Chores for littles

By request, I’m writing about chores today. Let’s break this down into three parts:

  1. Why are chores important?
  2. What chores can my kid do?
  3. How do I teach kids how to do chores well?

Chores matter because it’s an integral part to teaching kids responsibility. Responsibility matters because one day, you’re going to send those young birds out of your nest to fend for themselves in a relatively unforgiving and competitive world. You don’t want them to wonder how to clean their own laundry, do the dishes, and even how to cook a meal. You want them to know how to pay their bills, budget, and balance a checkbook. You need them to know how to save money for the future, and what the fruit of hard work looks and feels like. You want them to know how to run their own households. Start building good work ethic by training them in these skills from the very beginning.

There are so many lists available on the internet that outline what kids can do by what ages, but one of my favorites is this one: Mind you, only use someone else’s list to get you started. You know what your kids are capable of, and what your family needs. I’ve observed that large families do a better job delegating and training their kids in doing chores well out of necessity – moms and dads are just out-numbered! This means the parents of smaller families need to make delegating and training kids to do chores “feel” all the more important to them (the parents). And remember, it’s mom who ‘generally’ sets the stage for this kind of work. Mainly, because moms operate the home.

Training your kids to do chores well is a three-step process which I’ll come back to in a minute. Let me tell you what’s going to happen as you introduce each new chore. In the beginning, you’re going to get a some, or a lot of, resistance. Because. Chores. Are. Hard. Don’t you remember how making your bed when you were young was so hard, because the sheets were so long compared to the size of your body and your arms, and you could only fluff a pillow so much? Plus, your attention span was that of a gnat… or it seemed that way to your parents. To you, you just remember something else glimmered in the corner of your eye and so you went to it like a moth to a flame… and the next thing you know, you were in trouble for not listening to your parents. Granted, the level of resistance you get from each child depends on his or her personality, age and attitude. Use chores as an attitude-tuning tool. In our home we say “How do we obey? All the way, right away, and with a cheerful heart.” We’ve also found the need to start teaching my strong-willed first born to obey us first and ask questions afterwards, lest we fall into the trappings of an argument.

Children need some motivation. And all children are motivated by something different. As someone who used to do behavior therapy, I was taught there are some broad stroke categories of rewards that kids respond to: positive and negative reinforcement. This could be positive or negative attention; access to items like food, activities, toys, money, or motion; pain or attention avoidance, and sometimes self-stimulation (this could be like rocking, or hand flapping). When you think about your kid, you’re trying to understand the ‘why’ that underlies whatever behavior you’re seeing. You’re trying to figure out how to motivate that child to act or behave in a certain way. At the same time, you’re training their minds through your dialogue with them to process certain outcomes in a particular way. Here’s what I mean:

  • ‘I’m really proud of you. Hard work pays off. I’m going to tell [insert loved one’s name] how well you did today’.
  • ‘You worked hard on that. How do you feel now that you’ve learned a new skill?’
  • ‘You see how your father and I have to wait for to finish some things before we can do other things? Why do you think that is?’
  • ‘After you do this ten times, you’re going to be a pro, and you can take a turn to teach me how to do that better. Once you can teach me, we’re going to go [insert reward].

Of course, with a child who is a toddler, you don’t engage them with all those questions. You just fill their minds with phrases and consequences to form those associations as you want them:

  • ‘Yay!!! You did it! You put your toys away!’
  • ‘You’re so big! You did pee pee in the potty!’
  • ‘Great work! Let me give you a hug and a high five!’

Figure out what motivates your child by testing their response to various reinforcements. The best reinforcers will lose their salience over time, and you’ll have to constantly go back to the drawing board anyway. Depending on your child, and their level of competency and competitiveness, you will also ‘up the ante’ for receiving their reinforcers over time. You could do that by increasing the number of times he or she completes the chore before receiving a reward, or increasing the skill with which you child completes the task. Ideally, both of these requirements will increase over time until you consider your child a master of that chore. Once your child masters a chore, either he or she becomes totally responsible for the chore in your home (even on a part time basis), or then is responsible to help train the next child in your home who is ready to learn that chore.

