How to Teach Children to Do Chores
Here's one key to motivation.
Posted February 3, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Studies of child development demonstrated long ago that extrinsic motivation (rewards) was less effective than intrinsic motivation (curiosity).
- Most children don't care about the external consequence or rewards attached to chores.
- Making chores a family affair teaches cooperation, empathy, and family values.
- The reward to doing chores as a family is being with you and pleasing you—an internally motivational reward.
Psychologists' views on chores have changed over the years.
We used to believe that chores were best taught through a method introduced to us by behavioral scientists:
- Assign age-appropriate tasks to the child.
- Reward the child for finishing the chores by a variety of methods (sticker charts, money, treats, etc.).
The problem both psychologists and parents encountered for years was that these strategies simply didn't work. Yes, you could get your child to wash dishes by paying them a dollar, but the child never did it again unless you paid them. Over time, even if you paid, the child found ways to avoid washing dishes, expressed hating the chore, and eventually stopped caring about getting paid.
This is because we ignored the research on what actually motivated children to do tasks. Surprise—it's not rewards or money. In fact, studies of child development demonstrated long ago that extrinsic motivation (rewards) was less effective than intrinsic motivation (curiosity or natural desire).
Next, psychologists moved away from recommending rewards and suggested "natural consequences."
The plan was simple:
- Give the child a chore.
- If the child doesn't get it done, they should learn the natural and logical consequences of it. For example, if they didn't wash the dishes, they had no clean dishes left from which to eat.
The problem soon became obvious—children didn't care enough about the consequences. They walked on muddy floors, waded through rooms full of dirty laundry, and ate off paper plates or towels.
After years of giving parents ineffective strategies and trying and failing at these as a parent myself, I finally stumbled on something new (although old).
How different cultures succeed in teaching children to do chores.
Psychologists and anthropologists who observed indigenous cultures in Central America found that children learned to do chores, wished to do them, and enjoyed helping (intrinsic motivation!) because their mothers did the chores along with them from an early age.
When children turn 2 years old, their natural development encourages them to be near a parent and imitate their parent (also to tantrum, but that's another post). In many cultures, parents harness the power of that desire to imitate, while in the U.S., we tend to suppress it or redirect it.
Take a typical scenario:
A parent is starting to wash the floor. A toddler tries to grab the mop, splashes the water from the bucket, and slips around on the wet floor. Many parents I know would immediately pick up the toddler, clean them up, plop them in a safe location with a toy or an electronic distraction, and finish the mopping as quickly as possible. A very creative parent may give the toddler a toy broom and mop and have them pretend in a safe area away from the mess.
But if we follow what works in other cultures, I would recommend the parent to give a child a turn with the mop, no matter how messy this gets or give the child their own mop and have them mop right next to you. Yes, it takes longer to finish the job, but when your child is 6, they will be mopping on their own, and you will be very proud of your efforts. After all, parenting is a long game. Making chores a family affair teaches cooperation, empathy, and family values.
Parenting is teaching. Parenting is finding ways to increase intrinsic motivation.
The secret to teaching your child to do chores is fairly simple, then:
- Have them do chores with you, or you do chores with them. Your child can clean with you, do laundry with you, grocery shop with you, take care of the yard with you, and cook with you. You, in turn, can clean up your child's room with them and help them sort through their toys.
- There are no rewards, schedules, or lists needed. Your child does what you do. The reward is being with you and pleasing you, learning family tasks. The reward should only be internal—designed to increase their intrinsic motivation, their natural curiosity, and their desire to help their family.
Hope you got some ideas from this discussion. What has worked for your family to teach your children to do chores?
Alcalá L, Rogoff B, Mejía-Arauz R, Coppens A, D, Dexter A, L: Children's Initiative in Contributions to Family Work in Indigenous-Heritage and Cosmopolitan Communities in Mexico. Human Development 2014;57:96-115.
Gottfried, A. E., Fleming, J. S., & Gottfried, A. W. (1994). Role of parental motivational practices in children's academic intrinsic motivation and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 104–113.