How to Get Your Kids to Do Their Chores

My nine-year-old’s shoe laces are basically always untied, particularly when we’re running late or just about to get on an escalator. Even in these rushed moments, I hold myself back from tying them myself because, well, I don’t want to raise the kind of kid who needs to have his shoes tied. I wish I were as good about chores.

Instead of stepping back (or constantly nudging), I wind up just making the bed, clearing the plates, and picking up their dirty laundry myself. I didn’t set out to be a martyr mom. I’ve done the chore charts and the stickers, none of it stuck. Frankly, nagging my children to do their chores became too much of a chore for me. And those positive life lessons I wanted to instill — think: self-reliance, responsibility, accountability — started turning into bad life lessons, as in: If you protest enough, Mom will give up. They were right. Last year I gave up on chores altogether.

Then I read about a groundbreaking Harvard University study that’s been following the same 456 teenage boys for more than 70 years. Researchers have found that a strong work-ethic in the teen years, like one developed through household chores, was the greatest predictor of midlife happiness. It stopped me in my tracks.

“Those hard-working teens went on to have warmer marriages and friendships, greater job satisfaction, and overall happier lives as adults than their peers,” says psychiatrist George Vaillant, a professor at Harvard Medical School and former lead researcher of the study. “It makes sense,” he told me, “these men valued hard work — the same ingredient that goes into building successful marriages, careers, parenting, and friendships.”

After speaking with Vaillant, I decided to give chores another try. This time around, I’ve tried to be more thoughtful and strategic in my approach. Here are some tips that are working for us:

We give promotions. This time around, we’re using a management-style approach, starting small and building up to bigger responsibilities. My 7-year-old is excited and proud to have recently been “promoted” from just loading the dishwasher to now emptying it too. How you position chores helps.

We count chores as an extracurricular activity. Chores are the original extracurricular activity — and research shows they’re probably more important than any activity we could sign them up for. Kids today are so over scheduled that it’s hard to fit in chores. So, we schedule them into our family’s weekly calendar right next to baseball practice and ballet. The expectation is now clear, written in black and white.

We do chores as a family. My husband and I now try to save our chores for when the kids are scheduled to do theirs. We’ve found it promotes family bonding in a we’re-all-in-this-together kind of way.

We’ve added music and a timer to the routine. With the music, I’m hoping just maybe my kids will start associating chores with fun — or at least not misery. Adding a timer has really helped. It speeds things up and lets my kids know this fun/misery has an end point and isn’t going to last forever.

Chores never equal punishment. We don’t tie chores to punishments or praise. We make them just a part of life, like going to school, doing homework and going to sleep.

We don’t pay for chores. For the same reason we don’t link chores to punish or praise, we’re also not paying our children to do chores. Paying for them also undermines the effort. It says: I know this is really awful so I’m going to pay you to do it. No one pays me for making dinner, right? Chores are what you do when you’re part of a family.

As with untied shoe laces, with chores I’m learning to take the long-view — a little short-term pain for long-term gain. I’m also finding that these chores are not just teaching my kids some important life lessons, they’re also teaching me, as a parent, how to be a little more disciplined and accountable myself.

(This essay was inspired by on an article I wrote about childhood chores for the Wall Street Journal.)

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Jennifer is a freelance writer and television commentator on parenting and lifestyle topics.