Chores: Secrets To Winning the Parent-Kids Chore-Wars

Want your kids to help more in the house? Here's how—and without fights.

Posted Jul 03, 2017

(c) creatista at fotosearch
Source: (c) creatista at fotosearch

Chores, just about every kid resists them. Kids feel too rushed before school, too tired after school, and don't want to be bothered with chores on the weekends. Parents may pull their hair out with the stress of getting into fights with their children over participating in household tasks. Yet most parents do want their kids to contribute to family functioning.  Parents give so much to their children; children helping out seems only fair.  No wonder chores so often provoke parent-kid tensions.

Why does the word chore have such negative connotations?

Chore implies a burden or an unpleasant task.  That makes sense given that the word chore originates from the old English term charwoman, a low status female who does the dirty work in a household, the work that no one else wants to do.

So forget about getting your kids to do chores.  Chores won’t be a pleasant experience.  

Instead, turn chores into gratifying activities that teach vital life skills, build friendship between siblings, and become family bonding times.  

How can parents transform chores into activities that kids do willingly?

Start with a new perspective.  To change your view, and your children's views, of chores, you might start by remembering, and then explaining to your children, that childhood is for learning how to become a grownup.  

Grownups need to know how to keep themselves and also their family and home healthy and happy.  The best way to learn is to do. Habits of self-care and family-helping get built by repetitively doing self and family upkeep routines. 

As children grow from infancy to adulthood, learning the skills that maintain attractive clothes, tidy personal and communal space, and healthy eating is as essential as learning at school the skills that will enable children to become effective in their adult work lives.  Assuming ever-increasing responsibilities in the family initiates young people, step by step, into adulthood.

Childhood is also for learning that an effective family is a team.  Teams depend on their members repeatedly doing tasks that take significant time and effort . Shopping, preparing dinner, washing the dishes, taking out the trash, washing, folding, ironing, and folding clothes, putting away clutter, sweeping and mopping and vacuuming, dusting, cleaning mirrors, swiping bathroom sinks and surfaces, and mowing the lawn and more keep a household going.       

Self-care and family responsibilities teach broader crucial life lessons as well—lessons such as how practice makes perfect, how to follow through on commitments, and how to stay with a job until it has been fully completed.  

Children of course want to be with friends, want to play, and generally believe that they have more desirable things to do than washing dishes after meals or taking out the garbage. Validate these concerns.  

And at the same time, explain the importance of the word both.  Both is a powerful concept.  Kids can do their kid activities, and also can develop habits of helping to sustain themselves and their family.

Explain then, as per the reasons above, why ever-increasing participation in self-care and family responsibilities is so important.  When kids, and especially teenagers, understand the big picture importance of pitching in, they become likely to adopt a positive attitude.

How you delegate chores matters

To ease children into participation in self-sufficiency and household helping routines, begin when the children are young.  Follow the principle that anything they can do by themselves they should do.

For example, encourage toddlers to put away their blocks when they finish with them. Doing pick up with them initially will lead to their eventually put aways after they have used them on their own.  Similarly, preschoolers who still wear diapers like helping by carrying their folded dirty diapers to the diaper pail after their parents have helped with changing them.

Praising children as they learn to do these actions turns self-care and contributions to the family into sources of self-esteem and pride.

As the children get older, assigning responsibilities in a positive manner becomes all the more essential. No child and certainly no teenager wants to feel bossed around. Here's three techniques that work especially well to keep the tone cooperative rather than top-down.

  • Make higher level responsibilities an honor. "Congratulations!  Now that you are entering kindergarten, you are old enough to graduate into being able to make your bed in the morning!  Hurray!” Demonstrate patiently how to do the task, and praise liberally the subsequent fledgling and inevitably imperfect attempts to "do it myself."
  • Avoid giving directives. Observe a phenomenon instead of telling children what to do. "Table setting time!" is far easier for children to respond to than "Set the table!"  Or, "Shoelace alert!" instead of telling kids "Tie your shoes!"
  • Transfer additional responsibilities according to their increasing capabilities.  "Now that you are 10 years old, you are old enough to begin waking yourself up in the morning.  I'm so proud of you.  To celebrate, here is a present: your own alarm clock.  Let's look together at how it works!"

What can parents do when chores don't get done, or get done incompletely?

