. If you’re clever, you can totally exploit her desire. Get her to agree to load and run the dishwasher after dinner every night, and after a week, “reward” her by letting her prepare the side dish each evening.

You also have to find your own carrot — that is, your own motivation for making the kids help out. You have to remember that your kids won’t do a job the way you would do it. But you won’t have to do it anymore. And if that’s not enough of a carrot for you, try this one: you’ll be teaching your kids to take care of themselves — a fundamental skill they’ll need later in life. So as hard as it may be to relinquish control, surrender, Mommy.

Step two: Match the chore to the child

Set yourself up for success by including your child in the process. No one enjoys chores, but we all have some we hate less than others. The same teen who will not, under any circumstances wash the kitchen floor may be perfectly willing to give her younger siblings a bath each evening.

Start by making a list of the chores you need help with. Review the list with your child, and make the final choice together. There may be bargaining involved — perhaps kitchen clean-up carries the weight of two other chores. Trash duty might only count as half a chore. Try assigning a point system to the various chores and see if your idea of hard work matches your child’s thoughts. Just understanding your different points of view can go a long way towards creating a working system.

Step three: set clear expectations

I’m a fan of writing things down so that everyone is on the same page. But the written contract/list/whatever has another benefit: when your child starts to argue, you can just point to the paper. “It’s on the list,” you can say, and you can even sound a little apologetic, as if you’d like to help, but what can you do? It’s on the list. (See some free downloadable chore lists & to-do lists here.)

Write out exactly what your kids will do, and what they’ll get in return. Be as specific as possible: “Jesse will wash, dry, and fold two loads of laundry on Saturday. As long as the loads are folded neatly by 4 pm on Saturday, Jesse can take the car out on Saturday night and return no later than 11:30 pm.”

And of course, it’s important to be clear on your own expectations, too. Do not expect your child to do the job just as you would. The goal is to get him to do the job passably well so that you don’t have to do it.

The two-week trial

No new system is an overnight success. Give this plan at least two weeks before you evaluate whether or not it’s working. At then end of two weeks, sit down with your child and talk about what you like and don’t like. Make any necessary adjustments. And then sit back while your kids do the laundry.

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