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Chores for Kids – Are They Really the Key to Success?

Chores for kids are very common in many families. Many parents like to assign children chores using a chore chart or a chore list.

“Make them do chores” is a parenting tip circulating on the Internet ever since the former Dean of Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, championed it in her TED Talk.

In the talk, when the word “chores” was mentioned, an enthusiastic round of applause ensued.

Lythcott-Haims said, “professional success in life …. comes from having done chores as a kid, and the earlier you started, the better, that a roll-up-your-sleeves- and-pitch-in mindset” based on the Harvard Grant Study.

Since that talk, the idea of “make kids do chores” has spread like wildfire​1​.

Is it really true?

It kind of makes sense, but something doesn’t sit well with me.

I was curious. So I went to look up the data from the Harvard Grant Study.

a girl in a red checker outfit washes the dishes at the kitchen sink. Washing dishes is a part of many kids' chore chart or chore list.

No Credible Research Found on Chores for Kids

To my surprise, I couldn’t find any indication that chores were associated with success in that study. It is not referenced in any information related to that study that I could lay my hands on​1–3​.

Could it be that the former dean of Stanford had more access to the data than I could find?

Maybe…

But here’s the thing about the academic “publish or perish” culture – if a big revelation like this really did exist, researchers would have been all over it, designing studies left and right to prove or disprove it.

However, I cannot find any studies to that effect.

In fact, the only study I found that came close to testing this idea was a 2003 study by University of Amsterdam​4​. In this study, researchers found

“A direct (negative) path was found between the number of chores assigned and school success (GPA)”

… that negative correlation was likely caused by the fact that

“too many chores and responsibilities interfere with schoolwork.”

Again, no indication of chores contributing to a child’s success.

So, does it mean that our kids should not do chores?

No, that’s not my recommendation either.

Motivating vs. Making

We, as parents, should motivate our kids to do chores, not make them do chores.

“Aren’t they the same?” you may ask.

They’re not.

When it comes to motivation, we often associate it with carrot and stick.

Those measures will only create extrinsic motivation, i.e. the child will do chores because there are external reasons and those reasons do not come from within themselves.

We want our children to have intrinsic motivation instead.

Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive that propels a person to pursue an activity.

Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation because an intrinsically motivated child has a stronger sense of person commitment and persistence.

When a child is only motivated to do chores through reward or punishment, once the motivator is removed, the child will stop doing chores. They are not committed to do them on their own.

Even worse, reward and punishment decrease intrinsic motivation. So if a child had some inner desire to do it before, they would now have less or no desire to do so.

But motivating kids intrinsically is not easy. That’s why most parents resort to making. Parents are also encouraged to “make kids do chores” because they’ve received advice like the one mentioned above.

A toddler helps mom put laundry into the washing machine in the laundry room. Doing chores for kids is a good way to instill family values when it's done right.

Don’t Chores Teach Life Skills?

Proponents of the “making” camp argue that if children don’t learn, they will not have the life skills they need when they grow up.

Here’s where Sensical Parenting comes in … let’s try to make sense of this.

Are washing dishes, putting away laundry, taking out trash, folding laundry or mopping the floor so hard to learn that if our children don’t learn them when they’re young, they won’t have these “life skills”?

I don’t think so.

Chores are not rocket science. Once a child moves out, when they have to do it, they’ll learn it in no time.

Don’t Chores Teach Responsibility?

Another argument for “making kids do chores” is that chores help teach kids responsibility.

Responsibility can mean several things.

One interpretation of responsibility is that the child will learn that they have a moral or mental obligation to do so – a child takes on chores because they know it’s important to the welfare of the family. They want to contribute to the household, to a greater good, so to speak, because they care about the family. They want to be a bonded, integral and contributing member.

But when a child does something for rewards or the fear of punishment, they’re not doing it out of moral obligation. It defeats the purpose of teaching this interpretation of “responsibility”.

Another interpretation of responsibility is that you have to do it because it’s your job, whether you like it or not.

Which type of responsibility do you want to teach your child?

It comes down to what kind of values you want to instill in your kid.

Do you want the kind that says “I want to because I love my family. I want to help out” or the kind that says “Suck it up, do it whether I like it or not”?

What About Teaching Kids Life is Hard Work?

Although it seems to be so, a child’s life isn’t exactly smooth sailing.

School workload in the twenty-first century is heavier than ever before. Exams are harder. College admission is much more competitive. Kids will have plenty of opportunities to learn that life is full of hard work. We don’t have to make it even harder.

As mentioned, I’m not advocating no chores for kids. But I’m pointing out the assertion that making kids do chores will help them succeed is a myth.

How to Motivate Kids To Do Chores

Although there’s no convincing evidence that doing household chores will lead to success in life, teaching our kids to do chores does have its value.

