Help with Chores

Help with Chores

One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is that they can't get their kids to do chores. The problems they cite include procrastination, forgetfulness, distraction, not finishing, doing something halfway or not well, and worst, just plain defiance as in ignoring the request and refusing to do it. The compliance issue is a little more complicated than the other problems, and I'll address that later in the article. For starters, let's list the main factors that can help lead to success.

Success Factors

Have a clear description of what is expected.

Most parents think they do this already, but more often than not, it's not really the case. Expectations include:

1. A clear description of the chore from beginning to end including what the end result looks like. So if the chore is to "clean the bedroom," (a popular one), you need to list exactly what all that entails and what the room should look like when it's finished. For example, does this include vacuuming, vacuuming under the bed, changing the sheets, making the bed, putting clothes in the laundry hamper, dusting the shelves, dusting the night table, organizing papers on the desk?? What in exact detail is included in cleaning the room, and what should the room look like when it is finished? Is this a full scale cleaning or just a pick-up?

2. A timeline. When should the chore be started, how much time should it take, and when does it need to be finished? If you have a teen, you can let him decide when he is starting as long as you have told him the time by which it needs to be completed. If on the other hand your teen does not manage time well, you may need to intervene and also give the starting time. Let him know that when he shows he can manage the time on his own, he can go back to deciding when to start. For smaller children, give both starting and finishing times and help them learn to gauge through repeated experience how long a chore will take. The total time will also vary depending on the child.

Do your expectations fit the developmental age and capacity of your child?

Seems obvious, but sometimes it's not so easy to assess this one. Is what you're asking something that you know your child can do with a fair amount of ease? Cleaning the room is difficult for a 3 year old, but not for a 16 year old. One way to decide for younger children is to walk them through the chore a couple of times and see if they can handle it without help. The general rule is that children under the age of 5 are working on very elementary things such as putting toys in a toy box, picking up clothes and putting them in the hamper, putting away shoes, and so forth. Each of these chores are what I call "single item chores" meaning there are not a lot of steps to them. Pretty much there is one step or one thing to do. As children get older, you can graduate to more complex chores, but again try them out by walking them through and then tweaking them to what fits for your child.

Align the chore with a sense of purpose.

Explain how having the chore done is of help. Maybe it is a benefit to you directly because you have so much to do. An example of this is having your child set the table while you cook, unload the dishwasher before you start dinner, or maybe just assist with the massive amounts of things you have to do in a day. The idea is to point out in detail your appreciation. If children can attach personal value to what they're doing, it helps avoid resistance and elicits their buy-in to the work. Whatever you say should be authentic, and you should really mean it. Kids are quite good at recognizing "fake", and they will feel manipulated if they think you are not sincere in your appreciation

Give notice and create anticipation.

Transition Time

Kids do best when they have some time to move from one activity to another. If your child is watching a TV show or playing a game outside, then you are not going to get a lot of cooperation if you interrupt the activity and give a "right now" command. Provide some lead-in time. Imagine yourself in the same situation. We all like lead-in time. Most of us get angry if we are abruptly interrupted and told to do something without any consideration that we might be in the middle of something. Give 15 minutes warning before the chore is to be done, or you can give two warnings; one about 30 minutes to an hour before and another 10 to 15 minutes before. You can even divide this into three warnings if you have a child that has particular problems with transitions. At the same time, don't get into a routine of nagging. Warnings are different than nagging. They inform and allow the child time to make a transition. Nagging happens when you feel like you have no control over what's happening, and the person on the other end of nagging sees you as an unwelcome intrusion that can be ignored. You can prime your child for warnings by letting them know ahead of time you will be giving them some warning, and you expect them to stop what they're doing when the allotted time is up and commence doing the chore. If there are problems after warnings are given, it is good to have consequences ready to use that have also been spelled out ahead of time.


Chores work best if they are at regular times of the week, and are the same for the most part, every week. There are always ad-ins and sometimes things need to be done immediately, but as much as possible, have a regular list of chores that get done at the same time every week or same time every day. What you are really doing is building in anticipation and planning.

