Welcome to Part 2 of our Ultimate Guide to Age-Appropriate Chores. It’s time to unlock one of the great mysteries of the universe…how to get kids to do their flipping chores!
If you’re still wondering whether chores are genuinely beneficial for kids (and not just exhausted parents), whether it’s too early (or too late) to start your kids on chores, what chores different age kids can handle, or whether you should pay the little ankle-biters to pick up their socks, then you’ll probably want to head back to Part 1 of our Ultimate Chore Guide.
But since you’re here, you’re probably already convinced that chores need to start happening, like, yesterday…because if you have to step on one more toy stegosaurus while back-peddling from the fridge with a full glass of OJ, there’s going to be another mass extinction-level event!
But I know what you’re thinking. (Apart from the fact that the dinosaur above isn’t a Stegosaurus).
Theory is all well and good…
Most of us start smacking our heads against the wall when it comes to the struggle of ACTUALLY MAKING IT HAPPEN.
What you’re really dying to figure out is, how do I put a successful chore system in place with my kids?
And how do I get them (and keep them) motivated so they remember to do their chores without 24/7 nagging?
Cos here’s the deal. No matter how many life-altering benefits your kids may eventually reap from doing chores, guess what? They didn’t get the memo!
And as tempting as it may be to sit your 3-year-old down and explain how a world-renowned Harvard study has linked doing chores from an early age to lifelong success, all he’s really going to get out of that conversation is the fact that he still hasn’t gotten his bowl of Froot Loops.
Theory is all well and good, but you’re going to need some kid-proof practical strategies.
While there is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for every child and every family, here are 7 highly recommended tactics to help get your kids on board with chores, without all the drama…
Let’s get started.
1. Let them be involved ‘behind the scenes’
Little kids get very little say in what happens in their daily lives. School. Bedtimes. Rules. Routines. Adding chores to the list of things being thrust upon them can add to a building sense of powerlessness.
Instead, we can use chores as an opportunity to build our child’s sense of agency and independence.
By giving them a seat on the ‘chore committee.’
Involve them in the planning process from the very beginning. Ask for their ideas on which tasks should be given to different family members. Ask them which jobs seem most interesting to them, or which ones they’d prefer to try the next time round.
Wherever possible, give them choices. You can start with the family rule that everyone needs to help out by doing their chores – but let them have a say in the what, the when or the how, wherever possible.
Don’t think this is only for older kids—toddlers are big on doing things themselves, and giving them small choices is one of the best ways to switch them from ‘defiance mode’ into ‘doing mode.’
Try saying to your 3-year-old:
- Here’s a sponge – do you want to wipe down your table or your blue chair?
- Would you like to help mommy hose down the car, or vacuum inside the car?
Speaking from personal experience, giving these little choices has worked like a magic wand with my kids—most of the time!
In short, the more agency kids feel, the more ‘buy in’ you’ll get when it comes to following through on the chore plan.
2. Take time to model & teach chore routines
In the beginning, you’ll need to take the time to teach your kids how to do specific chores. With younger kids especially, a vague instruction like ‘make your bed’ or ‘clean your room’ is probably not going to get the results you’re hoping for.
Explain and demonstrate to your child using simple, concrete steps. Whenever you’re introducing a new chore, follow this classic teaching strategy:
- I do it (Demonstrate how the chore is done – narrate using as few words as possible)
- You help me do it (give basic instructions or suggestions)
- I help you do it (let your child take the lead, giving minimal assistance when necessary)
- You do it alone (be sure to praise their job well done, even if it’s not done perfectly. Save the constructive criticism for next time, when you can give more detailed instructions.)
And don’t be impatient…
The timeline for this process depends on the age and maturity of your child, and how complex the task is. You might be able to get through all the steps in one session, or you might progress through the steps over a few weeks (or even years when it comes to something like cooking a meal).
You might also need to go back a step or two at times, particularly with younger kids. Don’t get impatient or frustrated if your child ‘forgets’ how to do a chore he seemed fine with a week ago—remember that kids need plenty of repetition and they learn in different ways. The time you invest now is going to pay off massively in the long run.
The important thing is to keep encouraging and keep supporting them, rather than giving in to the urge to take over, which will short-circuit the learning process.
3. Use chore charts, chore cards and other visual aids
One very effective way of introducing young kids to chores is to let them help make a chore chart (it’s also something to keep them busy for 15 minutes!). Help them create one from scratch or print a pre-made chart that your kids can fill in or color in.