Doing chores provides opportunities for children to participate and contribute to the family in meaningful ways.

Having morally obligated responsibilities can become sources of strength and competence for resilient children​5​.

However, making kids do them will wipe out any benefits we thought we were having.

We should motivate our children to do chores, not making them.

Here are some tips on creating motivation for chores.

1. Make Doing Chores Fun

To motivate younger kids, such as two to five year olds, make a game out of doing age appropriate chores around the house.

You can do it together and help kids make it fun.

Have a race and see who can pick up toys the fastest, rake leaves the most, set the table the prettiest, or put away groceries the neatest.

When she was still a preschooler, my three year old fought to vacuum the floor for me. To her, it was a game.

For older kids, starting around six years old, it becomes harder to convince them that doing chores is fun, especially if you have shown them or told them that it is not enjoyable.

2. Ditch the Chore Chart or Chore List

Here’s the problem when you assign chores with a chore chart / chore list: your child will only do the assigned ones and nothing more.

As a family, we should be willing to pitch in and help other members when they fall behind, become sick, or are too busy or tired.

When there is a list, if you need help with other tasks, your kid may say, “That’s not on my list. It’s not my responsibility.”

There’ll likely be an argument about “fairness” or a negotiation on who gets what.

When family members nickel-and-dime what chores are or aren’t their responsibilities, the family cohesion is weakened.

So let your kids choose, and the chosen household tasks can be different everyday. Sometimes more. Sometimes less.

3. Don’t Say Chores are The Kid’s Job

When it’s a job, people expect to be paid.

Many parents do pay kids for doing chores.

The problem is that before doing any chores, children who are paid to do so will ask, “How much will I get paid for this?”

When a family is running like a business, children learn that they will only do chores when they get paid.

Studies have found that these children are less altruistic and less likely to help in social situations​6​.

Children need to learn that in a close knit family, we help each other out. These are mutual obligations and opportunities to learn new skills, not just things we do to earn an allowance.

4. Don’t Force You Child When They Occasionally Say No

When my child really doesn’t want to do any chores that day, I let her.

Why?

I’m modeling how to help others.

If I want my child to help me when I’m not feeling well, I need to help her when she doesn’t feel like doing chores, too.

Altruism and helpful behavior are reciprocal​7​.

That’s how we develop strong relationship as a family. We show that we have each other’s back. Our family is not “everyone’s out for themselves.”

If a child doesn’t care about the family enough to help out without being rewarded or punished, doing chores should be the least of the parents’ worries.

Having a close, nurturing relationship in childhood is one of the best predictors of adult success and well-being.

If you don’t have such a relationship with your child, stop worrying about chores and work on your relationship first to create a secure attachment.

5. Thank Them

Show your genuine appreciation when your child helps out, and your child will learn to appreciate your effort in raising them, too.

Like helping others, appreciation is reciprocal​8​.

If you don’t want your kid to take you for granted, show them you don’t take them for granted either.

Every now and then, it also helps to point out what each family member does and thank them.

For example, in our house, Dad is the cook. Once in a while, at dinner time, we thank Dad for cooking us meals. After I’ve volunteered at the school, Dad and my kid would thank me. After dinner, my daughter would wipe the table. Both Dad and I thank her. Of course we don’t do this every day or for everything. But doing it occasionally reminds us to appreciate how each family member contributes to this home and helps us create strong bonds.

Final Thoughts on Chores for Kids

In some households, age appropriate chores for kids are a necessary part of life. Sometimes the parents are too busy or there are too many children to take care of. The kids’ contribution is needed, not just wanted.

In such cases, parents can explain clearly why the child’s help is needed and what the trade-off is if they don’t help out.

For example, if I am very tired and I do not have help with dish-washing, the trade-off is that I won’t have the energy to go to the park after I’m done. That is the natural consequence.

But when explaining the trade-off, make sure it’s an actual trade-off, not a guilt trip or a threat, such as “I won’t play with you if you don’t wash the dishes” because using a threat is another form of forcing kids do chores.

Making a child do things is never a good solution when you can motivate them to.


References

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    Carr DC. Triumphant Discoveries About Late Life Flourishing. The Gerontologist. Published online June 13, 2014:727-730. doi:10.1093/geront/gnu063
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    de Bruyn EH, Deković M, Meijnen GW. Parenting, goal orientations, classroom behavior, and school success in early adolescence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online September 2003:393-412. doi:10.1016/s0193-3973(03)00074-1
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    Fabes RA, Fultz J, Eisenberg N, May-Plumlee T, et al. Effects of rewards on children’s prosocial motivation: A socialization study. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1989:509-515. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.25.4.509
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    Gintis H, Bowles S, Boyd R, Fehr E. Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior. Published online May 2003:153-172. doi:10.1016/s1090-5138(02)00157-5
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