Why Kids Hate Chores, and What to Do About It

As parents, there are just some chores that we feel our children should be responsible for.  Our kids are capable of cleaning up their own dishes, making their own beds, and (*gasp*) doing their own laundry.  Right?!?  After all, they live in our houses and eat our food… they should contribute to keeping the house running.

“So why is it such a battle to get my kids to do anything around the house?!”

If you’ve ever experienced the agonizing torture of prompting your child(ren) to do anything around the house, you are most certainly in good company.  With the exception of those oh-so-helpful toddlers that [for some reason] fight over the toy broom so that they can learn to be like mommy and daddy, most kids after a certain age despise doing chores.  It’s a battle in all households across the world, and it can be really frustrating as parents.

So, let’s take a minute to explore why this is such a battle, from our kids’ perspectives:

  1. Chores really aren’t all that fun….

Okay, let’s be honest for a second – with some exceptions, even the best of us as adults don’t really LIKE doing chores.  Can you really blame your kids for not WANTING to do chores?  Let’s put aside the fact that they need to get done whether we want to or not. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t matter what spoonful of sugar you pair chores with – they’re just not fun.  There are WAY more interesting things to do (we parents know – we used to do them before we had children!).  So, you DO get it…

  1. Who REALLY takes ownership of the house?

When you really sit down to think about it, your kids probably didn’t pick out your house – you did.  Not that they don’t reap the benefit of living there (and probably then some), but we tend to be more invested in things that we call our own.  For many kids, they often find ownership in their own spaces within YOUR house rather than the whole kit and caboodle.  What that means is, when you’re asking them to do chores, you’re essentially (from their perspective) asking them to clean YOUR place.  If your friend asked you to come and clean their house, chances are you’d tell them you have a hard enough time maintaining your ownhousehold…

  1. What do they REALLY get out of doing it?

Let’s face it – our kids’ priorities are vastly different from our own.  If given the choice, many teens would choose to wear the same dirty sweatshirt three days in a row, and use the time they could have been doing laundry to talk to their friend Becky about why Sarah and her boyfriend broke up (or play video games, or watch TV… or ANYthing else).  Inherently, we get that.  I think, as parents, if someone asked you if you’d rather load the dishwasher or watch the next episode of Game of Thrones, all things being equal, you’ll probably chose the latter.  But, one of the “benefits” of being an adult is what’s called “delayed gratification.”  We know that those things have to get done, and we are able to put off things that we really like doing to make sure needed tasks get done.  Unfortunately, the piece of hardware in our brains that allows us to do that isn’t really fully developed until you’re in your 20’s…. that’s part of the reason your kids will always choose the more preferred activities over chores.  I’m sorry to tell you this, but your kids are just biologically wired to want to do the things they want to do before they do the things they have to….

“I get why my kid doesn’t like it, but how do I get them to do it?!”

I will answer your question with another question: Would you go to work every day if you weren’t getting paid?  With the exception of those of us who are lucky enough to love our jobs enough to say yes, the majority of people would say “no.”  The bottom line is, we (as human beings) don’t engage in a behavior unless we feel like there is SOME type of reward at the end.  Rewards change as we age, but we still need them.

“Are you seriously asking me to bribe my kid?”

NO! Absolutely not.  Call it a technicality, but a bribe is when you get the reward BEFORE you engage in the behavior.  For example, “I will give you this chocolate bar so you stop screaming.”  That’s a bribe.

What I am asking you to do is “reinforce” the behavior that you want to see your child engage in.  If you want them to pick up around the house, you’re most likely going to need to make sure they get something in return. And those rewards – we will call them “reinforcers” – look differently depending on age:

–  For the smaller kids, keep it simple – things that they can eat or tokens that they can use to “buy” bigger items they otherwise might not have (like a trip to go get ice cream).  Depending on how small they are, even a verbal “THANK YOU!” and making a huge deal out of it can be enough.

–  For the somewhat older kids, start thinking a little bit bigger – screen time, time with friends, small dollar amounts that can help them learn to save.

–  For the older kids/teens – think about transitioning into more of an expectation perspective.  For example, it’s expected the dishes get done each night, and that your bed is made each day. If you do that each day, you’re allowed out on the weekends with your friends, and/or you’ll get your “allowance.”

The other trick to making this work (and this is essential) is that once you start using a reward system, your kids can no longer access those reinforcers WITHOUT doing the behavior you’re asking them to.  So, choose your reinforcers carefully.  If you tell your 9-year-old that if they earn 5 tokens, they can go to the movies with you, then the only timeyou’re going to the movies with your 9-year-old is if they hand you 5 tokens first.  If you tell your 15-year-old that they’re not watching TV or accessing ANY electronics until their homework is done, then anything that requires a plug stays off until the homework is done.  No exceptions.  Don’t go soft on me – set a limit, and stick to it.

The last thing I will say about this is that you want the reinforcers to be achievable.  If I told you that you were going to earn $1,000,000, but the only way to get it was to give me a moon rock, you’re not likely to get that reinforcer.  You want your kids to be earning their goals at least 80% of the time (potentially a little higher than that to start).  Too much higher than that, and it’s too easy and they’ll be earning it so much that they lose interest – too much lower than that, and it’s too hard and they’ll give up.

I will close with a bit of encouragement – you somehow made it to adulthood and presumably are functioning without earning a lollipop each time you get a load of dishes done (although, that sounds lovely).  You got to where you are because someone taught you that you need to work hard for what you EARN.  The reinforcers you chose (and the method you chose to give them – such as chore charts or token boxes) will change over time, with age, and with your own child’s unique wants/needs.  When you set a limit, you want to stick with it, but you also want to allow yourself to be flexible to change a system if it’s not working for you.

This battle is worth the fight, and prepares your children to be hard workers in the future.  So go out there, set some realistic expectations, and make sure you’re giving your kids credit for when they are meeting them!!

Then reward yourself with something after the kids have gone to bed – because you deserve some reinforcers too!!!

By Dr. Meghan Prato

More by Dr. Prato:

How to Foster Emotional Intelligence in Children

Pulling Your Marital Weight

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