Wondering how to get kids to do chores without nagging? Learn why rewards and punishment don’t work—and the 9 strategies that do.
“I’ll do it later,” my son reassured me.
I had told him, for what seemed like the millionth time, to put his lunch stuff away. After all, food can only stay not-too-gross in a lunch container for so long. I was also determined not to do chores and tasks I knew he could do perfectly well on his own.
In other words, I wasn’t about to empty his lunch bag for him.
Except, despite his reassurances and the million reminders, the lunch items never made it to the sink or the bag hung on its hook. Instead, they sat in his backpack for the whole weekend, stench and everything.
How to get kids to do chores
I know better than to expect perfection from my kids. This is why I try not to get too frustrated when lunch bags still don’t get emptied or the laundry folded. Why I just have to shake my head at reminding them to put their dishes away yet again.
But I also understand the frustration of having to ask so many times before kids actually do their chores. When you’re tired of reminding them the next steps they should know by now. And sometimes wondering if they’re even capable of doing chores without you breathing down their necks.
If they can’t seem to do chores without being told on a daily basis, rest assured you’re not alone.
Thankfully, over the years, I’ve learned how to communicate with my kids in a way that takes the nagging and the power struggles out of the picture. To the point where I don’t even have to tell them what to do—or when I do, there’s little whining about it.
For instance, here are some of the chores and tasks they know to do on their own (or without a fight):
- Make their beds
- Clean up their toys
- Put their shoes in the shoe rack
- Hang their laundry
- Water the plants
- Get their pajamas ready
- Set the table
- Wash their dishes
- Wash their hands
- And so on…
So, how can you get your kids to do chores without the constant reminders? Take a look at these tips. As you’ll see, it’s less about punishments and rewards, and more about changing how you communicate with them in the first place:
1. Make chores a requirement before the next activity
Every night, the kids get to watch half an hour of television—but that can only happen once they spend a few minutes tidying the place. They also know that after every meal, they usually eat fruit, but only after they’ve placed their dishes in the sink.
By making a task a requirement before moving onto another activity, chores simply become a necessary part of your kids’ day.
The best way to do this is to tie the chore to the activity. For instance, if they want to play a game of chase around the house, then they’ll need to clear the floor of all the Lego pieces they just played with.
And the activity doesn’t even have to feel like a “reward,” but a logical sequence of events. When they get home, they first need to put their shoes and jackets in their proper places before stepping beyond the front hall. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to come back when they were already there to begin with.
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2. Describe the positive consequences of doing the chores
Many parents make the mistake of focusing on the drudgery of the chore:
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“You need to do this by tomorrow.”
“Don’t forget to take out the trash.”
Not only does this paint a negative picture of chores, it misses a more effective opportunity: talking about the good things that happen because of doing these tasks.
For instance, your child packing her school bag the night before means she won’t feel rushed the next morning. Taking her bath quickly—instead of dragging her feet—means she’ll have more time to read and play after she’s done.
Remind her of the positive consequences for doing the chore well and on time—this will be a better motivator than focusing on the drudgery of the chore.
3. Let the negative consequences teach a lesson
Many of us feel compelled to save our kids from the consequences of not getting their chores and tasks done. We relent and fold their laundry or end up making their beds because we’re just at our wit’s end. Plus, we know they need clean clothes and sleep better with a made bed.
But I’ve learned that we’re actually doing them a disservice by picking up after them. You see, one of the best ways to teach the importance of doing chores is to let your child experience the consequence of not getting them done.
For the longest time, I kept reminding my son to remember to pack his school library book—sometimes I’d even pack the book for him. But then I realized that if I weren’t there to remind him, he’d never learn how to come up with his own ways of remembering himself.
So, one day, even though I knew the library book was due, even when I could even see it right there on the coffee table… I didn’t say anything.
Instead, I waited to hear what had happened at school pick-up. “I forgot my library book,” he admitted. “I wasn’t able to borrow a new one this week.”
“What do you think would help you remember next time?” I asked.
“I’ll just put the book in my bag now so I can bring it to school tomorrow,” he responded.
“That’s great! And maybe you can use the white board to write yourself a reminder to bring it on Mondays,” I added.
That conversation wouldn’t have happened if I continued to remind him or even pack his library book for him. By experiencing the consequences, he saw the importance of the task and felt the need to come up with a solution.
4. Do the chores in the same order
Everything we do is based on habits. Think about your own morning routine, and how similar it is to every other morning. You likely do the same things in the same order and at the same time. The benefit? No matter how exhausted you are, you still wash your face and brush your teeth—all because of habits.
The same can be true for your kids and chores.
Let’s say you’re tired of reminding them what to do once they get home from school. Start walking them through exactly what to do, keeping the tasks in the same order. For instance, your after-school routine can be:
- Remove shoes, jackets, and backpacks, and place them on the shoe rack and coat hanger
- Wash hands
- Eat a snack
- Finish homework
As you guide your kids through these activities in the same order every day, they’ll be more likely to do these tasks on their own. The consistent repetition “triggers” them into doing the next sequential task. Removing their shoes prompts them to put the pair in the shoe rack before moving on to the next activity.