Create cues for beginning chores.

Habits are created when there is a cue that helps us move emotionally into the activity of the habit. The cue may be some kind of communication between you and your child that you both understand and embrace. One mom I know has a regular house cleaning time on Saturday and she enlists the help of all of her kids. Prior to beginning, she puts on the same clothes each week to do the chores and so do her kids. In effect, they have created "chore uniforms." She then puts on music to clean by and they get to take turns picking what music will be played. She mixes fun in with the work, and makes use of the positive effects of group activity, which help motivate everyone. Most importantly, the cues to begin the chores bring everyone on board emotionally. They move into the chore mindset and embrace it which avoids the buildup of resistance. Cues may be much less elaborate than the one I've just described. A cue can be a simple exchange of signals between a child and parent that they have established between them and both understand.

Chunk it down.

This is my favorite technique for helping kids that really are easily distracted and have trouble finishing things. Get a stack of 3x5 index cards (or cut up scrap paper if you have it on hand). Divide the work into tasks and write only single tasks on the cards. If we go back to the room cleaning, each card would have a single task related to the overall job such as taking the clothes off the bed and putting them into the hamper. That's one. Picking up five toys on the floor and put them on the shelf (or in the toy box). That's two. Changing the sheets. Three. Clearing off the desktop. Four. Dust the table by the bed. Five. You get the idea. Break it down into the smallest task you can and give your child one card at a time. Never two. Then make it fun. Set a timer that rings loud and place it in the room so your child can hear and see it and have it go off at the time the task should be finished. If you are using music, you can also play one song as a timer. Add some element of sound and timing to the single task. Then when the time is up, check to see if the task is completed and if not, break it down more. Kids that are competitive try and finish the task before the time is up.

What's great about this technique is that it breaks through the feeling of being overwhelmed by having so much to do. Single steps are usually much more doable than complex tasks with a lot of steps. It also adds stimulation to stay focused through the use of interesting sound. It provides a visual on the card. It blocks out all of the other tasks except the one being tackled. This is, by the way, a good technique for adults to use when they feel overwhelmed.

Chunking it down works particularly well for kids that have problems with attention and focus. These kids usually don't do well with several items on their mental list at a time, and they also respond well to other sensory stimulation to help them focus. Music, timers, or bells all help. TV or visuals that require attention are not helpful and should be turned off. The only visual you should provide is the single task on a single card. Kids also like to see all of the cards that are finished stacked up. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. Conversely, it isn't always helpful to show them the stack that hasn't yet been done because that too can be overwhelming. The overall idea is to stimulate focus, create a sense of accomplishment, and reduce distraction and feelings of being overwhelmed.

The only caveat here is for children that seem to do well with focus and actually enjoy organizing and planning. These kids like lists and might prefer to see the whole list at one time. For them, a blackboard with each item listed is better. They will enjoy creating the list, looking at it, checking off items completed, and having control over the entire process. These kids don't need cards and could actually be frustrated by them. They like to push their mind into the tasks ahead as they are finishing the ones at hand.

You will know what fits best for your kids and it may be different for each of them. It is usually the kids that have difficulties with focus that are the hardest to get through chores, so make use of the index card system and see if that doesn't help.

What about kids that refuse to do chores?

If you find yourself in this position, then you need to drop back and look at what else is going on between you and your child. Questions to ask are:

  • Do I feel connected to my child and vice versa? Does she feel connected to me?
  • Do I know what's going in her life?
  • Do we have time for just chatting?
  • Am I involved in every aspect of my child's life?
  • Is there a lot of animosity between us?
  • Are there problems going on in the household that could make her anxious or upset?
  • Do we say unkind and personally attacking things to each other?
  • Is there marital tension in our home?
  • Am I too permissive in general?
  • Am I too strict in general?
  • Do my kids get to express their feelings when appropriate? Do I know how they feel about things?

