Reader questions: Kids and chores

Today’s post answers a reader question. You can read previous answers to readers’ questions here.

The below is just a short sample of some of the questions left me in the PWK annual reader survey in 2016.

  • How to get kids started with chores
  • How to make the children help out around the home without being asked
  • How to motivate kids to do chores and how to put in penalties for not doing so

Needless to say that getting kids to help around the house is definitely a pain point for most families. I think we can all take some comfort in that and while we have a solid system in place to get our kids to help around the house, it is still something I continually work on.

Before I share some tips of things that might help with kids and them helping around the house, I think it is important to set the background of what we do in our house with kids and household tasks. I have written in detail about what we do and you can read them in full here:

If you don’t wish to read those posts, the brief summary of what we do is as follows:

  • Each child is allocated tasks.
  • Each task is worth a number of points.
  • Each child must complete tasks which make up the same number of points as their age, eg the 18 year old has to do 18 points worth, the 8 year old only 8.
  • The kids determine amongst themselves who does what from a list of tasks and can add useful tasks to the list that will help the family if they wish.
  • The frequency for completion depends on the task, some are daily, some weekly etc
  • The kids receive pocket money until they are 18 however, pocket money is not associated with the household work they are expected to do.
  • Kids are also expected to help out with other jobs as asked.
  • The parents also have allocated tasks!
  • Most tasks are to be completed on the weekend.
  • I do still have to remind the kids to do a number of their tasks and aim to have a group household tasks time once across the weekend.

My posts listed and the points above cover off some of the questions about kids and chores but not all of them.  These are questions I know other parents ask frequently so I will share my thoughts on each of them.

How to get kids started with chores

The best way to get kids started with helping around the house is to start young. And by young I mean 18 months to 2 years old. From around the ages of 2 – 4 years old, the tasks the kids do are really more about tidying up after themselves and getting themselves ready etc rather than general household tasks. These self care tasks are important though because the practice of having to pack up your toys before sleep time and at the end of the day for example, helps kids get used to routine and the fact that not everything is done for them. They start to learn that they need to do things around the house and take care of their belongings.

As they settle into these routines, you can then start adding smaller regular tasks. Tasks that need to be done every day at a similar time or with a very visual cue are perfect first tasks for kids. Even for adults if we have to do something each day we will set that habit much more quickly than something we have to do on an ad hoc basis. Tasks like setting the table, wiping the table, feeding a pet are perfect first tasks.

When starting kids with tasks it is important that we spend time teaching them how to do it and for us to be realistic about how long it will take them to master the task without our help. This can seem time consuming and we may think it is easier to do it ourselves, but in the long term this isn’t the case and it is really worth persisting. It is worth persisting not only because we receive the benefit of not having to the work, but it builds skills, persistence and self confidence in the kids.

As we start expecting kids to do more around the house it is important that this is discussed as a family. We use family meetings for this and individual one on one conversations with the kids as well. When discussing household tasks at the family meeting we talk about why we expect the kids to help out. We explain that there are many benefits to living together as a family in our home; they have a great place to sleep and live, they have food, they are looked after, they go to school, they have clothes, toys and games, they have sports to play, friends to visit and they are very loved. Part of life is that when you a part of unit like a family that has such wonderful benefits there comes responsibilities. They need to look after their belongings, they need to pick up after themselves, they need to look out for each other and they need to help out around the home so it can stay a welcoming and warm place to live.

Kids need to know why they have to do things. They need to understand what happens if they don’t do it and they need to understand that the tasks they do are valued by the family. As parents we need to make sure we do our best to communicate this to them.

How to make the children help out around the home without being asked

As parents there are certain things we can do so we can set it up the best we can so kids will do their tasks without being asked, but for me I think realistically we need to accept that there will need to be reminders. I wrote this a few year ago:

I would love to say that I just print this out [family contribution schedule], pop it on the fridge and everyone sets about doing their work with out being reminded. That however would be a big fat lie! I am not sure if any kids anywhere in the world remember and then actually do the tasks they are supposed to do to contribute to the housework, but mine don’t.

My kids are currently aged 16, 13, 11, 8 and almost 6. Each of them need a reminder of some sort to do at least some of their work. Where possible I try to allocate tasks where they will fit into part of a routine, for example before school or before dinner, I find that the more a task forms part of their routine, then the more likely it is to be completed. The 13 year remembers to feed the dog most mornings as he does it straight after he has his breakfast for example, but prompts are often needed for other tasks which don’t fit so neatly into the kids’ days.

While I don’t give up hope that one day, they will magically do their tasks without being reminded, I have grown to accept that household tasks are not top priority in their life and as they don’t see things quite the way I do, I need to make it as easy as I can for them to remember to do them and remind them they need to be done.

This is still true at our house. For tasks to happen without being reminded we need to make them habits as much as we can. It makes sense then to understand exactly how habit formation works. The formation of habits occurs through what is known as the habit loop. If like me you are interested in learning more about habits, I highly recommend the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and you can see my review of his book here.

Duhigg describes the The Habit Loop as:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Visually the habit loop looks like this {image from Charles Duhigg}:

This applies equally to adults and kids. So if we want kids to do things without being asked we need to see what cues there are in their day to day activities, that we can use that will trigger them to take a certain action or behaviour.

