“How do I get my kid to do chores?”. Without needing to threaten, bribe, or needle them into it. This is the most common question I am asked by the hundreds of parents I work with in the trenches everyday as a counselor here in Tucson. Well, roll your sleeves up you tired and weary parents, because I am going to give you a clear set of steps of how to ramp up to a chore system that runs itself. After all, do you really think your kids are learning a work ethic if they only do chores when you henpeck them? Chores and school work are key ways your child either learns a work ethic, or not.
WARNING: if your child is 3 years of age or older, and they are not doing chores regularly, you are not helping them internalize key character traits such as accountability, team-oriented attitude, and humility. These are not just traits we would like them to have, these are traits they MUST have if you want them to survive in a future job market where children from other cultures are brought up in families where they don’t call helping the family a chore, in fact they don’t call it anything. It is just understood that this is part of being part of The Family.
Why are chores vital to raising a kid to become GREAT? Because you are great based on your set of character traits, and our 1-click “I want it now” materialistic culture teaches kids to be lazy, entitled, and immature. Sad but true: an 8-year-old living in a suburb of any American city is likely much less responsible than that of the typical 8-year-old who lived on the American frontier with his parents. We parents make our kids’ lives way too cushy, and we are all guilty to some degree. Chores are one of the few ways to counteract the devastating negative impact of so-called “modern day” culture. By the way, if they do not do chores, they may not even learn to survive outside the comfy confines of your house. Are you really surprised by how many kids are not finding jobs, given the current lack of work ethic in our culture?
By the way, I don’t call them chores, I call them “earnings”. And not because I suggest you give money to your kids for doing these tasks. Rather, because you want to teach your child that they only earn things like respect, trust, freedom, privileges, and money, by showing they can be responsible. You must teach your child the difference between needs and privileges. They need shelter and food, but most others things are PRIVILEGES. Too many parents fall into this trap: if other kids have something, their kid must have it. If neighbor Johnny has an Ipad, so must my kid. REALLY? Have they EARNED it?
When a child learns this difference on a deep level, they realize nothing is handed to them, and that they must consistently exhibit certain traits/tendencies such as responsibility. They learn this difference only if you parents are on a daily basis intentionally reinforcing this. The easiest way to do this is through a firm chore system. After counseling children and families for nearly a decade as a counselor, I can tell you that children from families with chore plans do much better no matter what psychological problem they come into my office with.
Steps toward a chore system that teaches your child inner discipline (I will call these tasks “chores” as a courtesy in this blog since most people call them that)
1. Make a list of all the chores done by everyone in the house on an excel or Word document and if there is another parent in the picture, do this with them. Make sure this is a complete list, from garbage to yard duties to getting the mail. Self-care responsibilities go on there too, like “get yourself dressed for school”, or “brush your teeth”, or “do homework”.
2. Decide which chores each parent should be responsible for given their level of difficulty. Cutting the lawn might be one for the parent, unless the child is a adolescent. But don’t let your wimpy side take over. In ancient societies 6-year-olds learned to ride horses and bow hunt from their horse.
3. Now that you know which chores are to be done by your kids, you parents must now determine when each chore needs to be done by. So, create another column on your “chore spreadsheet” called “Deadline”. If the garbage needs to be taken out by Sunday 9 .p.m., then you note that. Do this for each chore. If you do not do this, you are inviting your child’s creative lawyerly nature to come out where they say, “I was planning on doing this”. Uh-huh.
4. If you have more than one child, and they differ by age significantly, you also must note if the chore is for older kids or younger kids. Note that somehow with some sort of coding on the chore spreadsheet.
5. Make sure there is absolute clarity with any other parent involved about the list of chores, WHEN they need to be done, and WHAT AGE group can do each chore.
**Key point #1: try to have as many chore deadlines as possible be correlated with naturally occurring family rituals like breakfast, lunch, dinner, leaving for school, going to bed, etc. That way, it makes it easy for you and your child to remember when any one chore should be done. You want your family member’s to get into the habit of checking the chore chart before each naturally occurring transition.
