GETTING YOUR CHILD TO DO CHORES – without bribes, threats, praise or rewards

My children are upstairs in their playroom. Around ten minutes ago I heard one of them say “Let’s tidy this place! I can’t find a thing!” and the sound of toys being packed into boxes has been ringing in my ears since. It seems like the perfect time to sit down and write about getting kids to do chores! *smug face*

One of the most common questions that comes up in the parenting forums I am in and in the workshops I run is the sense of despair people have around their children not pulling their weight.

“How do I get my child to do chores?”
 “I’ve heard a star chart might work?”
I’m a great parent until I get exasperated and yell WILL YOU JUST PACK AWAY YOUR TOYS.”
It feels nice to sit here while my kids tidy their room. But I have also felt that spark of rage in my belly when I’ve asked them to help me put the pens away and they’ve stared boldly at me and said “nope.”When we are overwhelmed with the mess around us and our children refuse to help, it can be immensely triggering. Our self-talk goes frantic: “They have no respect for you! For their environment!”

Today I want to talk about how we can bring more respect in to the area of chores, I hope to shift a few paradigms and provide some practical ideas. Ambitious, I know…

Raising children who are intrinsically motivated to do chores
Have you read the Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff? It’s often used as a parenting primer for respectful parents rather than an interesting anthropological overview, which is unfortunate as most of us live in worlds very different to the indigenous Yequana tribe. Life can become tricky when we try and lift whole practices from an exisiting culture, rather than simply gaining insight and allowing that inspiration to impact us where we are. 
However, one of the insights I gained from it was around the  Yequana tribe’s lack of distinction between work and play. All of life is play, community, chores. It’s all rolled into one.  For example, they haven’t rigged up a very efficient way to pull water up from the stream because the several trips down to the river each day are all just a joyous part of life.

I found it a big challenge because my whole life I have strictly divided things into work and play. In fact, I have been doing lots of work on my mindset recently because in the last few years I have begun to be paid for the things that were previously play! Creative things like writing and making films. And I began to love them a little less. I can clearly see that this is an unhelpful view of my life and it would be far more beneficial to allow more blurred lines between work and play.  I am also being kind to myself because this is the way of most societies – work is work; hard and horrible and painful, and play is play; fun and laughter and not achieving anything but joy.

I wanted this revelation to impact the way I raise my children. I wanted to, as much as possible, create a sense of continuum for them. This idea that work can bring you joy, that play is the best way to get things done, that the whole day is just a fluid expression of your life, neither one thing nor another.
Children do this VERY naturally, basically until the day we say:
“Stop messing around, it is time to tidy up. Come on. Everyone is doing it. After we’ve done ten minutes of hard work we can have a biscuit.”

The moment we introduce chores as being something where all the fun stops, we have set them on an unhelpful journey of compartmentalising work and play.
A beautiful gift we can give our children is an intrinsic motivation to work. Of course, we don’t really give it to them – they are born with it! But we can step back and not take it away from them by setting up  work as painful and the promise of many external rewards.

Society tells us that we must use external rewards to get children to help. But it is unnecessary. We have never used a reward chart, don’t employ bribes of any kind or threats. And yet everyday my children (they are 5 and 7) offer to lay the table, make dinner, do the dishes.  Once a week my daughter pulls out all the things in her cupboard and rearranges them in an intricate, tidy order with great pride and delight.

Perhaps you think my children are different, wonderful beings… but do they pick up their toys after themselves? Nope! Do they tidy their playroom? Very rarely! They aren’t motivated to do it because they love their toys being out and available and usually what looks like a total mess to me is a very complex arrangement of toys mid-play.

Every so often I say “Shall we tidy your play room?” and they say “No. I don’t want to.” I could take that as belligerence. I could be angry because they don’t pull their weight. Sometimes I do and I stomp off in an tantrum. But most of the time I try to understand that they aren’t motivated to do it yet, and trust that one day they probably will be. Instead I try to recognise that they LOVE to help in communal activities, and activities where the thing they achieve is very visible and impactful. So I take a big breath, and re-affirm to myself that they are helping, it’s just in their own special way.

Reward charts can be dehumanising

Much has been written about the destructive nature of rewards. But, in brief, here we go:

  • Rewards don’t lead to lasting behavioural change – when the rewards stop, people usually return to the way they acted before the rewards began.
  • Researchers have recently discovered that children whose parents make frequent use of rewards tend to be less generous than their peers.
  • Two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. 
  • Students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or other “goodies” become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and take chances.
  • Ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task.
In short, as Alfie Kohn says: “The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it

But above all of those practical, data-based reasons we shouldn’t rely on rewards is the simple fact that human beings are not meant to control each other. We are at our worst when we seek to manipulate another person. Control is not the basis of a good, healthy relationship but a toxic one. 

Our role as parents is to build a healthy, connected relationship with our children. One where we relate to each other as full human beings, where we respect each other’s dignity and needs. Where we can trust each other, where we trust the other’s best intentions.

Reward charts and other bribes have no place in a healthy relationship. They set one person in that relationship up as needing to fulfil the requirements of the other person, with an equal chance of failing as much as succeeding – a signal of an unhealthy codependency, rather than a meeting of hearts.

At their worst, rewards charts are dehumanising – useful only for training our pets.

