Chores for kids are very common in many families. Many parents like to assign children chores using a chore chart or a chore list. But how to get kids to do chores?
“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 she mentioned the word “chores”, 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 wildfire1.
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.
No Credible Research Found
To my surprise, I couldn’t find any sign that doing chores was associated with success in that study. It is not referenced in any information related to that study that I could lay my hands on1–3.
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 study to that effect. In fact, the only study I found that came close to testing this idea was a 2003 study by the University of Amsterdam4. 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 because “too many chores and responsibilities interfere with schoolwork.” Again, there is no evidence that doing chores contributes to a child’s success.
Note: There is ONE research article published by the University of Minnesota that shows a correlation between doing household tasks and positive future impact, and this research has been widely reported on the Internet. However, this university-published article was not peer-reviewed and was only cited 12 times at the time of writing. At Parenting for Brain, we strive to include only research studies that are peer-reviewed, published in a credible journal, and cited at least 50 times by other published research studies.
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 are not.
When it comes to getting kids to do chores, 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 personal commitment and persistence.
When a child is only motivated to do a task through reward or punishment, once the motivator is removed, the child will stop doing anything. They are not committed to doing 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 when the reward/punishment went away.
But motivating kids intrinsically is difficult. That’s why most parents resort to making. Parents are also encouraged to “make kids do chores” because they’ve received parenting tips like the one mentioned above.
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.
Let’s try to make sense of this… Are washing dishes, loading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, cleaning their room, folding laundry, making the bed 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, or an adult child, moves out and lives by themselves, when they have to do it, they’ll learn in no time.
Don’t Chores Teach Responsibility?
Another argument for “making kids do chores” is that chores help teach kids responsibility.
How do chores teach 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 values or work ethic you want to instill in your kid. Do you want your child’s reason for doing chores to be, “I want to because I love my family. I want to help” or “Suck it up, do it whether or not I like it because I’ll get punished otherwise”?
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.
So, should kids do chores? Absolutely.
To be clear, 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 take part in and contribute to the family in meaningful ways. Having morally obligated responsibilities can become sources of strength and competence for resilient children5. They will also grow self-reliance and learn accountability.
However, making kids do them will wipe out any benefits we thought we were getting. We should motivate our children to do chores, not making them.
Here are some tips on how to motivate kids to do chores.
1. Make Chores Fun
One way to motivate younger kids, such as two to five-year-olds, is to 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 it is not enjoyable.
2. Ditch the Chore Cards
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. It’s part of the family life.
When there is a checklist, 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.
Instead of assigning your kids chores, let them choose, and the chosen household tasks can be different every day. Sometimes more. Sometimes less.
Psychologists have found that when children have the autonomy to choose, they are much more likely to become motivated intrinsically6.
3. Don’t Say Chores are The Kid’s Jobs
When it’s a job, people expect to get paid. Many parents do indeed pay kids money for doing chores. The problem is that before they do 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 situations7.
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 To Do Chores When They Occasionally Say No
When my kid refuses to do 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 want to do chores, too.
Altruism and helpful behavior are reciprocal8. That’s how strong relationships can be developed together as a family. Show your child how to have each other’s back. Show them that your family is not “everyone is out for themselves.” Instead, you are a team.
If a child doesn’t care about the family enough to help without being rewarded or punished, how to get them to do housework should be the least of the parent’s worries.
The Harvard Grant Study actually finds that the number one predictor of adult success is having a close, nurturing relationship in childhood, not doing chores. If you don’t have such a parent-child relationship, stop worrying about how to get them to do chores and start working on your relationship to create a secure attachment.
5. Thank Them
Show your genuine appreciation when your children do chores, and your kids will learn to appreciate your effort in raising them, too.
Like helping others, appreciation is reciprocal9. If you don’t want your kid to take you for granted, show them you don’t take them for granted either. Show them how to appreciate others. 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 Getting Kids To Do Chores
In some households, age-appropriate chores for kids are a necessary part of life. Sometimes a parent can be 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. For example, if I am exhausted 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 and consequences, 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 instead.
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