Now let’s return to that three-step process of training your child how to do chores. It’s simple, and it’s complicated at the same time.

  • Step 1: Model the chore how you want it done. Show your child how to do the chore. Give the chore a name. Call it the same name every time. (i.e. cleaning the bathroom, dusting, cleaning the floors). Include the same steps to completing the chores every time. Break a multi-step process down into smaller steps (You don’t give a two year old a 5 step process, you give them one task. You give a five year old two or three tasks, depending on his or her ability. Keep the task the same until your child does that one thing well. Then add the second task.) Cleaning the bathroom (for a teenager) might look something like the list below, but put it in check list form so they can keep track of where they are. You always want to give a child a review time after completing a task that includes what he or she did well, and what you want him to focus on doing better next time:
    1. Reminders
      1. work from top to bottom
      2. have a cheerful heart
      3. your reward is this: ______________
      4. your goal is to finish this in [insert time]
    2.  Prep
      1. gather white vinegar, microfiber rags, a toilet brush, cleaning spray (we use water, white vinegar, and essential oils), whatever knock off brand of magic eraser you could find for cheap on Amazon… because they exist for cheap on Amazon, and some good music
      2. put away countertop and bathtub clutter – organize drawers and cabinets if necessary
      3. put baking soda and white vinegar in the sink, toilet and bathtub to let soak (remember to plug the drains first)
    3. Top
      1. dust the corners of the ceiling
      2. dust the light fixtures
      3. dust the window frame, clean the window panes, dust the window sill
      4. dust above the bathroom mirror, clean the mirror
    4. Middle
      1. clean countertop with spray
      2. clean sink faucets and shower/tub fixtures with spray
      3. clean sink basin with spray
      4. dust sink cabinet sides and doors
      5. clean back of toilet tank, sides, toilet lid and top and bottom of seat, toilet basin and flush, and then finally the toilet base all the way to the floor
      6. clean sides of shower walls with spray and that fake magic eraser
    5. Bottom
      1. clean tub basin with spray and that fake shower eraser
      2. wipe down baseboards
      3. sweep (always start farthest away from the door and remember to go behind the toilet)
      4. empty trash, put in new trash bag
      5. mop (this usually requires some work on your hands and knees, unfortunately, to achieve a really clean bathroom floor)
  • Step 2: Guide while he or she is doing the task. You want to show your child how to do the task, and then let him or her take turns doing it for you. You will offer mid-course corrections along the way, and stay with the child to ensure success. You may even place your hand over your child’s hand to show them how much pressure you want them to apply. Please do yourselves a favor and keep this a positive experience. Watch your tone, your words and your body language. Keep track of your facial expressions. Give honest feedback. Don’t sugar coat what you’re feeling. Ask your child for feedback. Ask specific questions. Monitor and correct your child’s attitude along the way. If you cut corners or take over doing the task because it’s easier for you in the short-term, watch your child cut those same corners later, or put up a fuss because he or she knows you will allow him or her to escape the activity. Be persistent, kind and supportive.
  • Step 3: Let your child complete the task without you hovering, and come back to offer feedback once your child is done (or a certain amount of time has elapsed). When you have feedback to give, have your child go back and correct items that aren’t done.

If you want to be very thorough, you’ll keep track in a journal somewhere how well your child is doing on various aspects of the chore. That way you’ll see patterns emerge and be able to address them. Be aware of your child’s physiological or neurological handicaps too, please. If you’re child has vision problems, memory or hearing problems, don’t penalize them for something her or she can’t help. Help him or her figure out ways around those issues. Some children pay better attention to detail than others. Some children are natural people-pleasers. Some children simply lack the physical strength for certain tasks. In that case you’ll have to teach the child ‘hacks’ like using the weight of their upper body so they can scrub better, or finding the corner of the top sheet of the bed and walking it up towards the pillow instead of trying to shake it out like he might see you doing.

If you’re child can’t read yet, make simple picture charts. Your child will gain a certain momentum or inertia if he or she does the new chore more often and consistently in the beginning. If you’re teaching your child how to dust, find something for him or her to dust every day at a certain time of the day, like before lunch.

I hope you’ve found these instructions helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to post comments for me.


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