More Than a Chore: Getting Things Done the Right Way

Teach your kids a good work ethic and good money behavior by assigning chores.

In this article, you will find:

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More Than a Chore: Getting Things Done the Right Way

This isn't about treating your children as slaves, piling tasks on their small shoulders and seeing how much they can handle. Neither is it about treating your children as employees, paying them for every chore they complete. Rather, chores are opportunities for kids to learn lessons about life. Financially intelligent parents use chores as ways to help their kids gain self-respect and take pride in a job well done. These are lessons that will ultimately help these kids excel in whatever career they choose. They will learn early on that a job well done is its own reward, and that a parent's compliments and other rewards (getting to go out and play) are secondary benefits. In short, they will be autotelic—they will possess an inner drive to do well rather than be dependent on external motivation.

When your children are three or four, they are ready to handle simple tasks. No matter how long it takes them to learn to master even the simplest of chores—putting their dirty dishes next to the sink so Mommy can put them in the dishwasher or helping Daddy take the garbage out—they are starting to think of themselves as members of a family in which everyone contributes to the whole. These are the kids who are more likely to grow up and be adept at working on teams and establishing productive partnerships.

They also learn to delay gratification through doing their chores. They grasp that they can't go out and play until they clean up their rooms. John Gray, PhD, in Children Are from Heaven, ranks learning to delay gratification among "essential life skills," and for good reason. Many of these kids will turn into adults who save their money for something important, such as buying a house or putting their own kids through college rather than purchasing the plasma television or fancy sports car they can't really afford. Being able to prioritize is a gift parents can offer their young children; you'd be surprised by how many parents don't give this gift until their children are teenagers, and by then it's more difficult to learn.

Though it's great if you can come up with interesting chores for your kids to do, mix in some mundane tasks. Everything in life isn't exciting; there are many absolutely necessary but routine chores waiting for us. Tolerating a certain amount of boredom is a life skill. Sometimes you have to sit through a boring course in school before you qualify to take an interesting one. Sometimes you have to work at a boring entry-level job to be qualified for a more challenging one. With these concepts in mind, review the following eight tips on how to make chores educational, enriching experiences:

  1. Exhibit a positive attitude when you do your chores.
  2. Kids watch their parents like hawks, and they won't miss your sullen response when your spouse asks you to fix a broken doorknob or to go to the store for a gallon of milk. What you say and especially what you do sends a strong message to kids, and even a subtle response—a furrowed brow, an exasperated sigh—will encourage kids to mirror your attitude. You don't have to be phony about it and pretend you can't wait to haul the garbage cans out to the street. You can, however, avoid negative gestures that suggest chores are beneath you or something to fight about with your spouse.

  3. Assign chores to various family members according to interests, or convene a family meeting and let the kids participate in the decision-making process. If your kids are very young and you assign the chores, try to take into consideration their natural talents. Is your daughter nurturing? Have her help feed the pets. Does your son love the outdoors? Have him help you with the gardening. When the children are a little older, have a family meeting in which you outline what needs to be done around the house. Let the kids participate in figuring out the basic chores—from doing the dishes to raking leaves to keeping the family room clean—and who should do them.
  4. Do some chores alongside your kids. Family chores become a battleground when kids think their parents are foisting work off on them so they can relax. So pitch in. Communicate that chores are part of everyone's life. Raking leaves or shoveling snow with your children may seem like ordinary activities, but doing them together transforms them into something meaningful and even fun. Shared chores like these also foster a sense of teamwork.
  5. Help your children integrate chores into their routines. As your kids grow up, they will have other responsibilities—homework, sports, private lessons—that seem to have a higher priority than household chores. They need to practice juggling the low-priority tasks with the high-priority ones. When they become adults, juggling personal and professional responsibilities, little tasks and big ones, is constant. People who do it well tend to lead balanced, successful lives. Start your kids out on the right foot by teaching them that they have to allow five minutes in the morning to make their beds and clean their rooms and a half hour on weekends to do some yard work. Show them how they can create a schedule for their week on the computer or by using a calendar.
  6. Share your chore expectations. Children internalize their parents' expectations; these expectations are usually more powerful than consequences. Let your kids know that you expect them to pick up after themselves, that picking up is just a given in your family. Sharing your expectations provides you with the bulletproof answer when they ask why they have to clean up their room when their friend Charlie doesn't have to: "That's the way we do things at our house."
  7. Foster accountability for assigned responsibilities. In other words, you want your kids to feel a sense of accomplishment for doing their tasks the right way and on time; you also want them to recognize that they are responsible for the consequences if they fail to do so. One of the best ways of achieving this latter goal is by linking consequences to the nature of a given chore. If you get stuck trying to figure out how to do this, think of Johnny and his chair.
  8. Johnny, age five, was driving his parents crazy by rocking his chair back and forth at the dinner table. Meal after meal, Johnny's parents would first ask him to stop rocking and then tell him to stop. Meal after meal, Johnny kept rocking. And why not? It made him the center of attention and put him in control of what was being talked about. One night when Johnny came to dinner, his chair was missing. "Johnny," said his father, "since you can't use your chair correctly, we've had to put it away." "What am I supposed to do?" asked Johnny. "Eat standing up," replied his mother. After a day of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner standing up, Johnny got his chair back and never returned to his rocking.

