Three Tricks I Use to Wrangle My Kids into Doing Chores

Choresapalooza Part 3 of 4

In Part 1 of Choresapalooza, I explained an ingenious solution for one particularly intractable argument over chores in my house. Part 2 detailed my search for the mythical, magic chore chart that would bring lasting peace and harmony to my home. Now in Part 3 of this series, I offer some chore chart design ideas, and three useful strategies for getting your kids on board with chores.

Do you make amazing, elaborate, beautifully-designed chore charts  … that your kids completely ignore? Or do you manage to get your kids’ buy-in to your new chore chart system, only to find yourself doing all of their chores, AGAIN, after just a week or two? Or perhaps you’ve never made a chore chart and don’t know where to start, or why you’d even want one. 

Yep, that was me. All of the above.

After much trial and error, ridiculous mistakes, and epic chore chart failures, I’ve developed some systems that, for the most part, keep my kids (and me) on track–most of the time. (Not all of the time. Because, let’s face it–there is no perfect chore chart system.)

But why make chore charts in the first place?

I don’t have to keep all those details in my head. Etta: “What else am I supposed to do to get ready for school?” Me, sipping my coffee calmly: “Heck if I know, look at your chart!”

I don’t have to nag as much. Otto: “I’m done with the dishes.” Me, looking at the dirty counters, unwashed bowls, and overflowing compost container: “Look at the picture of the clean kitchen. Now look at the actual kitchen. Do you see any differences?” Otto: “Ohhhh I forgot to wipe down the counters and take out the compost. And do a few of the dishes.”

Annotated diagram of a clean kitchen

What a clean kitchen looks like

Otto's version of

Otto’s version of “done” with the dishes. Can you spot the differences?

There is less sibling arguing (over chores, anyway.) Gone are these arguments: “You didn’t scoop the poop yesterday, this pile is old! No it’s not, and I did so scoop! No you didn’t! Yes I did! You’re a liar! No I’m not, you are! Stop hitting me! You hit me first! Maaaammmmaaaa!”

Getting My Kids’ Buy-In: Three Tricks

When both my kids were little, they always wanted to help with whatever I was doing— so cute, right? Except it was a giant pain in the ass. (Have you ever tried to teach a toddler how to hold a dustpan? Excruciating.) But if my smile was a little manic, I did my best to include them, even though that meant it took freaking forever to get anything done. After all, those parenting articles promised that encouraging your very young children to participate in household duties would pay off big time down the road–they would turn into helpful older kids who were eager to do their fair share.

So much for that advice.

But never fear, I have other tricks up my sleeve. Three, actually:

  1. Talk as a family about what it takes to run a household
  2. Consult the kids
  3. Offer bribes incentives
1. Talk as a family about what it takes to run a household

“So,” I began casually one evening over dinner, as the kids were shoveling Kate’s amazing pork chops  and mashed potatoes into their pie holes,  “I wonder who knows how many jobs Mommy and Mama do to keep things going around here.” Blank stares. “Let’s start with food,” I offered helpfully. “We plan all the meals, figure out what ingredients we need, make shopping lists, go to the store to buy all the stuff, unpack the groceries, put them away, make dinner, clean up.”

“Uh huh. Can I have some more pork chops?” 

Undaunted, I continued. “That’s just the food. Think about all the other stuff — buying you clothes, driving you to all your activities, doing laundry, paying the bills, scheduling dentist appointments, helping you with your homework, taking the dog to the vet, not to mention our jobs where we make money so we can do all this stuff.”

I whipped out a big piece of butcher paper I just happened to have handy (ok, I had stashed it away weeks before, just waiting for this moment) and taped it to the wall. “Let’s list all the jobs that everyone does to keep things running around here,” I suggested enthusiastically, “and who’s doing them! And then … let’s see which ones you think that KIDS could do!

“Can we have some ice cream?”

“Only if you fill out this chart with me, dammit!”

After much brainstorming and too many bowls of ice cream, we had a big long list. Most of the items, predictably, had “mommy” or “mama” in the “who does it now” column. 

The kids were duly impressed. I think it honestly had never occurred to them that things don’t just happen by magic around here.

2. Consult the kids

Next up was to get the kids’ input on how they could pitch in.

After we had sucked the last bit of chocolate syrup off our spoons, I asked Otto and Etta to tell me which of the chores on our list they thought a kid could possibly do. 

The surprise? The number of things the kids volunteered could potentially be done by them. Way more than I would have suggested. Score!

After a bit of haggling and further discussion about what was “fair”, each of them agreed to take on a few of the items they had marked as “kid-doable”. The preliminary work was done. We were ready to make the charts!

This wasn’t the first time we had collaborated on charts. When Otto was in preschool we spent an enjoyable time making a morning-routine chart. First we brainstormed the tasks he needed to do. Then I let him be “in charge” by picking the order to do the tasks.

Early chore chart

Some awesome things about the process and the results:

  • Making his own choices about the order of tasks gave him some control.
  • It was a fun art project to do together.
  • I could use the chart as the “bad guy”: “I know you don’t want to brush your teeth, but the chart says you have to!”

