Now Is the Right Time!
As parents, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and daily chores provides a perfect opportunity.
Chores allow your child to play a role in contributing to the maintenance and care of your family’s household. Children ages 5-10 are in the process of establishing lifestyle habits whether it’s making their bed in the morning, doing their dirty dishes, or cleaning up their toys, that will extend throughout their lifetime. Children 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 persist toward any type of goal.
Yet, there are challenges. Children’s schedules are busy. After school, your child may have soccer practice, a full hour of homework, along with grand desires for seeing friends and playing outside. “Why do I have to take in the garbage cans? My friends don’t!” you may hear from your eight-year-old. Whether it’s cleaning up their room or setting the table for dinner, your child may engage you in power struggles when they have other goals in mind like, “How can I play longer?”
The key to many parenting challenges, like chores, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. And, daily chores are a way for your child 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 preschoolers to put away their backpack each day (instead of leaving it flung in the middle of the living room floor), reminding a first grader to take their dishes to the sink after dinner, or battling with a nine-year-old to put game equipment in the yard away before coming inside, these can become daily challenges if you don’t create regular routines with input from your 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:
- 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 establish routines. It also builds important skills in your child. 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 are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about chores by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to chores so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- 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.
Consider what chores need to be done. You might start by thinking through rooms of the house beginning with your child’s room. You might ask and consider together:
- “What do we need to do in your bedroom to keep it clean and ready to use?”
- “How should we deal with dirty clothes and prepare clean clothes for school?”
- “When and how do we prepare for and eat family dinner together?”
- “When we are finished playing, how do we leave our play areas?”
For 5-7-year-olds: Get out a paper and markers. Have your child or children write down their ideas in response to the above questions. Consult the developmentally-appropriate list of chores (below) to get ideas. For 8-10-year-olds: Create a checklist together of your household responsibility plan on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Children at this age enjoy checking off a list.
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 your child starts to take on responsibilities, you might start to notice challenges like wanting to play instead of clean up. Get curious and ask your child,
- “Why is clean up time a challenging time for you?”
- “How can we address those problems to make those times easier and help you remember what you need to do?”
- Brainstorm ideas to solve the problem like, “Could we set a timer at the end of playtime so that when it goes off, we put toys away?”
- Write out a plan for chores. Make sure your child is the one writing down or drawing the plan (it doesn’t have to be perfect!). Make it simple.
- Post your plan in a visible location and refer to it as a reminder. You could say, “What’s next on our plan?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that children are learning to perform everyday, typical tasks with greater independence each year of their lives. Though they may competently throw their dirty laundry into the washer, that same child might struggle with making the bed. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent know which tasks might be more difficult. Here are some examples:3
- Five-year-olds enjoy helping out. They are eager to follow and learn about rules and need consistent routines. Ideas for chores include: sweep the floor with a broom (adults may need to help with dustpan), take dirty dishes to sink, put toys back into designated bins.
- Six-year-olds thrive on encouragement. Ideas for chores include: set the table, get out and put away holiday decorations, rinse dishes, empty dishwasher.
- Seven-year-olds want to keep toys neater and they tend to be more organized. Ideas for chores include: work together to create new organization systems for toys, make sure bins or storage units are labeled and large enough for contents, dust or mop floors, rake leaves.
- Eight-year-olds love cooperative work with peers. Ideas for chores include: dusting, vacuuming, cleaning as a team together, washing the car with friends.
- Nine-year-olds have greater social awareness and begin to understand the value of all members pitching in to care for the house. They take pride in their work. Ideas for chores include: make bed in the morning, organize, clean up common household spaces, take out trash, move cans to the curb by self or with support, learn to care for pets.
- Ten-year-olds work well on cooperative teams. They have high sensitivity to fairness. Ideas for chores include: bring laundry to washer, move clothing from washer to dryer, begin learning about how to do laundry, make breakfast, snack, or lunch with support and choices.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child 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.
Consider what tasks are challenging to your child so you know where to focus your teaching.
- Ask, “What’s my child challenged by?” If it’s several tasks, write them down and think about how you might use the following teaching tool to help your child learn.
Requiring a child to do a household task before teaching first is bound to create power struggles. Without teaching, your child 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.4
- Say what you will model or demonstrate and why.
- Model or demonstrate the behavior.
- Ask your child what they noticed.
- Invite your child to try it.
- 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 who are talking about preparing for a family dinner. You might say, “Watch how I play waiter. You can try it after me!” You could wear an apron like a waiter might or put on a name tag. Now set the table as you would like it, and as your child watches and you go through the motions, be sure to notice any areas that may pose difficulties for your child such as getting out and placing knives at each place setting. Address those directly. “Since the knives can be dangerous, I’ll do that part of the process each night and you can do the rest.” Ask, “What did you notice when I was acting like a waiter?” You might say, “Okay, your turn to pretend to be the waiter.” Dress your child up in the apron and name tag to maintain the fun. After they play their role ask, “What did you notice when you did it?” Now practice it together. Don’t skip this! It’s important that your child gets the chance to work alongside you while cooperatively going through the process. In providing feedback, be specific and start with strengths. “I noticed you handled the silverware carefully. Terrific! When you put the napkins down, be sure to count so that each person gets one.” If you share too many issues, your child might tune out, so pick your top few areas for improvement only.4
Be certain and pick a time to do this when you do not have time pressures.
Remember: children learn through play. Play act like you would a game.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Daily chores can be opportunities for your child to practice new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child 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 performs the chore.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’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.
- When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate: “Show me how you make your bed.”
- On days with extra challenges that make completing chores harder, proactively remind your child to help them be successful. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember our next step? What is it?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child 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 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 when it’s time to clean up? Do you know where everything goes?”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like, “I noticed how you went ahead and picked up your toys without my asking. That’s taking responsibility!”
- Infuse some fun! Make clean-up time or chore time fun. Working together as a family can be enjoyable. Turn on some music or sing a song while working. Here are some great (free) clean-up songs you can use.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “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 help offer additional support and motivation for your child 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 into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child 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.
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior is by recognizing when and how your child makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Check your own tone and attitude toward chores! If you groan when it’s time to get them done, your child will surely groan too. Approach chores with a “let’s dig in together” kind of attitude, and that’s how your child will learn to approach them as well.
Don’t move on or nag. Children 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 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 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is your child’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 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 sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your child’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 are buzzing through putting their toys away and on time, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you put all of your toys 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 to go smoothly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting things cleaned up, snuggle together and read before bed. Or in the morning, after rinsing the breakfast dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, have a few minutes to watch a favorite cartoon together. Include 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 playing, get dressed, make your bed, and come downstairs right on time.”
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards as bait for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, 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.
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. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children 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.