    If Johnny's parents had threatened to take away his television privileges, the consequences would have been divorced from the action and would have had far less impact. Therefore, if your four-year-old's job is to put his toys away in the evening and he keeps forgetting, the consequence might be that he can't play with them for a few days. You might explain that if he is old enough to take the toys out of the toy box, he is old enough to put them back in before bedtime. If your fourteen-year-old daughter keeps forgetting to empty the dishwasher after dinner, wake her up thirty minutes earlier in the morning to put the dishes away before breakfast.

  9. Don't link allowances or other rewards to family chores. One of the most common mistakes parents make is paying kids for doing chores, often in the form of an allowance. While you want your children to understand that a job well done receives rewards, you don't want them thinking that they should be paid for fulfilling family responsibilities. This creates a sense of entitlement that can carry over to adult life. When you find an adult who works only for the money—and who refuses to stay one second after 5 p.m. because "I don't get paid any more if I stay late"—then you're probably looking at someone whose parents fostered this sense of entitlement.

    Financially intelligent parents resolve the paradox of chores and rewards in the following way. They divide chores into two categories: F (family) chores and X (extra) chores. The F group involves routine family responsibilities necessary to keep the household running smoothly, such as washing dishes, taking out the trash, making the bed and so on. The X group involves tasks that you might pay someone else to do: washing the car, mowing the lawn, babysitting a younger sibling. The X group generally requires more time and effort, and kids understand that they are being rewarded for their time and effort rather than for their routine family responsibilities.

  10. Avoid constant criticism as your child learns to do chores the right way. A hypercritical, judgmental parent who thinks she is instilling a work ethic in her children is going to have exactly the opposite effect. She'll raise kids who resent their chores and try to get out of doing them. If they can't get out of them, they'll rush through their tasks and do a slipshod job, or they'll learn to procrastinate. Constant criticism makes kids feel that they'll never do a good job, so why try? They'll internalize the notion that they're not good enough, and as they become older they may feel the same way about school and jobs.

    Recognize that kids face a chore learning curve and that they learn at their rate, not yours. Once a chore is assigned or selected, show your child how to do it. If your child makes a mistake, don't rant and rave. Be calm and show him again how to do it, and tell him that the next time, he'll do it right. And when you see him doing it right later on, don't simply accept the result as something he's supposed to do. Praise him for doing it well. Too many parents notice when their children do something wrong; not enough notice when they do it right.

    At one of our seminars, Adrienne recalled that when she was five years old, she started helping her mother separate the laundry. She loved the feelings of being helpful and competent. When she was six years old, Adrienne received a new chore: watering the plants in the window boxes on the patio. The first time she watered them, the water pressure through the hose was too high, and mud and water spattered on the windows. Instead of showing her how to adjust the water pressure, Adrienne's mother yelled, "Can't you do the simplest thing right?" Adrienne said that she hated family chores from that day forward.

    Be aware that constant criticism from an older sibling can also do damage. Some rivalry and teasing among siblings is normal. An older brother or sister who is constantly criticizing the way a younger sibling is doing her chores, however, can devastate the younger child. Take the older one aside and ask how she would feel if the roles were reversed and she was the recipient of constant criticism from an older sibling. Most of the time, this is enough. If it isn't, you may simply have to monitor the situation and intervene when the older sibling is being hypercritical.

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