Praise that doesn’t demean

It can be tempting to swap out bribes for praise. In fact, many positive parenting gurus recommend this. But praise can also be dehumanising – particularly if it is used a tool for manipulating a child’s behaviour. Resist the draw to coerce your child into chores by your complimentary words. Rest in the big picture – the space you are giving them to be intrinsically motivated.

Taking the same husband/wife analogy – how would it feel if your husband gave a commentary while you cooked dinner each night? “You’re so clever how you chop those potatoes! Good work choosing that pan, babe. Oooh, nice stirring! I loooove how you sprinkled that parsley!” It would be annoying, and I’d wonder why he was doing it, I’d find it demeaning and, if I was in a formative period of my life, I might begin to believe that doing it without his praise wouldn’t be worth doing.

Weaning a child off rewards and onto praise is no step towards respect at all. If you do want to recognise behaviour, simply do that: recognise it. Say out loud what you saw, and let them draw their own conclusions. Instead of saying “Wow! You are an amazing dishwasher!!” which can lead a younger child to come to depend on your praise, or an older child to actually resist, try simply noticing “I see how all the plates are all clean” (allowing them to draw their own conclusion about their awesomeness) or a simple, authentic thanks “Thank you for helping me clean up dinner, I feel like I can sit down and rest now as I was so tired before.” For more on praise try Adele Faber and Elain Mazlish’s excellent book How to talk to kids listen and listen so kids talk. 

The pillars of intrinsic motivation
It might also be helpful to think about some of the psychology done around the workplace, and what people have found in the most self-motivated workplaces out there. The pillars of intrinsic motivation are relatedness – feeling like we are part of a team, competence – feeling able to to fulfil the task well, autonomy –  having control over the task at hand, and purpose – having a sense of the higher meaning behind what we are doing. This might look like tidying up together, giving a clear and simple task to our kids, allowing them to choose their task, and having an authentic, heartfelt discussion about some of the different reasons it can be helpful to tidy/ do chores.

So, if we are to raise our children with their intrinsic motivation in tact, without using bribery, threats and praise and rewards, how do we get them to do their chores? Here’s some ideas that might help you spring off into your own.

1- It begins with us modelling a holistic view of work and play and finding ways to be intrinsically motivated. In my home, this looks like me never complaining about housework, but instead making it fun for myself by putting on my favourite songs and listening to podcasts. It’s saying, with authenticity, out loud “yay I’m so excited about my job today!” and “can’t wait to blitz the house and listen to my new playlist.”

2- It involves us being okay with our children saying “no” when we ask them to help.  Just as I know that in my marriage if my husband asks me to do something I can say “I’ll find a way sometime today, but I’m a bit focused on this right now.” It’s saying to my kids  “anyone feel like spritzing up the lounge with me? What album shall we put on?” and being totally okay with one of them joining me, or none.

3- It involves us working out what chores our kids find pleasure in and what they can do competently. It requires us to put to rest our pre-conceived ideas about what those jobs should be. It requires us to be open to hearing from our child what these might be.

4-It nearly always involves the tidying feeling like a team activity rather than a solo punishment. How can we see tidying and cleaning as a connecting part of our day rather than a disconnecting part?

5-It involves us sitting down with our older children and talking to them about how we can make chores fun- about music and podcasts and all the other ways they might learn to love labour.

6- On a practical level it involves us finding ways of making tidying up as easy to do as we can. Children can find it hard to connect with the general term “Shall we tidy up?” and will find it much easier, and see a much greater impact with “Shall we put all the lego in this basket?” Having lots of baskets all around the place that things can be chucked into can make tidying joyful and quick. It might also be having a zone that is completely theirs – a room that you draw a line under, that is not yours to tidy but theirs to spill their play into each corner of. 
 7- It also involves us spending some time with our triggers. Why do we feel so frustrated that our kids don’t do the chores? Does it feel like we are disrespected? Is this real? Personally, I believe that even when a child seems indolent, they rarely set out to disrespect. It’s most likely that they are disconnected from you, or have experienced some other unhappiness elsewhere that is making an appearance in the safe relationship between parent and child.Perhaps we are triggered by experiences of our own childhood – were we forced to help? Were we punished if we refused? Is any of this informing our beliefs about chores?  Re-affirm your fundamental beliefs about childhood, that if a child can help they will. Try out a mantra “I know my child loves me, but they are having a tricky time.” 

8- Once we’ve explored those internal triggers, we will need to find ways to get our needs met some other way – our children aren’t there to meet our needs. Perhaps you really genuinely need more help with housework. Can you sit your partner down and hand over a whole section of the housework for them to do? Can you find one day a week where you get together with a friend and clean each other’s homes together while your kids play?

Sometimes if we are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated we can wonder why we’ve chosen this path of respect with our children. It feels like we try all the gentle parenting techniques and none of them work.  Our kids might still refuse to tidy their rooms!

It’s so important to remember that we haven’t chosen this path because it “works.” The reason we have chosen this path is because we know that our children are worthy of dignity and respect, because we honour them as we would any adult. We do this because we know that humans are at our worst when we try and control and manipulate other humans, and at our best when we seek to connect with them.We choose an alternative path when it comes to chores because we want our children to experience true rest and play, to find fulfilment in work and labour, to be internally motivated from dawn to dusk. We have chosen this path because it is the long game – we are creating space for our children to blossom into themselves, raising people that will be at peace with themselves and with their communities for their whole lives. Rest and trust in the intrinsic worth of your choice to be an ally to your child.

Thank you so much for reading and if you found this article helpful please do share it.


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