At the end of each meal for example, every child in our family is expected to take their plate and cutlery into the kitchen. It is then the task of one child to clear the placemats, serving dishes, condiments etc away and wipe the table down. These tasks are done with very little reminder because the cue of the end of meal time triggers these tasks.

Not all tasks have the ability to have such an evident naturally occurring cue. In our house for example sometimes the compost bucket needs to be emptied twice a day, other times it can be a couple of days before it needs emptying again. It is hard for the child who is required to do this task to get into a habit of doing it because it needs to happen at different times and frequencies. To help with this, once the compost bucket is full, we place it in a prominent position on the kitchen high bench that the child will have to walk past. Sometimes it is picked up and emptied without being asked, other times it appears there is some level of blindness occurring and I will politely ask he or she to empty it when they walk past it.

Now some of you will see the reward part of the habit loop and suggest that we should indeed link pocket money to chores so it acts as a reward to reinforce the behaviour. And it might possibly do that, but only in the short term.

Rewards like money are known as extrinsic motivators and many studies have shown that not only do extrinsic motivators not work with kids, but that they can actually detrimentally impact the child’s enjoyment in the activity:

Engagement-contingent and completion-contingent rewards also significantly undermined self-reported interest (d = –0.15, and –0.17), as did all tangible rewards and all expected rewards. {source}

So what rewards to kids get from doing household tasks? They are learning new skills, they are contributing to the family and in most tasks they can see the results of their work. The finger printed and smudged windows now look clean and sparkly! These may not seem like awesome rewards but recent studies show that even something as simple as causally rich information can be rewards for children:

Research and theory suggest that young children are highly attuned to causality. The current study explores whether this drive can motivate task engagement. Fifty-six 3- and 4-year-olds completed a motor task as many times as desired, viewing a picture of a novel item upon each completion. Forty-two randomly assigned children then received either: (1) causally-rich information regarding the item, (2) causally-weak information regarding the item, or (3) a tangible reward. The remaining fourteen children participated in a baseline condition featuring no rewards. Preschoolers completed more trials when rewarded with causally-rich than causally-weak information, or when given no reward. Children also trended towards lengthier persistence in the causally-rich than the tangible reward condition.

{Source: Motivated by Meaning: Testing the Effect of Knowledge-Infused Rewards on Preschoolers’ Persistence Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth Northwestern University.}

So for parents trying to get kids to do some fairly tedious tasks around the house, like emptying the compost we can provide motivation by telling them why we compost, how it works, the benefits of compost etc.

How to motivate kids to do chores and how to put in penalties for not doing so

While I have covered the motivation part of the question in the one above, I wanted to address what to do when kids don’t do their tasks. In general we don’t have penalties if the kids don’t do their tasks. There are certainly times that the kids don’t do their tasks, particularly if I have been out for most of a weekend and haven’t reminded them to complete them.

I will speak to them to let them know that I realise they haven’t been done. Often they will give me a time when they will do them for example Monday after school. Other times it may just get missed that week. This isn’t ideal, but I try to be pragmatic about it. Some weeks I don’t do everything around the house that I should ideally do. I just make sure I get to it the following week and expect the same of the kids.

If there is an ongoing issue with tasks continually not being done, I will talk to the child about it. Try to work out why this is the case and what we can do to remedy it. Sometimes it might be they find the task too hard so I will change it, other times it is simply because they don’t like it and can’t be bothered. We will then chat about the importance of contribution and our expectations. This is generally enough to get things back on track for the next week at least!

There are sometimes when I will use either natural or logical consequences when tasks aren’t done. The Positive Discipline website is an excellent parent resource and defines these consequence as follows:

Natural consequences – A natural consequence is anything that happens naturally, with no adult interference. When you stand in the rain, you get wet. When you don’t eat, you get hungry. When you forget your coat, you get cold.

Logical consequences – Logical consequences are different from natural consequences in that they require the intervention of an adult—or other children in a family or a class meeting.

Here are two examples of how I have used consequences when kids haven’t completed their tasks:

Natural consequence – one of the kids has the task of placing glasses of water on the table at dinner time.  This means if they don’t do it, not only do they not have a drink of water at dinner, but their siblings are pretty unhappy with them too.

Logical consequence – in the past when a child has had the task of helping with dinner preparation once a week, non completion has seen them being late for their sports training. After being requested to help and being warned that we could be late if he didn’t do it, the task still wasn’t done. This child was frustrated by being late for training, but in order for us to be able to eat dinner at a reasonable time, I had to do the task so I could get the dinner in the oven before we left. Being late was a logical consequence for not doing the task.

Where possible I prefer to use natural consequences – they don’t bring their dirty washing out of their room, they don’t have clean clothes etc rather than setting up a logical consequence for everything around household tasks.

Household tasks can be boring and we all have better things we could be doing with our time, so trying to work as much as possible with discussion, collaboration and a positive attitude makes it more bearable for everyone involved.

I would love to hear your thoughts on kids and household tasks! Feel free to leave them in the comments section below. I look forward to reading them.