Part III – Promoting Chore Responsibility

Are you finding it difficult to get your kids to help around the house? Do you find yourself nagging your children or feeling as though it would be easier just to complete the tasks yourself? This is probably one of the most frustrating issues for parents. You can feel like you are being the “bad guy” when you expect your children to do chores. There are ways, however, to help your family to become the cooperative one you envisioned prior to having children, without nagging and arguing.

The first step is to revisit your expectations and the chores you have assigned. Ask yourself if you are:

  • being realistic in what you are asking your children to do? If you set your expectations too high, children may not have the ability to complete the task satisfactorily. If you set your expectations too low, children may not view their contribution as being important and may resist helping.
  • certain that your children know what is expected of them? You may assume that children know what you mean when you ask them to take on a job, but they may not. To avoid getting angry because your children are not doing a complete job or they are not doing the job the “right” way, , you need to be much clearer with your directions regarding how a task should be done. Saying, “I need all dirty clothes in the hamper, all toys in the toy box, and all books back on the shelf” provides much clearer instructions for a child. You may need to go back and demonstrate what you want done.
  • assigning chores that best match your children’s innate talents and interests? People tend to do those things that they find more enjoyable. While part of running a household includes aspects that are not always fun, you can still have your children help and have them do things that are less distasteful for them.
  • giving your children some say in when or how they complete a task? Having some degree of control generally leads to a greater level of cooperation, more buy-in and more responsible behavior.
  • being a good role model by completing your chores in good spirit and responsibly?

Some children have a hard time getting motivated to do chores simply because there are so many other things that really are much more fun to do. They live in the present so are not always thinking about what needs to be done next. Additionally, they are working on being independent and will often want to do what they want to do and not what you want them to do. If this is the case:

  • acknowledge your children’s frustrations and emphasize the importance of having everyone in the family help out, even if the work is not fun. The key to doing this effectively is in how you approach your child. Children need and deserve to be treated respectfully even when you are asking or telling them to do something. You can listen patiently to their complaints, while still insisting on performance. For example, “I hear that you want to play with your friends and you agreed to clean up your room before you went out. You need to do what you said you would do.”

Likewise, you deserve to be treated with respect. Children can complain, grumble, and generally dislike completing chores; however, you can set limits on what behaviors cross the line in your family, such as cursing, hitting or throwing objects.

You can expect and accept a certain amount of whining. Many parents chose to ignore it, knowing that whining is your child’s way of complaining. When doing chores, your children don’t always have to enjoy them, as long as they get them done. Again, you can acknowledge how much they would rather not be doing a chore and share with them your expectations that the chore still needs to get done.

Young children may express their frustration through temper tantrums. Your first step in handling a tantrum can be to listen to and acknowledge your child’s strong feelings. This will not automatically stop the tantrum, but it will send your child the message that you are there for them and you accept their strong feelings, and it also gives you a few minutes to calm yourself. Once your child is calm, discuss what upset him, other ways he could have expressed his displeasure, and what he could do differently in the future. Since you do not want to reinforce temper tantrums or other negative behavior, your child should still be expected to complete his chores once he has calmed down. You want to give your child a second and even a third chance to regain control and make amends.

  • provide reminders and supervision even after your children have mastered a skill. Learning to do chores also means learning to remember to do chores.

Many parents feel like they are constantly nagging their children to do their chores or hearing excuses such as, “I forgot.” Some children who tend to be easily distracted or who tend to lose track of time actually do have a more difficult time remembering to do chores and other tasks like homework. In fact, most children will need many reminders when first learning new behaviors.

If your child is old enough, you can ask them what the best way for him to remember might be. Ask them if they would like your help remembering or would they like to be able to remember on their own. The key is to work with your child and to make chores a regular part of the family routine, not something to be arguing over endlessly.