You can even make it fun by writing a list they can see. You can write a list or use pictures to show which order they should do the tasks. It serves as a convenient checklist to make sure they did everything they needed to.
5. Set a deadline for the chores to get done
Have you heard of “Parkinson’s law”? It means that “…work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This explains why, given three weeks to pack your suitcase before a trip, you’ll take exactly that long. But if you had 45 minutes before the cab pulls up to take you to the airport, you’ll still be able to pack the same items in the same suitcase, even in far less time.
So, how does this relate to chores? Give your kids a deadline for when they should finish it. Otherwise, “someday” will turn into exactly that—a vague time in the future that will likely mean the chore will remain undone.
Instead, give specific deadlines, whether it’s to clear the table right after dinner, or to get homework done before television time. If they have longer-term chores like laundry once a week or sweeping the floor once a month, mark it on a calendar.
Deadlines, despite their seeming restrictions, actually free them from having to hem and haw about whether to do a chore or not.
6. Be consistent
Want your kids to take you seriously? Start by being consistent with what you say.
When you flip flop between rules (one day they have to clean up, but the next day not, for instance), they stop taking you for your word.
This is especially true when you don’t follow through with consequences. Threatening less screen time for not putting their clothes away means you have to actually cut screen time short. Yep, even if they whine, throw tantrums, and hurl mean words.
But beneath the meltdowns, consistency is exactly what they need. It provides the limits that gives them enough space to explore while also reining them in from feeling overwhelmed.
7. Praise your child
It’s understandable that you feel like it’s an uphill battle getting your kids to do chores. Correcting negative behavior takes more energy than if you praised for positive behavior.
Yes, you can certainly change their behavior by correcting what went wrong. But an easier way, and one that nourishes your relationship with them, is to praise them when they’re doing things you want them to continue doing.
You might be thinking, There’s nothing to praise—they hardly do chores! But find even the smallest things to praise, and the most amazing thing happens: they’ll start to do them more often.
Praise them for keeping their plates clean, making their beds, or being responsible. Acknowledge the fact that they remembered to do their homework or set out their pajamas, even if it happened out of the blue.
They’ll feel good for being recognized, which is a better motivator for them to continue doing chores than nagging them.
8. Give your kids autonomy
Imagine someone micromanaging every move you make, correcting all your mistakes. Even worse, they redo what you had just done, because it wasn’t up to their standards.
Unfortunately, we tend to dictate exactly how chores should be done, rather than giving our kids more autonomy.
Yes, you want to guide your kids on how to wash the dishes, but this is when you need to pick your battles and decide what really needs to be corrected. They didn’t wash all the soapsuds from the plate? Yes, that needs to be pointed out. They put the plate on the other end of the dish rack? Let it go.
The more autonomy they have, the more willing they’ll be to do them moving forward.
9. Make chores something to be expected, not rewarded
Stars, stickers, allowance… many parents reward kids for chores, whether for daily tasks or out of the ordinary ones.
Here’s where I differ: I don’t think kids should be rewarded for doing chores, even for special ones.
Why? For one thing, doing chores is part of being a family. Imagine how families of generations past handled chores—they simply expected kids to pitch in once they were able to. Even in the present day, large families follow a similar way of life where everyone has to pitch in.
And second, don’t think of chores as “punishment” or even something to negotiate with. Instead, think of them as life skills. Our job is to prepare kids to thrive in adulthood, and that includes learning how to be self-sufficient.
You can even change the way you talk about chores and turn them into necessary life skills. For instance, say, “That way, when you’re older, you’ll know how to pour your own cereal.” In other words, chores don’t have to be dreadful so much as helpful to their future selves.
For many parents, learning how to get kids to do chores is a challenge. But as you’ve seen, you’ll have more luck getting your kids to do chores when you change the way you see and talk about chores.
Start by making certain chores a requirement before they’re able to move on to the next activity. Then, highlight the positive consequences that happen because those chores are done. If they still refuse, don’t save them from the consequences but rather allow them to learn from the experience.
Have them do chores in the same order so these tasks become automatic habits. Set a deadline, from a timer to a date marked on a calendar, for when these chores need to be done. Be consistent with the rules and responsibilities of chores as well as the consequences for what happens when they’re not done.
Praise them for their positive behavior—however small at first—so they feel acknowledged and motivated. When they do, make sure they have enough autonomy to decide how to do the chores, especially when it makes little difference in getting the job done.
And finally, think of chores less as something to be rewarded but rather something that’s expected. They’re part of the family and should pitch in just as you do. In fact, think of chores as life skills you’re teaching these future adults to learn to do. As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“We all need to try, fail and learn throughout our lives. Kids need the opportunity to practice during childhood—when the stakes aren’t so high. Forgetting to finish homework is one thing. Forgetting to complete a job application is another.
By not teaching kids responsibility, we’re not doing our primary job: raising future adults.”
My kids won’t always have a perfect record when it comes to chores. But with these tips, I usually don’t have to constantly remind them. They know chores are simply a part of family life—including putting their lunch items in the sink.
Get more tips:
- The Real Reason Kids Should Have Chores
- What to Do when Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores
- 7 Surprising Benefits of Chores and Responsibilities
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
- How to Rock a Morning Routine for Toddlers
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