No one likes being criticized.  Give feedback and reminders instead of criticism. Feedback has an informative and maybe even upbeat tone, as opposed to the judgmental tone of criticism. Remind yourself before speaking that mistakes are for learning.  

Stay clear of emphasizing what children did not do or did incorrectly.  Instead, appreciate what they have done thus far. Then show them how to do the task better. "I see that you took the broom out on your own and started sweeping the kitchen floor without anyone even reminding you.  Bravo!  Now if you would like I can show you a trick I have for scooping up the piles so nothing's left on the floor.  Want to see it?"

Some responsibilities, for instance, dropping dirty clothes into a hamper rather than onto the floor, need to be done by the child on his own. Parents can make this task more fun by encouraging their children to use the laundry basket as a basketball hoop.  How far from the hoop can they stand and still land the clothes in the basket?

Other tasks get done more enjoyably if everyone in the family works together.

Working together as a family—kitchen clean-up after dinner or bathrooms and floors on the weekends—encourages teamwork. Pepper the time with encouraging phrases like, “Everyone helps until the kitchen is clean. How quickly can we do it!” and “(last name) siblings always work together.  They help each other out!”  Mantras like these raise the ‘team’ morale. Work becomes a shared family mission. Upbeat loud pop music in the background definitely can add further to the good vibe.  

How does helping with chores become habits?

Turn household responsibilities into routine rituals. Practice with younger children pulling their covers up to their noses before they get out of bed so bed-making becomes automatic.  Encourage all family members to stay at the dinner table until everyone has finished eating so you can conclude dinner with an announcement, “Okay, kitchen cleanup time.  Everyone got their plates, cups and silverware?  Who's on putting away food? Who’s on dishes? Who is on sweeping? Who is on wiping countertops?”

A rotating responsibilities chart can further add to prevention of prevent sibling fights about who is doing more or has the harder jobs.

Which chores are appropriate for what ages?

Tasks that are too complicated or too physically demanding can be discouraging for children. The following chart suggests responsibilities for each age.

Preschool through Kindergarten

  • ​Take themselves to the bathroom
  • Wipe themselves
  • Clean up after playing with toys
  • Feed pets
  • Get dressed independently
  • Clear their silverware from the table to the sink after eating (dishes and glasses may come later)

Elementary through high school

  • Take out the trash
  • Do homework
  • Make bed and put dirty clothes in the laundry basket, not on the floor. 
  • Helping with younger siblings
  • Walk or bike to school and to after-school activities where possible
  • Mow the lawn
  • Put their laundry in the machine and then into the dryer.
  • Fold clothes
  • Wash dishes
  • Babysit for younger siblings
  • Sweep and mop floors
  • Help with cooking meals

What's the impact of getting mad when chores are not getting done?

Reminders are necessary for most kids until routines get well established. Beware of fighting during this transition period if you don't want to set a negative tone about sharing family responsibilities. Stay clear of getting irritated, agitated and certainly far away from yelling.  Getting frustrated or mad may be meant to motivate compliance. In fact, anger produces the opposite impact.  It builds resentment and resistance.  

Instead of getting mad, get realistic.  Expect that children will sometimes forget to do tasks or do them only partially. Then here's some techniques with high odds of success.

  • Ask questions: "What's your plan for when you will be taking out the trash?" 
  • Keep the tone positive, implying that of course the child intends to do the task.
  • If you can do it without getting sarcastic in a way that would be hurtful, throw in a little humor. When the trash doesn't get taken out, you might muse, “ Hmmm, the trash doesn’t take itself out.”  When the trash does get taken out, be effusive with  appreciation.  “I really like the way you ….!  Bravo!”
  • Offer a helpful hand to insure that the task’s accomplishment takes a turn for the best. And while you work together, enjoy the shared time. Talk, laugh, sing.

In sum, to keep chores positive ...

Expect all the tasks that keep a household going to become good-humored habits. When the work is not getting done adequately and with a positive attitude, talk together cooperatively to figure out what's going on.  Figure out together a solution. Create together a better system for getting the work done.  

A family that works together happily grows together lovingly.

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Dr. Heitler wants to thank her teenage grandson Boaz Hirsch for his major contributions to this article.

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

For more from Dr. Heitler on enjoying a successful family, see David Decides About Thumbsucking, and for couples, Dr. Heitler's book and workbook called .