Geeky bonus: the left-to-right order was a pre-literacy skill he practiced every time he used the chart.

(Big thanks to Molly Lannon Kenny and her Integrated Movement Therapy concepts for the inspiration!)

In general, it made for a much calmer morning than me yelling at him to get his damn shoes on already, Mama’s late and it’s time to leave! (Ok, that happened too. We’re not perfect around here. But the chart at least reduced the chaos a bit.)

This is a chart that 8-year old Etta helped me design:

Etta and her checklist of chores

Before the whiteboard, Etta’s morning chart was a simple list taped to the kitchen cupboard. Every morning she would frown at it and complain. Not about the tasks–about the fact that she couldn’t check things off. “I can’t keep track of what I’ve already done! I need boxes to check, Mama!” 

My little checklist maven is now satisfied. She religiously marks each item done every morning.

When you ask for your kids’ input, you’re telling them:

  • I care about your opinion.
  • I believe you have good ideas.
  • I believe you are competent and can problem-solve.
  • You are responsible for helping figure this out, dammit!
3. Offer bribes incentives

“I was a really good mom before I had kids.” – Amy Nobile and Trisha Ashworth

I used to think that if I had kids, I would NEVER bribe them. I would use REASON to persuade them to do as I asked, with logical consequences if they failed to do so.

Ha ha ha ha ha!

I’ve offered every bribe (oops I mean incentive) in the book. Stickers, candy, money, video game time, keys to the car … (ok, not that last one. Yet.)  It doesn’t really matter what system you come up with, as long as you can actually follow through — both with the reward, and with withholding it if the little buggers don’t bite. And, of course, if it works!

Our morning routine system: If Etta does her before-school routine and is completely ready for school at the designated time (ready = shoes on, backpack packed, ready to walk out the door and NOT run back to her room to completely change her outfit, choose a necklace, find a toy for “free choice” time, and finish making the bracelet that she HAS to give her friend TODAY because I PROMISED, MAMA!), she gets a small treat in her lunch. And for both of them: if they’re ready for school EARLY, we can watch some funny cat videos. 

This system works well. Etta is HIGHLY motivated by treats. And both kids are HIGHLY motivated by funny cat videos. (Who’s NOT motivated by funny cat videos??)

And for after-school and weekend chores, I use their obsession with movies and video games to my advantage. The system is simple: do your chores and homework.  Then you can watch TV and play video games. At this point they are so well-trained that they stumble out of bed on Saturday mornings, bleary-eyed, and head straight to their chore charts. 

It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Otto's daily chore chart

Otto’s current after-school ticket to video game time.

Lest you think all is roses and butterflies and unicorns in the Beck house, not all incentives have gone well. Like when we were trying to get Etta to brush her teeth at bedtime without demanding additional snacks, flinging herself on the floor, and dramatically declaring herself TOO TIRED to make it up the five stairs to the bathroom. 

Did we take the logical route and just have her brush her teeth earlier in the evening? Of course not! We offered … sticker charts! With lots of prizes! That kid worked the system like nobody’s business. Somehow, she was getting lots of prizes AND still putting up a fuss at brush teeth time.

This story has a happy ending. After many months of threats, bribes, withholding of bedtime snacks, and endless frustration, Kate had a brilliant insight. “I think what she’s really after with all this fussing,” she said thoughtfully, “is some connection time.” AHA! Ding ding ding! We switched the incentive to “you get cuddle time with Mommy if you brush your teeth right away” and boom! Instant lowered blood pressure all around. (Thank you, Kate!)

I leave you with this story of incentives gone awry:

Scene: 1:00 am. Hotel near the airport the night before a 6:30 am flight. One room, two queen beds, two exhausted adults, two excited, restless, blanket-stealing, floppy-fishy-tossy-turny children. 

Adult 1, desperate for sleep: “I’ll give one of you kids a big prize if you volunteer to sleep on the floor!”

Kid 1: “I want a big prize! I’ll do it!” 
Adult 1: “Okay, okay! You can both sleep on the floor and get a big prize!”
Kid 1: “But *I* said I wanted the prize first! It’s not fair!!! WAH!!”
Adult 2: Lies quietly in bed, silently seething and mentally calculating the minutes until the alarm goes off.
Both kids: “WAAHHH! WAHHH WAHHHH!!!”

Yep, not our most stellar moment. We have many not-so-stellar moments around here. That’s just the way it goes. Try something … if it fails … try something different. It’s what creating chore charts (and parenting) is all about.

Coming next: Choresapalooza Part 4: Four strategies to keep the chore momentum going.











Veronica Beck

Veronica Beck is a technical writer, blogger, and formerly reluctant parent.

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8 months ago

This is so helpful! I like the idea of the butcher paper listing all that is done and how it helped them see that adults do chores too

8 months ago

Just think before you know it there won’t be a chore chart, they will be off to conquer the world with all there knowledge of work ethic.
Great job V.

Molly Lannon Kenny
8 months ago

you are an incredible writer – this was laugh out loud funny, but also so clear, kind and practical! i can’t wait until this is a best selling book!!!