**Key point #2: Make technology goodies like Ipad or video game access contingent on certain chores being done. For example: no ipad till homework is done, dogs fed, and dishes put away.
6. Have a family meeting with all family members, and discuss how there will be a system as to how the chores get done. Clarify chores will be divvied up fairly, but all must do their share. Clarify that if a parent must remind the child to do something, it does not count as it getting done, unless the child is younger (between 3 and 5).
If they are younger, you may clarify that one reminder will be given, but not repeated reminders. Clarify that failure to do chores will result in IMMEDIATE consequences. When I say immediate, I do not mean, “Wait till your father gets home!”, I mean immediate. Tell family members that every week there can be a family meeting as needed to discuss updates to the chore plan, but, no one single person can unilaterally make a change.
REMINDER: For a consequence to hurt enough to decrease the frequency of/terminate the unwanted behavior, it must “sting” but not break your child’s spirit. You are not looking to demean them, you are wanting to make them not want to do it again. Example: “Since you did not clear off the table, you now gather up all the laundry and all privileges freeze until this is done”. Parents forget consequences can come in two forms: taking things away or introducing unpleasant tasks.
7. Next, welcome questions during the family meeting, and then state that you will go around the room, and each child can begin picking from the list of chores for their age group, what they will do. Mark their name in a column called “Who is responsible?”. You want them to ask questions because it helps them buy into this. Talk about how these chores, or “earnings” are ways for them to earn more freedom, respect, etc. During the family meeting clarify that for the first week one courtesy reminder will be given but THAT IS ALL.
8. After all the chores have been divvied up, re-clarify who is doing what, and BY WHEN. Have each child sign a piece of paper stating they agree to do all of the chores. This is a seemingly legalistic but effective way of letting them know this is serious.
9. Post the chore chart all over the house, including on the refrigerator, in each child’s bathroom, and wherever else they frequent. Make the chore list into a checklist, where it slides into a plastic cover envelope allowing for chores to be checked off by your child. Use a dry erase marker. For young kids, you can have pictures of what they need to do next to that task, so they have a visual reminder.
10. Stick to the plan, and parents, DO YOUR CHORES. Children learn the most from what they see you do, not what you tell them to do.
REMINDER: do NOT REMIND your child what to do after that one week grace period, unless they are so young they need it. Let me share a story from one parent I taught this system to who now swears by it: Her 11-year-old did not take the trash out before going to bed on the second Sunday evening of the plan. So, she let him go to bed, and then woke him up, and said, “You did not take out the trash, please go do it.”. He got up and did it. And, he still got a consequence the next morning. Yes, this was reminding, but it also stung this boy and he never forgot to do the trash again. Have a backbone, don’t be a jellyfish.
The key is not to henpack your kids, and spend time reminding them (Don’t forget to do X and X before dinner!”), you are losing and they are wining in that scenario. In contrast, you want to teach them to go to the chore chart, and get things done on their own. THIS is when they are learning accountability.
Should you give your kids money for doing chores? Not in my opinion. Could it work in some cases…yes. But I think this does not help children learn what it really means to be part of a team, and it does not teach them what is truly sacred about The Family. The Family is a group of people where you do things because that is the right thing to do, not because you get a fiver on Friday. However, if they are doing some sort of special project, maybe then compensation can be given. But keep it reasonable.
I have taught this system to over a hundred parents within my Tucson counseling practice, and it works. But you must be consistent, and you must not fall into reminding them. Will their teacher or boss regularly remind them? No. Then why should you?
One of the best books on raising your child to inner discipline is called “kids are worth it!” by Barbara Coloroso. She understands the realities of parenting and is funny but also wise and on target with how we should teach our kids that one way we love them is through teaching them responsibility.
If you want a brief meeting to know more about getting this up and running, you can always consult a behavioral expert. As a counselor and psychologist in Tucson, I commonly work with parents who have well adjusted kids who want to get a chore plan up and running in one short meeting. Sometimes if they have more demanding kids, they may need a little help with the nuances. You DO NOT need to have a psycholiogicsl problem to see a counselor like myself. That is likely why I often work with gifted children as well as parents who simply want to know how to accelerate their child’s development.