In many families, children are expected to do regular chores. Parents like to assign their kids chores using a chore chart or 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 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? While it makes sense, something doesn’t sit right with me. I was curious. I looked up the Harvard Grant Study data.
The Harvard Grant Study
I was surprised to find no evidence 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 did? Maybe…
But here’s the thing about the academic “publish or perish” culture – if a big discovery like this really existed, researchers would have been all over it, designing studies left and right to prove or disprove it.
However, I was unable to locate any studies that support that claim. The only study I found that was close to testing this idea indicated the opposite 4.
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 However, this university-published article was not peer-reviewed and was only cited 12 times at the time of this writing.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.
Does that mean our kids shouldn’t do chores? No, I wouldn’t recommend that either.
We, as parents, should motivate our kids to do chores, not make them do chores.
Why chores are important
Although there’s no research 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 and a sense of accomplishment can become sources of strength for children to build their resilience 5. They will also grow self-reliance and learn accountability.
However, making kids do them will wipe out any benefits of chores we thought they were getting. We should motivate our children to do chores, not make them.
How to Motivate Kids To Do Chores
Here are two major types of motivation parents use to motivate kids to do household chores.
A token economy is a behavior-management system that uses tokens to reinforce a targeted behavior and the tokens can be exchanged for rewards.
Parents often pay kids for chores, which is an example of a token economy.
Token economies include these essential parts:
- Tokens – a positive reinforcement used to keep track of the chores that have been done. Usually, they come in the form of points or gold stars on reward charts.
- Target behaviors – a list of chores that can be assigned by parents or chosen by the child.
- Rules – how to earn or lose tokens.
- Reward – the reward is something valuable to the child, such as money, screen time, later bedtime, or toys that the tokens can be exchanged for.
- Exchange method – how tokens are exchanged for rewards.
Using a token reward system is popular with parents because designing and implementing them is relatively straightforward. It is an effective way to get children’s help with clear expectations and less time wasted in power struggles.
In addition, you get results fast with both older kids and younger kids. If the reward is something the child really wants, they will likely comply right away.
However, this motivational method has two major drawbacks.
First, such a chore system changes the reason why children should help around the house.
Using rewards to motivate creates extrinsic motivation and gives chores a whole new meaning. Now children do chores for the rewards, not because they feel a sense of responsibility or want to contribute as a part of the family.
Second, it makes children less altruistic.
Because children expect to be compensated for their work, they are less likely to help others without being rewarded. Research has found that children who receive allowances for doing chores are less likely to help others “for free” 5.
Another way to motivate kids to do chores is by developing a strong relationship with them.
According to the self-determination theory, relatedness, the feeling of connection with others, creates intrinsic motivation.
Children who are intrinsically motivated to do chores do them without any rewards.
The idea of having kids who want to do chores is not a pipedream. As many parents recall the early years, when their kids were toddlers, they enjoyed pretending to do chores. They also enjoyed helping parents without being asked.
Young children are naturally altruistic. In infants as young as 14 to 18 months of age, researchers have found that they help others spontaneously without expecting a reward 6.
What could make a helpful toddler unwilling to help when they get older?
One possible reason is that when we reward them with allowance or privilege for doing something they already enjoyed, we reduce their intrinsic motivation. Psychologists call this the overjustification effect 7.
Another possibility is that the parent-child relationship has been deteriorating and the child feels less close to the parent. Children whose parents punish harshly are more likely to develop poor relationships 8.
Here are some practical steps to strengthen your relationship when giving your child chores.
1. Make Chores Fun
One great way to motivate younger kids, such as two to five-year-olds, is to find a fun way to do age-appropriate chores around the house.
You can do it together and help them 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.
2. Ditch the Chore Cards
Here’s the problem when you assign chores with a chore chart or chore plan: 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 life in a family.
But when there is a checklist, if you need help with extra chores, your kid may say, “That’s not on my list of chores. It’s not my responsibility.” There’ll likely be an argument about “fairness” or negotiation on who gets what. It becomes a power struggle.
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 intrinsically 9.
Children 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 money.
3. Don’t Force Your Child To Do Chores When They Occasionally Say No
If you want your child to help out when you’re not feeling well, help them when they don’t want to do chores, too.
Altruism and helpful behavior are reciprocal 10. 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 best predictor of young adults’ 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.
4. Thank Them
Show your genuine appreciation and gratitude when your children do chores, and your kids will learn to appreciate your effort in raising them, too.
Like helping others, appreciation is reciprocal 11. 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.
In the relational approach, the importance of chores lies not in whether or not children do them, but in why they do them.
A drawback of this method is that it takes some time to become effective. The parents must be patient and make an effort to improve their relationship with their children.
The method is ideal for parents who care more about developing their child’s character and improving their relationships rather than just getting chores done.
Token economy vs relational approach
Which method to use depends on what the purpose of chores is, as well as the results you hope to achieve at the end of the day.
These are the comparisons of the two methods.
|Token approach||Relational approach|
|Purpose||Getting chores done||Teaching kids responsibilities and altruism|
|Pros||Get results fast|
Easy to implement
|Develop a strong parent-child relationship- Kids value family life and altruism|
|Cons||Chores stop when rewards stop|
Kids become less altruistic- Less sense of a supportive family
|It takes parents longer and more effort to see results|
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
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