You can:

    •  Help your child to set up a schedule of when the chores will be done. The more you can attach the tasks to an already existing routine, the more likely your child will be to remember. For example, you may want to give your child the chore of walking the dog right when he gets home from school, before the child becomes engrossed in some other activity.
    • Use visual reminders such as notes, checklists and charts. These types of reminders are great for children who tend to be visual learners. Picture charts work well for younger children who are not yet able to read. For example, you might make up a picture chart of all the steps involved in getting ready for bed (pick up toys, take bath, dirty clothes in hamper, brush teeth, read).
    • Come up with one-word statements that you can repeat to your child when you need to remind him of a chore or job. Something as simple as saying, “Cat” or “Homework” whenever you want to point out that the cat’s water bowl needs filling or it’s homework time. One-word reminders help you too, because you do not have to get into battles or give long lectures every time a child forgets a chore.
    • Use humor to lighten the mood and to engage cooperation. A note from the family pet about being hungry might remind a child that the dog is depending on her for dinner.
    • Practice chores with your child for as long as it takes. Having the right attitude for teaching helps to keep you from getting too frustrated. Remember that learning is a process that takes some children a lot longer to master than others. You want to be able to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which your children can learn and make mistakes.
  • motivate children to do the chores without your help by shifting the responsibility from you to them.

Help your child to understand what the benefits are of becoming more responsible and to recognize the feelings that come from helping out.

Benefits can be external, as in seeing a room cleaned up, or they can be internal as in the good feelings that come from getting a job done. For example, a parent might say to a child, “You can feel proud knowing you were a big help with the chores today.”

If allowance is attached to completion of the chore, then that also becomes an external motivator for encouraging responsibility. It is important that children know that they are helping the family to function and learning skills that they will need as grown-ups.

Support your child, knowing that for some children that shift in responsibility can take a long time.

  • always praise your children for their efforts, especially when they are just learning a new skill. Break down a larger task into smaller ones that leads toward full accomplishment of the job; then you can congratulate small efforts along the way toward that goal. Even if the end result is less than what you would have hoped, you can affirm them for trying and for their efforts. Let them know that you appreciate the help. Resist the urge to redo their efforts (ie: re-making the bed); it can send the message that no matter how hard they try they may not ever meet your expectations.
  • explain in age-appropriate language why they need to help. Children are more motivated to help when they know why pitching in is important. Explain why the task is necessary. Take time to think about what is important to you and your family. Share your values with your children. For example, do you want them to clean their room because you want to teach your child to value and respect personal and family space and items OR is it for health and safety reasons?

You can tell them that everyone is an essential member of your family and is capable of and expected to contribute to the running of the household. And that in order to avoid becoming resentful, you want to make sure that there is a balance of meeting everyone’s needs, including yours. Work together as a team to come up with solutions that will fit for each member of the family. Remember that doing chores and maintaining a household ideally should be the responsibility of every member of the household. Take the time to get clear and then take the time to be clear.

  • be clear ahead of time about possible consequencesfor not doing chores. Make sure that consequences are reasonable and not excessive. Take the time to discuss consequences with your child and even write them down so that everyone is clear about them. Some possible consequences for not completing chores could include:
    • Withholding allowance, if it is part of your chore schedule
    • Denying social plans until chores are completed
    • Monitoring and insisting that a chore be completed

If non-compliance continues, you may want to complete a more formal consequences procedure, in which privileges are withheld until children examine their behavior and come up with a plan for future compliance. In order to regain their privileges, children need to:

    • explain their point of view,
    • examine your stance,
    • explain what the problem is,
    • determine what needs to change or to be done,
    • decide if they need to apologize or make amends,
    • and discuss what help they need in following through with the plan.

Some parents, who are used to nagging and repeating themselves, feel harsh when imposing consequences. One method that can help is a “three strikes, you’re out” approach. This means that you will remind your children three times to complete a chore. Beyond that, it is nagging and counterproductive. After that, you will not remind them and the consequence is imposed, without any second-guessing or guilt on the parent’s part.

Again, you are providing your child with the power to choose to do the chores or deal with the consequences.

  • engage in a problem exploration process with your child. Discuss what the problem is from each of your perspectives and brainstorm possible solutions. Together you can select which ideas you both like and want to implement. Set a date to review how everything is going for each of you.

Sometimes, children do not comply when they feel unappreciated. Other times, children under-perform when they are ready for greater responsibility and freedom/privileges.

It takes many, many years for children to become completely responsible for themselves. These little steps along the way will help them to internalize the more general and abstract concepts of responsibility. It takes skill, perseverance and a great deal of patience to insist lovingly that your children follow through with their commitments. In the long run, this determination will pay off. Children will learn to become people who know life skills that will help them function in the world and they will understand that they have an important role to play in their homes and in their communities.

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For more information about children and chores, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

How Much is Enough? by Jean Illsley Clarke Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso Pick Up Your Socks by Elizabeth Crary

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