General Rules for Getting Your Children to do Chores

The following is an excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.”

If asked, most children and teenagers will readily assure you that “chores suck.” To make matters worse, parents don’t appreciate having butler, maid, and custodian responsibilities in addition to their regular parenting duties. This combination of factors helps explain why so many parents come to consultations complaining of their children’s noncompliance with chore requests.

When chores and chore completion are a concern, we typically teach parents about (1) the three-step approach to learning chores; (2) teaming to complete chores; (3) chore menus; and (4) chore contingencies. This problem-solving intervention is especially important because it illustrates how parents can collaboratively and authoritatively work with their children to accomplish family tasks.

The Three-Step Approach

Most children aren’t naturally inclined to do chores and aren’t particularly inclined to do them well. All too often, children will fail at their first assignment to clean the bathroom (or whatever project they’re assigned).

If parents want chore cooperation from their children, the following three steps may be helpful: (1) Demonstrate (by actively teaching) how to do the chore assignment they wish their child to do; (2) do the chore assignment with their child (while providing positive and encouraging comments); and (3) have their child complete the assignment with parental supervision and support. Also, because doing chores is not naturally pleasurable for most children, parents should model how good it feels to get the job done. Finally, parents need to support their child by making positive statements about the child’s performance and staying away from critical comments. Criticizing children when they’re engaging in an already-aversive task is an excellent way to destroy whatever remnants of motivation may still exist. This doesn’t mean parents need to pretend their children have done a fabulous job when they haven’t, but it does mean parents need to look for the positive and communicate in an encouraging way even when performance is less than adequate.

Parent: Getting my eight-year-old to help with chores is sometimes more of a chore than just doing it myself.

Consultant: It sounds like you’d like your daughter’s help around the house, if it wasn’t such a pain.

Parent: Right.

Consultant: May I share a few ideas?

Parent: Go ahead.

Consultant: [After explaining the three-step approach to learning chores, the consultant moves into ideas about keeping chore-related interactions positive:] Since doing chores can be a pain for both you and your daughter, let’s talk about how to make it more pleasant. Some of these ideas may work for you and some may not, but here are a few. First, consider doing chores together while you listen to music she likes. Second, try doing chores for a very short time period during which she can be successful, even five minutes might be fine to start. Third, set it up so that right after the successful five minutes you transition to something fun. This is so she’ll get the idea that you work first and then play and have fun. Fourth, while you’re both working ignore her off-task behavior and pay close and positive attention to her on-task behavior. Fifth, if her performance is disappointing, express that in the most positive way you can. Something like, “Sweetheart, I know you can be better help than you were today,” is enough. Be sure to avoid long lectures about non-helpfulness, because that could act as a reward. [The consultant writes out these ideas so the parent will have a reminder.]   

Teaming to Complete Chores

More often than parents prefer, chore completion is suboptimal. We like to think of it as an example of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back phenomenon. 

Children may need support and assistance to complete chores adequately. Some children will be slower at developing positive chore habits and others will be adversely affected by their attitude or mood. However, parents are better served if they stay positive and encouraging. It’s especially important to avoid the temptation toward negative character feedback (“Can’t you do anything right?”).

Thinking of chores as a family activity or obligation can help. It’s more motivating when all family members work to accomplish a goal in a particular time period. A friend of ours taught us the following technique:

Okay, we need to clean up and de-clutter the house. Tonight at six-thirty p.m., I’ll set the timer for thirty minutes and, as a family, we’ll all run around cleaning and picking up and putting things away. At the end of our thirty minutes we can order a pizza and a movie and celebrate our clean house.

Many parents will immediately object to the “time-limited family project” technique by stating, “Yeah, we’ve tried that and the kids just sit around and don’t really contribute. Then we end up doing all the work and we’re angry at the kids for loafing.” Of course, consultants should pay attention to this complaint and then try to help the parents reformulate chore activities to promote family success. Part of this reformulation will undoubtedly involve having the parents lower their chore performance expectations and praising or supporting their children for small contributions. It also might involve the natural and logical consequence of the parents eating pizza and watching a movie while the kids eat yesterday’s leftovers and go to bed early.

In situations where children have already learned specific chores but occasionally regress because of a bad mood or a bad day, additional teaming techniques may be useful. For example, a parent might be coached to offer something like the following:

How about I help you out tonight? We’re a family and we should help each other. I can see you’re not in the best of moods and I can relate to that because some days I hate to do chores, too. So, how about for tonight we work together and get this done in half the time?

Or, with teenagers who are high achievers and who maintain an exceptionally busy schedule, rather than completely dispensing with chore assignments, it might be more helpful to frame breaks from regular chore routines as a part of family support. For example,

I know you’re crazy-busy with homework and volleyball this weekend. How about if I take care of your kitchen-cleaning duties tonight and you can help me out sometime when I’m too busy and you’ve got free time?

The purpose of these family-teaming strategies is to help the children understand the underlying message: In this family we all contribute to maintaining the household, and because we’re on the same team we help each other and share the load when we can.

Chore Menus

It’s generally more effective for parents to give their children choices over which chores they’re assigned. For example, if Miguel perpetually is assigned the chore of scooping the dog poop in the backyard, he may eventually feel there’s no opportunity for career advancement (or personal choice) and so he may begin resisting his assignment. Now, if it’s Miguel’s designated dog and he agreed to scoop the poop for 12 years, more complex negotiation strategies may be needed. However, in most cases children experience greater freedom (which they desire) when they at least get to pick their poison (chore). Consequently, we advocate chore menus for children. These menus can be as simple as:  “Would you like to empty the dishwasher or collect and take out the garbage?” Or parents may make a master list and let each child sign up for several chores a week.

Chore Contingencies

Some parents vehemently argue that completing chores is part and parcel of being in a family and, therefore, children should do chores without compensation. In contrast, other parents believe chores should be linked to a weekly allowance or some other form of financial remuneration. If you’ve been paying attention to this point, you should anticipate our response to these polar perspectives: We believe both positions are reasonable and recommend a combination approach.

For many families, it works best if some designated chores are expected contributions to family life. These could be chores that are required as a part of daily living (e.g., washing dishes, de-cluttering, dusting, vacuuming, feeding the dog, etc). Other, less frequent chores could be reserved for when children want to make money. Obviously, consultants should work with parents to develop a system that best fits the individual family’s needs and the parents’ values.

Using direct power strategies may be necessary and appropriate when it comes to chore completion. For example, we recommend that parents use Grandma’s Rule (see Chapter 3) to clearly and concisely articulate their expectations that chore completion precedes recreation. A classic example of using Grandma’s rule is:  

When you finish unloading the dishwasher and wiping down the kitchen counters, then you can turn on the computer and play some games. 

Overall, as we think of chores, we’re reminded of a wise statement a colleague uses when working with mandated client groups. At the beginning of group he announces: “Well, I know we’re all required to be here, but we’re not required to have a bad time. So I hope we can make the best of it.” When parents lead with a good attitude and positive mood in the face of a required task, often children will begin to follow their leaders. This is the essence of role modeling.


The road to getting your chores done in Montana.

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