Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a very hard time getting my children to do their chores. They often volunteer to help people outside of the house but, rarely make extra effort to help out at home. Growing up, my siblings and I saw what needed to be done around the house and just did it. My kids don’t seem to have any motivation to do anything. When asked to do a specific task, the normal response is to do the bare minimum (not always a good job at that) and not an iota more. While I’m sure it’s my fault that they are this way, I don’t know where to start to change things. Help!
Dear Last Straw,
Thanks for asking a question that is truly universal. I think every parent from every society and era can relate. I’ll offer a few tips on influencing children to take responsibility for tasks around the house.
The goal is to build responsibility, not just obedience. One of the challenges we face with teens (and many adults) is that they prize independence and autonomy, but don’t always act responsibly when they have it. As parents we want them to be independent, but only if they are responsible. Household tasks can be a wonderful laboratory for building independence and responsibility.
Build an accountability system that doesn’t rely on you. Currently, you are responsible for all aspects of accountability. You tell your children when chores need to be done, evaluate their performance, and administer praise or sanctions. You are their supervisor. Your goal should be to replace yourself by making your children responsible for each of these elements. This will allow them greater independence, while also making them more accountable.
Expect this to be a learning process. I think you will discover that your children aren’t as unmotivated as you might think. Sure, they don’t like being interrupted in the middle of an important video game to “clean their room right now!” But the real barrier they face will be ability. Few children have ever been asked to create an accountability system before—and it takes some learning.
Ask them to set clear standards. Let’s imagine a few household tasks you might have them do: dishwashing, laundry, and keeping their rooms clean. Ask your children to create a checklist for each task. For example, their steps for doing the laundry might include: collect clothes, sort clothes into darks and lights, wash clothes in separate loads, dry clothes, sort and fold clothes, put clothes away. You should not be the one making this list. Have one child make the list, and then have the other children evaluate it and add to it. Give them as much independence and ownership as possible.
Have them establish roles, times, and reminders. You don’t want to be the one who has to remind your children to do their part. Instead, ask them to figure out who will be responsible for which tasks, how that person will remember, and how they will remind each other. You might need to help them come up with ideas. For example, you could create a responsibility bulletin board where assignments can be kept—e.g., Jamie does the laundry checklist on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Make sure their plans include reminders that don’t come from you. For instance, they could set alarms on their phones. Let them set the times for doing their chores—within reason. These bite-sized pieces of autonomy will mean a lot to them.
Set up peer evaluations. Don’t accept the disciplinarian role. Instead, have your children evaluate each other’s performance. For example, they can use their checklists to check on each other’s quality. In my experience, they will be as strict or stricter than you’d ever be—and they’ll appreciate the autonomy and independence.
Use deliberate practice. Don’t expect your children to be as good at doing household tasks as you are. They are unlikely to be as fast or as effective. For example, there is no reason why it should take them more than fifteen minutes to clean their room (pick up floor, make bed, put things where they belong, vacuum, and dust)—if they stay on top of it every day. Make it a challenge. Have them practice while a brother or sister times them and checks on the quality of their work. Doing a great job in ten minutes should be a source of personal pride for them.
Manage the team and the system, not the individual and the exception. Your children won’t always follow this new system, and you’ll have to hold them accountable. However, don’t hold a one-on-one with the individual child who has failed to do their chore. Instead, hold a brief family meeting, and focus on the accountability system. Point out that the system isn’t working well enough, and challenge them to fix it. Maybe they need to build in better reminders or maybe they need to get better at holding each other accountable. Don’t allow them to put you back in the supervisor role. Make them continue to manage themselves.
I hope some of these tips will be helpful. Of course, you will have to modify them depending on your children’s ages and your own family situation.
Best of Luck,