Not only is this a great way to give your kids agency in the planning process, but it’s obviously a big help to have visual aids and reminders for doing their chores. Getting a sticker on their chart for each chore they do is also a great way to motivate younger kids.
Another great idea, especially if your kids aren’t reading yet, is to use simple chore cards that illustrate the different tasks they need to do. You can stick these up in their room, or in other relevant areas where their chores need to be done. Again, you can help your child make a DIY version, or download some printable ones.
Here are some cool customizable chore cards I found on Etsy.
4. Give the right kind of praise
We all know that positive reinforcement through praise is an important part of encouraging the behaviors and attitudes we want to see in our kids.
However, as Julie King points out in her bestselling book with Joanna Faber, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, “it’s not a matter of how much praise we dole out, but the way we praise that makes a difference.”
The problem, explains King, is that we so often resort to praise that judges or evaluates. How often do you hear yourself (or the grandparents) saying to your kids:
“What a clever girl!”
“That’s amazing! You’re so talented!”
or (my personal weakness): “Good job!”
While we have the best intentions, the thing is that this kind of praise tends to be counterproductive.
- It can make us focus on weaknesses rather than strengths (Well, I wasn’t doing so great with this activity 5 minutes ago).
- It can feel dismissive (All I got is ‘Good job’ after spending an hour on that picture?).
- It can make us doubt the sincerity of the person praising us, or even make us feel threatened or embarrassed and give up completely on what we were doing. (I’m sure most of us can remember a time when we’ve experienced this kind of effect!)
So what is the ‘right’ kind of praise, then?
Well, according to King, “the first rule of praise is that it’s not always appropriate to praise. When a child is engaged in an activity, there is no need to disturb her concentration by looming over her and offering unsolicited comments. Give her space!”
When kids are specifically seeking a response from us, we must avoid the reflex to judge their efforts or their character (which includes any comparisons with other siblings).
The key is to stick to DESCRIBING rather than evaluating.
Four helpful tools that King shares are to:
Describe what you see
Instead of “Good Job!”, try “I see a clean floor! You wiped up that whole spill. That was a big job.”
Describe the effect on others
“Look at that! Daddy is going to be so relieved the lawn is free of dog poo now!
Instead of “wow, what a clever girl!”, try, “hey, you figured out how to sort all those clothes into the right piles. Keep up the good work!”
This is a great tactic when there’s plenty of room for improvement. Rather than focusing on the negatives, you can point out what has been achieved: “Well, I see those dolls are snugly back in their beds. Now we just need a clear floor to walk on. Whose turn is it next to be packed away?”
By focusing on descriptive praise for chores, we help keep our kids’ focus on the task at hand, the effort they’re putting in and how they can keep going to complete the task. Which means they’ll likely do it even more efficiently the next time!
5. Schedule chore time as a family activity
A great way to make chores less of a bore is to pick a set time in the day when the whole family does at least a chunk of the chores together. (Obviously some chores are more time-specific than others, so you’ll need to plan appropriately).
Seeing you doing chores alongside them helps your kids see that you’re all in the same boat, and avoids them feeling like chores are just for kids, or perhaps even some kind of punishment.
It also rules out any sibling jealousy that could crop up if one child is doing something fun while another is expected to do a particular chore.
You can even use it as a way to create a family tradition – maybe you’ll come up with a silly ‘chore song’ or pick a track or artist you always listen to when it’s chore time (if it’s an annoying one, then maybe it’ll help get the chores done faster!). The point is to keep the atmosphere light and fun, as you help your kids internalize the fact that chores are part of being a family.
6. Help turn chores into habits
Even if you’ve got the best-case scenario going—your kids know how to do their chores, are positive about the whole idea and actually want to help–they’re still only human. And they’re only kids.
They’re going to be the child equivalent of a sack of potatoes from time to time.
As adults who are only too familiar with the potato-sack phenomenon, we know that one of the best ways to combat those temporary failures of will, is with the power of habit.
A habit puts the battle of wills out of the picture and puts the necessary behavior on autopilot.
Knowing how to form good habits is an invaluable life skill you can teach your kids, and it’s also one of the best ways to put nagging and bribery out of the picture in the long term—not just with chores, but any positive behavior you want to encourage in your kids.
If your child is younger, you’ll need to be in charge of creating the right conditions for the habit to form. If your kids are a little older, take the opportunity to teach them about the process as you go.
Unlocking the Habit Loop
As Charles Duhigg explains in his enlightening book, The Power of Habit, there are four essential components to any ‘habit loop’ that we form (for good or bad!).
