As a clinician in private practice who works with a lot of children and adolescents, I am often asked by parents about their child having a chore. Many have come across this chart with its nice checklist of age-appropriate chores for your child. And while you may quibble with a 12-year-old shopping for groceries, there is truth that our goal should be raising functioning, self-sufficient adults. Mastering a chore is a step on the way.
So in my experience with raising children and guiding parents, here are some general guidelines (and explanations below):
- Choose the right chore for your child.
- Make sure that there is some quick, positive reinforcement.
- Choose a small chore that happens daily and a larger weekly chore.
- With siblings, make sure that chores exist in silos, that one child’s chore is not dependent on another child’s chore.
- Remember: they are learning.
Choose the right chore for your child.
Imagine this task like a child reaching for something on a shelf. The list of chores does not matter as much as whether you are setting your child up for failure or a “worked for” success. Having a four-year-old scoop out food and feed the family pet makes sense; having them sweep the floor to your satisfaction sets up frustration for your child and for you.
The perfect chore is one that requires a bit of effort, but is doable for your child.
Make sure that there is some quick, positive reinforcement.
When our children were small, we would go by the bank and buy a roll of dimes. It was a small token, but it meant something to them. So that each morning when they would complete their chore, we would say, “Here you go!” and make a bit of a production of placing the dime next to their seat at the dining room table. For some kids, you may have to devise some other quick, easy reward.
Quick and consistent reinforcement of the chore is important!
The important piece is that the completed behavior (chore) is linked to the reward, consistently. And while it will be tempting to go ahead and “pay them ahead” or “I’ll go by the bank tomorrow”, the consistency on your part will lead to more consistency on their part. The other lesson in this bit is when they watch their dimes add up and then get to spend them; this sets them up to think a bit longer-term.
Choose a small chore that happens daily and a larger weekly chore.
There is a part of us that thrives on structure. A plan helps us feel safe, less anxious, and that there is predictability to our lives. Especially when our children are young, remember that you are training that part of their brain that needs a structure, that remembers and acts upon that prompting.
So having a chore that you do at the same time each day assists their brain in having the structure to complete a task, consistently. A small chore (ideally under one minute) is helpful because it usually doesn’t create much resistance. If it does, go back to Guideline 1. If a task is easy and small, the chances of them doing it consistently get much better too!
Small successes build up to larger successes.
The larger, longer chore can be more challenging, but then this might also be a chore that has a bigger payoff at the end. This might not be a “dime” chore, but the task may deserve a quarter! Larger chores might be tasks such as folding laundry or vacuuming, taking out the household trash or cleaning a bathroom. Again, the task should be something achievable for them. And again, when they complete it, reward them … quickly and consistently.
With siblings, make sure that chores exist in silos, that one child’s chore is not dependent on another child’s chore.
If your goal is to fan the flames of an already existing sibling rivalry, then a “wonderful” way to do that is to set up one child to sweep and another to mop. Then the sweeper holds an immense amount of power over the mopper. Yes, fireworks will ensue.
But if you don’t care for fireworks and have multiple children, do your best to keep the chores separated. Each chore should be able to be completed without having to wait on another child’s chore. This can be an easy one to miss but has the potential to bring down the whole system.
As much as possible, have the consequence for the non-completion of a chore fall on that child only.
And for parents, in relation to the “silo” guideline, don’t set yourself up for anxiety and frustration by waiting on a child to complete a chore.
Remember that they are learning.
The goal is to raise a functioning, independent adult. This will be a process; it will not happen overnight.
Try doing the chore with them at first instead of yelling at them about how to do the chore “right”.
Let go of your ideas about “doing it right” and be glad that they are trying. The best way to squash their initiation is to criticize their efforts.
If they come to you about renegotiating the chore chart, be willing to listen and trade and try again, but hold them to the new schedule for at least a few weeks.
Treat chores like any other developmental task … accepting the messiness while anticipating the day when it gets better! And it does.