Now Is the Right Time!
As parents, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and daily chores provide a perfect opportunity.
Chores allow your child/teen to play a role in contributing to the maintenance and care of your family’s household. Children/teens ages 11-14 are in the process of establishing lifestyle habits whether it’s making their beds in the morning, doing their dirty dishes, or cleaning up their games and supplies, that will extend throughout their lifetime. Children/teens who do chores learn that part of being in a family is contributing to the work and responsibilities of family life. When they pitch in, it creates a sense of autonomy, belonging, and competence.
In fact, research has found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood can be directly traced back to whether a child began doing chores at an early age, as young as three or four.1 But, it’s never too late to begin! Another study linked children doing chores to positive mental health in their early adult years.2 Doing chores teaches a work ethic that is essential in helping children/teens persist toward any type of goal.
Yet, there are challenges. Children’s/teen’s schedules are busy. After school, your child/teen may have soccer practice, several hours of homework, along with grand desires for seeing friends or playing outside. “Why do I have to take in the garbage cans? My friends don’t!” you may hear from your eleven-year-old. Whether it’s cleaning up their room or setting the table for dinner, our children/teens may engage us in power struggles when they have other goals in mind like, “How can I socialize or game longer?”
The key to many parenting challenges, like chores, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. And, daily chores are a way for your child/teen to learn valuable skills like timeliness and responsibility. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Whether it’s asking an eleven-year-old to make their bed and turn off the lights each day or reminding a twelve-year-old to rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher after dinner, these can become our daily challenges if we don’t create regular routines with input from our children in advance, clear roles and responsibilities, and a well-established plan for success.
Today, in the short term, chores can create:
- greater cooperation and motivation as we go about our daily tasks;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we each implement our respective roles and feel set up for success;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to complete our responsibilities with practice and care; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- builds skills in responsible decision making, hard work, and persistence; and
- gains independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen establish routines. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about chores by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to chores so that you can address them. Children/teens need more autonomy as they find their independence and seek to define themselves as individuals separate from their parents. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to think through the routine and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for implementing the chore);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their day.
- Ask and negotiate. You might just start by engaging your child/teen in a list of chores they might be interested in doing. You might ask and consider together:
- “Help me come up with a list of chores.”
- “What might be some chores we should consider?”
- “Why are chores important?”
- “What chores feel most meaningful to you?”
- “Which ones do you think you can be successful at getting done regularly?”
Create a checklist together of your household responsibility plan on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Children/Teens appreciate owning the list and enjoy checking off their list. And, this way you are not micro-managing them. Instead, you are supporting their independence.
Be sure you create your plan at a calm time. Don’t create your plan when you are either in the routine itself, are hungry or tired, or have time pressures.
- Discuss challenges. As you talk about your child/teen taking on responsibilities, talk about times that are typically challenging, such as balancing chores and homework. As after-school activities and the burden of homework increase, there is more pressure on your child/teen to get chores done. Discuss how to manage chores on these tough days. You could say, “I know Tuesdays can be hard between having to do homework and being at swim practice. What are ways you can still get your chores done?” Brainstorm ideas to solve the problem.
- Make the agreements very clear. Be sure that you both are on the same page about the expectations. Children/teens love to look for loopholes, so talk through those. Say, “I want to make sure we are on the same page. Tell me your understanding of what I am asking you to do?” Make sure you have clarified whether “clean your room” includes pick up, vacuum, or dust.
- Write your plan. Make sure your children/teens are the ones writing down the plan and designing it however they would like. Make it simple.
- Post your plan in a visible location. Refer to it as a reminder, i.e., “What’s next on our plan?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
There are some chores that might be challenging for your child/teen initially. Frame these as evidence about how your child/teen is growing in terms of the responsibilities they are taking on. Though children/teens would often like to appear fully capable and independent, they are still learning the tasks of family life. Consider: “If my child/teen left our house and lived away from us today, would they know how to fully do a load of laundry, how to pay for utilities and rent, and prepare three healthy meals a day?” Thinking about what tasks they’ll need to be able to know to do when they are on their own can offer you guidance on areas to step up their responsibilities. When you’ve identified those areas, you’ll need to teach them to do those new tasks.
