Should You Force Your Kids to Do Chores? Or, Dragon Mom, Two Years On

By Shannon

A little over two years ago, I started a weekly tradition of chore day with my kids. At first it was THE worst day of my week. Ditto for the kids. We could hardly get through it without yelling at each other. A lot.

Part of the problem was that I was a newbie at training my kids to work, and the learning curve and resistance were steep. Another problem was that the kids had never considered that they should be required to work during their lifetimes. Establishing that expectation and the accompanying work routine were a huge part of the battle that is now basically won (in my favor!).

Why Kids Should Do Chores

Chores are like vegetables—kids don’t generally like them, but they universally need them. Chores teach children how to cope with things they don’t like and to delay gratification, which are both key components of grit. Grit is arguably more important to your child’s lifelong success than early reading, piano lessons, good grades, or soccer aptitude.

Chores also teach kids critical social skills, like working with their siblings, being civil even when they’re frustrated, and obeying their parents. Organization skills can also be an important byproduct of chores, as children learn to sort their clothing into the proper drawers, their toys into the proper boxes, and the silverware into the proper sections of the drawer. And you could also argue that chores can develop physical skills: maneuvering a vacuum cleaner or a wet mop, washing a window, etc.

One sage mom suggested that chores are essential for mothers who eventually expect to be promoted from laundry and dish duty. They’re also critical for moms who want their children to know how to take care of themselves by the time they graduate from high school.

How to Get Kids to Do Chores

You have to really believe in the value of chores before you’ll be willing to carve out the time, persistence, and patience necessary to get this ball rolling. Once you have that, you need to set up a system that works for your family. This will likely require some experimentation, so don’t give up too soon!

Here’s what works for my family. During the school week, my kids are on call for chores. Daily duties typically involve unloading the dishwasher, washing the table, setting the table, clearing the table, and laundry. During the summer, the kids are required to complete a minimum of two chores every day. On Saturdays I require them to complete at least six chores. Early on the kids settled into their favorites: S likes folding laundry and organizing, H likes mopping, and G likes anything that’s easy, like sanitizing door handles and light switches with these. I try to let them do what they like.

Especially in the beginning I always tied rewards to chores. Each chore was worth one point, which equated to a sum of money that was different for each child (because their quality of work differed). Chores like folding laundry freed up a lot of my time, so I agreed to spend that time reading stories to the kids while they folded (win-win, right?). In addition to these smaller rewards, I tried to arrange to have fun activities after chores were through—swimming, a trip to the playground, going out to lunch together, a movie, and so on.

The rewards are like a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now that the kids are proficient at many of the chores, they don’t always ask for rewards but do them simply because they’re part of the routine.

Setting Up a Chore Economy

You don’t have to use money to reward kids for doing chores; I know there are arguments against paying for chores. But we pay our kids for their work. We don’t give them any allowance.

We went through a few schemes for chore payment, the first of which involved a weekly printout of the chores they would be expected to complete. That scheme eventually devolved into columns on a scratch piece of paper: one column for each child, with tally marks indicating the number of chores they completed. For my family, simplicity has staying power.

I think it’s important to pay your kids like a cheapskate--even if, unlike me, you’re not a cheapskate. Otherwise, the money comes too easily and ceases to be a motivation for work volume. To teach them the incremental nature of the rewards for hard work, you've gotta be on the parsimonious side. S is paid 35 cents per chore, H gets 25 cents, and G gets 15 cents. They’ve each had a 5-cent raise on their birthday for the last two years.

You’d think that at those rates the kids would never be able to save up enough money to buy what they want. And I’m sorry, but you would be wrong. With supplementation from birthday and Christmas money, they have been able to buy LEGO sets galore, shoes, backpacks, lip gloss, jewelry, and more. None of those purchases are made without a great deal of deliberation. They know how long it takes to save up for what they want, so they don’t want to spend unwisely.

In addition to saving, the kids also set aside 10 percent of their earnings for tithing. (If you don’t pay tithing to a church, you could teach your kids to instead divert that 10 percent to a different kind of charity.) This teaches the kids that compassion requires sacrifice and that even when you’re at your poorest, you should still be compassionate.

Setting up your economy and your routine are the two aspects of kids’ chores that will require some research, planning, and follow-up on your part. After that, you just need to be as gritty about making your plan work as you want your kids to be when they grow up.

That’s pretty much it for how we roll with chores at our house. What chore traditions work well at your house?