Clean your room, walk the dog, set the table. Giving your kids chores isn’t simply a way to check things off the family to-do list, it’s actually good for them.
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By assigning household tasks to children, you’re instilling responsibility, autonomy and a healthy work ethic, all traits that empower us to succeed in life — and research backs this up. According to a University of Minnesota report, young adults who began chores at an early age (about 3 or 4) were more likely to be self-sufficient, achieve academic and early career triumphs, and enjoy good relationships with family and friends. A Harvard Grant study further concluded that those who were given chores in childhood grew up to be adults who were more independent and better able to work in collaborative groups.
So, how do you get your kids to pick up their dirty socks?
First, take out the nag factor (if you have older kids, you understand this) and change the paradigm. None of us likes emptying the dishwasher or taking out the trash, but we recognize that doing so is necessary for a well-run household. It’s also part of the “pitch in and help” narrative of the mutual obligations that bind a family. Motivating kids to do chores starts with a conversation about this dynamic and then progresses with age-appropriate assignments.
Young children, in particular, want to be productive contributors to the household, while older ones (think tweens and teens) may require added incentives (like an allowance or perks like extra TV and computer time) to get on board. Starting youngsters as early as possible is key, though beginning at any age works.
The following ground rules will get you started.
▪ Set realistic expectations. No one’s going to make the bed or sweep the floor exactly the way you do, so adjust your mindset and let go of perfection. Most importantly, do not step in and do your child’s chore for them.
▪ Make a chores chart. Create a list of necessary jobs and have your child pick out which ones they’d like to do. This ensures everyone is on the same page and expectations are set.
▪ Be consistent. Chores fall by the wayside if you don’t hold your child accountable. Kids also tend to think/hope someone else will do their job for them. If a task is not completed to your satisfaction, there must be consequences. So, if you tell your child the dishes need to be done in 20 minutes and they’re not, move up their bedtime. This strategy works on the flip side as well, i.e., “If you get it done within 15 minutes, you can stay up 15 minutes later.” What makes this work well is that it’s not nagging — it’s keeping time.
▪ Show and tell. This is especially important for younger children as you ease them into their new routine. Show your child step by step what’s involved, let them help you do it, then have them do the chore as you supervise. Once they have it mastered, it’s solo time.
▪ Give praise. Let your child know how pleased you are with their added responsibility and how well they’re doing. Wordage to use: “Thank you for helping out. Our family makes a great team.”
▪ Allow autonomy. Nagging doesn’t work; though reminders (and the aforementioned timing strategy) are OK. Use gentle suggestions such as “It would be extremely helpful if you could…”
▪ Switch it up. If your child is losing interest in a particular task, ask them to clean a sibling’s room instead or take turns deciding the weekly meal plan (within reason). You can also make chores fun by adding a challenge component, such as seeing if they can fold laundry faster than you, or adding a playtime component, like washing vegetables while (badly) singing.
▪ Consider an allowance. Some kind of reward system is important. It doesn’t have to be money; it can be more screen time or staying up later. But often, at least for older kids, money talks.
Bottom line: Getting kids to help around the house will never be first on their list of priorities — there’s playing and friends and the computer, after all — and that's OK. Expect that enforcing housework will no doubt include some pushback but the lessons learned, that of responsibility and independence, are skills that will eventually make for more productive, capable adults.
Tameeka Grant, Ph.D., has more than 20 years’ experience as a researcher; most of her work has been devoted to program evaluation to improve services for children and families. She is currently focused on The Children’s Trust’s small CBO capacity building and family strengthening and neighborhood support partnerships initiatives.