- CUE – the ‘trigger’ that sets any habit in motion.
(You see the coffee machine as you walk into the kitchen in the morning)
- ROUTINE – the steps that are followed to complete the particular task.
(Turn on coffee machine–> get coffee mug–> warm up milk–> pour coffee)
- REWARD – the end goal of the routine. The reward tells your brain whether this routine is worth remembering.
(You get to take that first mind-altering sip)
- CRAVING – the craving is the bigger reason behind the habit—it’s what really turns a routine into a habit and continues driving the habit. It is satisfied by the reward, but is more intangible and difficult to pinpoint than the immediate reward.
(You crave that pick-me-up that helps you feel confident to take on the day).
So, how can we help our kids create good habits when it comes to doing chores? The full science of developing routines and habits is another article in itself. But here are a few tips to get started:
1. Pick a cue, any cue
You could latch the new chore onto an existing cue, like getting out of bed in the morning. Or you might need to create a cue. Either way, clearly communicate this to your child as the trigger for the chore (routine) they need to do.
Example: When we’ve put PJs on, it’s time to put the dirty clothes in the hamper and hang up your bath towel OR When we get up in the morning, it’s time to make the bed.
Make sure that everyone in the family knows what the cue is for a new routine, so that everyone’s on board, and no one interferes (except your 2-year-old, of course. There’s no avoiding that).
2. Keep the routine simple
For kids, creating a chore routine will first involve you modelling and teaching them the process, as we outlined above. Keep the steps simple, clear, age-appropriate and consistent. Your child will need to be at the point where they can do the routine confidently on their own before it can truly become a habit.
3. Make sure there’s a tangible reward
Rewards aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of habits, but they’re important at the start when you’re trying to create a new one. For each chore, decide on a tangible reward your kid wants, and that you can definitely deliver on! (Later on, when the habit is ingrained, you’ll be able to remove the reward without losing the habit).
4. Feed the bigger craving
Behind the tangible rewards, there are deeper desires that will motivate your child to turn chores into habits: things like the desire to master new skills, build independence, keep up with siblings, and perhaps most importantly, to please you, the parent. The immediate reward acts as a sign that they are achieving these deeper goals. (Think of a reward like a medal for winning a race—it’s not really about the medal, but achieving a personal goal and winning others’ respect and approval in the process).
So, take any opportunity you can to help feed these deeper cravings through verbal and non-verbal encouragement. Over time, the reward will become irrelevant as your child is motivated by the bigger, intangible rewards of doing a task well on their own, completing a goal, showing love for others and doing their part for the family.
7. Have Great Expectations (but not unrealistic ones)
Most of us are more likely to underestimate than overestimate what our kids can handle, especially when they’re little. It’s all too easy to jump in to help or second-guess our expectations at the first sign of resistance or frustration from our kids.
What we need to remember is that struggle is crucial for growth, and if we don’t give them that space, we’re robbing them of an important opportunity to push beyond the frustration. Of course, we shouldn’t expect our kids to take huge leaps in ability. Keep chores age-appropriate, but don’t be afraid to let them test the next rung on the ladder!
Then there’s the flipside of the coin…
As our kids get older, we should must also beware of overburdening them. If they’re extra busy with special projects, extra-curricular activities or a big test, or perhaps adjusting to something new in their life, it’s probably not the best time to give them new or extra chores.
As adults, we obviously have to be able to deal with heavier workloads and tight deadlines at times, so it’s not that we should shield our kids from being exposed to the pressures they’ll face in life.
Don’t jump in right away to lighten the load for your child. But do watch for their cues, and cut them some slack if they genuinely need it. (This is also a great opportunity to let them practice some negotiation skills, whether with you, or perhaps a sibling. Maybe they can trade some chores now and pick up some extra ones next week).
In the bigger picture, we want home to be a safe space where our kids feel supported—where there’s room for weakness, and grace when they need it. Part of that is building culture where everyone is willing to pitch in to pick up the slack if someone else is struggling. And knowing you can expect the same treatment in return.
And at the end of another long day…
…it’s going to come down to having bucketloads of patience (ss with most things parenting!).
Having a smooth, successful, no-nagging chore routine for the family is not going to happen overnight. But it’s definitely not impossible. The important thing is to commit, have some faith, and get the ball rolling!
For easy reference, download our How to Get Kids to Do Chores 1-pager – print it and stick it up somewhere to help you keep your head in the game!
Got some tips, struggles or success stories to share with our community? Let us know in the comments!