Another helpful way to identify what kinds of tasks children/teens can take on to demonstrate greater responsibility is to learn about what developmental milestones they’re working on.3 Here are some examples:4
- Eleven-year-olds like to challenge rules and may need more adult empathy. They may be sensitive to justice issues. Consider doing chores together like yard work or care for pets, sick family members, or neighbors together.
- Twelve-year-olds are more self-aware, will initiate activities, and are beginning to develop better organizational skills. Ask for opinions about how to organize areas of the house that need attention. Give projects of interest with support if needed.
- Thirteen-year-olds are highly sensitive and like to challenge authority. They are searching for independence. They tend to want to engage in service and social justice. Ideas for chores include: making large meals together for your family, contributing to other families as a service, and caring for pets.
- Fourteen-year-olds need physical release and active opportunities. They tend to be interested in service as it relates to social/world issues. Ideas for chores include: mow the lawn or care for the yard, vacuum, help with moving boxes or bins, engage in home improvement projects like painting, or care for bikes.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
Requiring a child/teen to do a household task before teaching first is bound to create power struggles. After all, your child/teen may not feel like they can do the job competently. Take the time to teach the new job first before incorporating it into your routine.
- There is a simple process called interactive modeling that teachers use that can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.5
- Say what you will model and why.
- Model the behavior.
- Ask your child/teen what they noticed.
- Invite your child/teen to model.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”
The following is an example of how this might look between a parent and child/teen who are talking about preparing for a family dinner: “Now that you are old enough to use the stove by yourself, I want to show you how to make a family favorite dinner – spaghetti and meatballs. I will be showing you the basics, but I want you to watch for the things I am doing to stay safe in the kitchen.” Model behaviors like tucking the pan handle, turning off the burners and double-checking them, using pot holders, pouring away from you, etc. Routinely ask your child/teen, “What did you notice me do?” and ask your child/teen to take the lead halfway through.
Be certain and pick a time to do this when you do not have time pressures.
If you suspect that your child/teen might be resistant to being taught a new task by you, then this can be done subtly. Just working side by side on a project and chatting about what you are actually doing models the behaviors, promotes reflection on what you’re doing, and helps transfer the skills to your child/teen.
Your child/teen is more interested in what’s happening in the outside world and making connections, so use this motivator! Experiment with having your child/teen wait on your family table. Play it out by having them set the table, take drink orders, and serve. Or, if your child/teen is more interested in meal preparation, have them select the menu, shop for it, and actively work together on cooking and preparing it.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Daily chores can be opportunities for your child/teen to practice new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child/teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen performs the chore.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s/teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Use “I’d love for you to…” statements. When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to make it their own and add their own flavor! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love for you to make breakfast that has your own flair.” This can be used when you are in the routine and need to move on a next step.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what children/teens are not doing right. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like: “I notice how you brought back the garbage can from the curb today without my asking. That’s taking responsibility!”
- Proactively remind. The challenges we tend to have in our daily routines recur day after day. Remind in a gentle, non-public way. You may say, “Remember what we do with the pot handle?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior is by recognizing when and how your child/teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. They need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Don’t move on or nag. Children/teens often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if we believe they are simple and don’t require much time. Be sure to wait long enough for your child/teen to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen a new or challenging task so that they understand how to perform it. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate – applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Actively reflect on how chores are going. You can ask questions like: “How are you feeling about clean up time? Do you know where everything goes?”
- Infuse some fun! Working together as a family can be enjoyable time spent. Turn on some of your child’s/teen’s favorite music or sing a song while working.
- Reflect on outcomes. “Looks like you forgot to set the table. What could help you remember in the future?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on particularly challenging chores can offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Check your own tone and attitude toward chores! If you groan when it’s time to get them done, your child/teen will surely groan too. And it could add to your struggle to get your child/teen involved. So approach chores with a “Let’s dig in together!” kind of attitude, and that’s how your child/teen will learn to approach them as well.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is still our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished to move on to dinner in the evening, for example. But if your child/teen is working hard to clean up their mess in any small way, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s/teen’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children/teens are buzzing through putting their school supplies away and on time, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you put all of your supplies in their proper bins on your own in the time we agreed upon. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the full dinner preparation and clean up – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with clean up in the evening, and then we can play a game or watch a movie or show.” Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You put your game away when you were finished. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “Your bed is made” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You were able to stop your gaming, get dressed, make your bed, and come downstairs right on time.”
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on our children/teens. When you remove the money or extra screen time, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.