All of these questions are related in some way or other to the relationship that exists between you and your child, and/or the amount of stress that is in the environment. Both of these factors play a large role in how well you can gain compliance from your child(ren) when you need it. If you have been permissive in general and your kids know that you don't really mean what you say, then they are not going to easily do chores. If there is a lot of tension between you, and you both feel disconnected except for negative tension, then you will meet with resistance when trying to set up a schedule for chores. The bottom line is that kids will do what you say if they care about how you feel about them and want to stay connected to you. If not, you may have problems with compliance. If this is an issue for you, read some of the other articles on our site about the parent-child relationship.

If you feel that you have a particularly defiant child and that this is not so much related to the problems I have cited above, or you feel like you can't resolve the problems yourself, then get some help from a counselor who has some experience with children and families. For very defiant kids, you might find some help in The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. He outlines some specific things you can try that you wouldn't think of when dealing with children in general.

Should chores by tied to an allowance?

This is a big question and one of considerable debate. My default position on any policy related to parenting is to first ask the question, "What am I trying to teach my children with this policy?" If you use this approach, than the answer may become clearer. If you tie all chores to receiving an allowance, or to any material reinforcement, than the message you are sending is that we should always receive some kind of material compensation when we do work, regardless of the context. So next question is obviously, "Is this the message we want to send?' I think not. There are certain services we provide out of love, belonging, caring, or just because we are part of a group in which each person contributes to the whole. It is very, very important for kids to feel that they are part of a family unit, no matter how small or large that unit is. As part of a family (even a 2 person family), they need to see themselves as having a part in the care and upkeep of the family. Doing chores is simply part of making sure that family members are taken care of and have what they need. It can be explained something like this:

We are all part of the family and we all do things to take care of each other and ourselves. Mom and Dad work to bring in money to buy groceries, pay the rent, pay for the car, buy clothes, and so on. We clean our house so that we know where things are when we need them, and to practice good hygiene so we keep ourselves healthy. We take care of our pets so that they are happy and healthy and feel good. We wash our clothes, fold and hang them, and put them away so we have clean clothes to wear to school and work and we can find them when we are ready to get dressed. As a member of the family, you get to help take care of us by doing some chores, and your help is really important. Mom and Dad do most of the big things because that's our job and we want to take care of you, but you can do some things that will help too and make things easier for us all. Everybody's help is important and that's part of what's great about being in a family.

The chores that fall in this group are the regular expectations such as room cleaning, taking out the trash, help with the dishes, setting or clearing the table, feeding the pets, vacuuming, etc. These chores should not be tied to an allowance. None of us get paid for doing these chores and it isn't a good idea to raise our children with the false expectation that they will get paid for these chores either. We also want to build in intrinsic value meaning we want our children to learn to take pride in participating in contributing to a group for everyone's benefit. Instead of the "what's in it for me?" attitude, kids need to cultivate the "what's in it for us all?" attitude, and "how can I help?"

I think an allowance should be separate from chores and can just be an amount that a child gets as a family member. It is spending money, and you can also use the allowance to teach your child about spending, and tracking and saving money. These are valuable lessons in their own right.

I do think that it is a good idea to give children a chance to earn money with bigger, unusual chores such as washing and waxing the car, or maybe doing some lawn work that is not normally done by them, or maybe extra chores such as special cleaning projects. These types of chores are beyond the norm and children get to experience earning, work ethic, and negotiating with these situations. It stimulates a positive sense of creating income through work. It may even stimulate entrepreneurial or creative ideas as they try and come up with ways to make more money. They may come to you with ideas or creative projects and negotiate fees. These are good skills to encourage and teach, but should not be mixed in with the normal expectations associated with a family member.

Quick Summary Points

  • Be clear about what you expect. Describe in detail what the chore entails, and provide a timeline for getting it done.
  • Make sure the chore is something your child can actually do.
  • Give plenty of notice as to when the chore needs to be done, and use warnings to allow transition time from one activity to another.
  • Simplify the chore by using the index card system for isolating each task.
  • Add stimulation and fun to the chore with sounds, bells, timers or music.
  • Show authentic appreciation for how the chore is of help to you.
  • Don't tie chores to an allowance.
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