The idea that kids should learn to do chores for some abstract reason—like duty or responsibility—sounds good on paper, but has very little practical application in a child’s life. It just doesn’t work as a strategy.
But there are practical steps you can take to get your kids to do their chores.
Getting kids to do chores is one of the most common arguments families have. We yell at our child, “Why haven’t you cleaned your room yet?” while our child is on the couch watching YouTube, shouting back, “I’ll do it later!” Or they say nothing and just ignore us.
The choice shouldn’t be excitement or chore. The choice should be boredom or chore.
But the reason kids don’t like doing chores is the same reason adults don’t like doing chores: household tasks are generally boring. And most kids are not mature enough to understand that if they work quickly and finish their chores, they will be rewarded by getting back to their fun.
Instead, they pout, procrastinate, and drag their feet all to avoid 20 or 30 minutes of what is relatively easy work.
If you feel like you’re constantly nagging your kids to do their household chores, here are six practical steps you can take.
If your child is not doing his chores, you simply end whatever is distracting him. More than likely, this means the electronics get turned off. And they don’t come back on until the chores are done.
Then talk to him about it. But keep it brief. Ask him what he thinks is going on and what’s getting in the way of doing his assigned tasks.
Find out what his plans are after he’s finished. Motivate him to get the work done so that he can move on to what he wants to do.
Appealing to a child’s self-interests—rather than explaining the abstract concept of responsibility or duty—is generally much more effective for kids.
Time limits are a good way to get your child to comply with doing chores. You can say:
“All right, the dishes have to be done in 20 minutes.”
If she hasn’t done them in 20 minutes, then your child’s bedtime is set earlier. Or she loses some electronics time. This creates a cost associated with her foot-dragging.
The beauty of this system is that you’re not constantly nagging anymore. Instead, you’re just keeping time. You can even use a cooking timer with an alarm. The next night, you can say:
“Let’s not repeat what happened last night—remember, you didn’t enjoy going to bed earlier.”
Another timing strategy parents can use is to motivate your child to compete with herself. You can say:
“Let’s see if you can get it done in 15 minutes tonight. But remember, you have to do it right. I’m going to check.”
You can even give her an incentive:
“If you get it done within 15 minutes, you can stay up 15 minutes later. Or you can stay online 15 minutes more.”
Then it becomes more exciting and stimulating for the child. While your child won’t lose anything if she doesn’t get the task done, she will gain something if she does.
This kind of reward system is always preferable to one in which the kid loses something because it’s more motivational and less punitive—you’re giving your child an incentive to do better.
I think if parents are financially able to give kids an allowance, they should do it. And parents should make the allowance tied to their kids’ chores.
For example, if your child has to be told more than once to do his chores, he would lose a part of his allowance. Perhaps a dollar. And each time you remind him, he loses another dollar.
It is also appropriate to give that part of his allowance to a sibling who does the chore instead. This way, you’re not working on the chore, you’re working on the communications process, as well as your child’s motivation.
Structure is essential when it comes to completing household tasks. I believe there should be a set time when chores are to be done.
Evenings are usually the best time for chores during the school year because doing chores in the morning just adds to the stress and intensity of getting to school on time. In the summer, though, I recommend doing chores in the morning to get them out of the way before the day starts.
In general, before the video games or any electronics go on, make it a rule that your child’s bed has to be made, his clothes should be in the hamper, and his room is tidy. This way, he’s starting to learn that his responsibilities have to be met before he can have free time.
Again, you never want to be pulling your child back from something exciting in order to do something mundane and boring. Rather, you want to get them to work through the mundane and boring things to get to something exciting.
Sometimes as a parent, you have to ask yourself, “if my child isn’t doing his chores, what is he doing?” You really have to be aware of how your child is using his time. If he’s not doing his chores because he’s playing on the computer or reading a comic book, you’ve got to stop that pattern.
In the end, the choice shouldn’t be excitement or chore. The choice should be boredom or chore. Kids have to understand that until chores are finished, they don’t get to have fun. No electronics until chores are done and no going out with friends until chores are done. The alternative to doing their chores needs to be boredom.
With this kind of structure in place, most kids will eventually choose to do their chores and then get on with the things that they want to do.
Finally, set aside time when all the kids in your family are doing their chores at once. So your 15-year-old might be unloading the dishwasher while your 11-year-old is taking out the garbage. That way, no one feels as if they’re missing out or being punished by having to complete their tasks. It’s just chore time.
Don’t use chores as a punishment or as a consequence. If somebody misbehaves and does something wrong, don’t give them a consequence of doing the dishes, for example. You want your child to learn that a chore is an expected responsibility to be done no matter what.
Only use chores as a consequence when your child does something wrong to another sibling. In order to make amends—to right the wrong—they do that person’s chore for them. That’s a physical way of saying, “I was wrong to do that, and I’m doing your chore to show you that I’m sincere.”
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
If you want kids to take responsibility for their chores, integrate their tasks with a reward system. Put a chart on the refrigerator with each child’s name on it, with their chores listed next to their names. If they make their bed promptly and do it right, they get a checkmark. When they get five checkmarks, they get a reward. Maybe it’s staying up an hour later. Maybe it’s having more screen time one night.
In my opinion, electronics don’t have to be on every waking hour. Just because they have a phone or tablet doesn’t mean the child has to be using it all the time. Each child should get their allotted screen time, and then screen time is over. If they want more, they should have to earn it. This allows you to use electronics time as a reward.
Related content: Free Downloadable Chore Chart for Children
Kids might understand that doing the dishes is part of their role in the family, but they’re not going to feel it in some significant way. Chores are work, and in that sense, very few of us like to work unless we’re getting rewarded for it. And the reward has to be something we like.
If my boss had paid me in carrots, I wouldn’t have worked much at all—because one or two carrots and I’m all set. Kids have the same motivating principle. They want a reward in a currency that’s meaningful.
Getting your child to do chores becomes a battle when you allow it to grow into one. If you’re standing over your kids telling them over and over again to “empty the dishwasher, mow the lawn, clean the kitchen,” and they’re digging their heels in and still not complying, then you are in a battle. And as the parent, you need to end the battle.
If you don’t end the battle, you get caught in a nagging cycle. And the problem with nagging, of course, is that it doesn’t work. So, replace your nagging with the tips above and put an end to the chore battle once and for all.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.