Children & Discipline

How do I get my kids to do chores?

Published: 18 Nov 2013
How do I get my kids to do chores?

Dear Dr Justin,

I have a question on chores.

At present – we all pitch in on a Saturday morning, empty washing baskets, tidy the lounge/bedrooms. We almost always encounter a lot of resistance to this (even though the benefit of watching a movie or tv in a nice clean room is enjoyable).

When we encounter unpleasant behaviour – someone is given a ten minute task. (mostly cleaning, clear the dinner table, put books away – that sort of thing).

My questions are

  1.  What are age appropriate chores for a 9 year old and 12 year old? And also –
  2. Is there a possibility that us (parents) using the ten minutes of your time as a fine/tax for being inconsiderate, rude or mean going to make the kids avoid any kind of cleaning as adults?

Miss 12 however accused us of slavery when asked to take her dirty clothes to the laundry – and now it has me doubting our system.

Should we hand out money for chores? Our standard line is “we do this so we can have a clean tidy house without one person getting stuck with all the work”.

The way we manage chores and family responsibilities varies significantly from one family to the next. I’d suggest that there’s no one right way to deal with this situation because of the complexities of each family and your routines and requirements. But here are a few ideas you may find helpful. 

Idea 1 – We all make the mess, and we all tidy it up

Your line that ‘we do this so we can have a clean tidy house without one person getting stuck with all the work’ is great. I encourage all parents to do this. In my opinion, children should not be paid to tidy their room, help in the kitchen, or put away laundry.

There may be some tasks that warrant some form of payment because they are out of the ordinary, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Once children learn they might be paid for contributing, they may feel they should be paid for any contribution at all. But I’d argue strongly that everyone ought to contribute because that’s part of being a family member in this house.

Idea 2 – Keep chores separate from rewards and punishments

You asked whether using a ten-minute tidy as punishment might turn your children off cleaning. Quite a lot of research tells us that when we use extrinsic motivators to have our children behave a certain way they lose intrinsic motivation for that task. In this case, however, it is unlikely that they will experience much intrinsic motivation anyway. So compelling them to clean up probably won’t have a dramatic impact on their motivation for cleaning when they are adults.

There is some argument that they may choose messy over tidy as a way of reclaiming a sense of power in their lives. So I’d say that if you want to be ultra-conservative or careful about it, it would be better to not link punishment with cleaning. But in all reality, unless the punishment is extremely aversive and pervasive I wouldn’t imagine it will do much to hurt.

My suggestion would be, however, that each evening (at a time that works for everyone), you skip through the house together and do a ten-minute tidy as a family. Play some loud music, work on each room together. Don’t go for perfect. Just go for tidy. You’ll be amazed what can be done in ten minutes as a team, and it feels much better than having to do it because of some kind of misbehaviour.

Idea 3 – Make chores age appropriate (and safe)

It’s obvious that older children have greater capacity. So your 12 year-old should be capable of doing all that the 9 year-old can do… and more.

Your 9 year-old should be able to:

  • Make the bed and tidy the bedroom
  • Put just about anything away (toys, clothes, belongings)
  • Empty the wash basket
  • Clear the table before and after meals
  • Feed pets
  • Tidy the bathroom
  • dry the dishes after a meal and put them away – or at least stack and empty the dishwasher

In addition to these tasks, your 12 year-old should be capable of (and expected) to:

  • Clean dishes
  • Vacuum or mop floors
  • Scrub the toilet (yup – all kids should have that job)
  • Do some basic ironing
  • Cook a meal for the family once a week (for fun… not as a chore)
  • Help wash the car or mow the lawn

Idea 4 – Make chore distribution collaborative

I love that your 12 year-old is accusing you of slavery because she has to take her dirty clothes to the laundry. That made me laugh out loud. To promote her autonomy, my recommendation is that you have a family conversation about chores. Follow the steps below or adapt them to your needs and see how this changes things.

  1. Make a list, together, of all the chores that need to be done
  2. Ask each child which ones they’re willing to commit to as their contribution to the family
  3. Agree on when/how often it should be done
  4. Let them know whether you will or won’t be reminding them about it. For example, you probably want to remind them to tidy the kitchen or scrub the loo, but you may not need to remind them to take their dirty washing to the laundry.
  5. Put the list somewhere where they’ll have to tick the box to show the task is done – to keep them accountable without you having to pester them.

If your daughter chooses not to take her clothes to the laundry, the consequence of that may be that she runs out of clothes. But her failure to prepare should not constitute an emergency on your part. Go through this ‘reasoning’ discussion with her, and then defer responsibility to her for some of these basic.

Additionally, by having the family involved in the discussion, no one will complain that things are ‘unfair’. After all, they’ll ideally have chosen their chores.

Idea 5 – Set a minimum standard

Once everyone knows what is expected, make sure they know what the minimum standard is. We don’t want to be too hard to please. Perfection promotes pouting. But our kids should take some pride in their work – including their chores. By doing something well, they’ll feel better about it.

There’ll be some challenges and high emotions as you make the shift, but I think the kids will get the hang of the changes pretty quickly. After one or two emergencies and meltdowns, if you can be kind but firm, I think you’ll get some clear changes in your family functioning. Remember, if you want your kids to be responsible, they need responsibility.


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