What if there was one simple element that you could add to your child’s routine that would support their long-term well-being in multiple ways? This one element has consistently been linked to a myriad of positive outcomes for kids. Across decades of research, it has been shown to predict prosocial behavior, life satisfaction, and positive self-affirmation. In long-term studies, it has consistently been linked to more overall life success as kids grow up. Additionally, kids who have this one element in their life tend to have better mental health.
This one element is also the one thing many parents dread–chores. Children who regularly do chores are more likely to experience all these predicted benefits as adults. The irony is that over the past several decades, there has been a notable drop in the number of children who actually do chores. A 2015 American study showed that while 82% of parents said they did chores as a child, only 28% of their own kids are required to do chores. Experts seem to think that one explanation for this avoidance of chores is the battle that often ensues when children are asked to do them. For the sake of family harmony, many parents would rather give up on requiring chores rather than face the turmoil.
The Helpfulness Hypothesis
Remember when your children were toddlers and preschoolers, how they begged to use the vacuum or the duster to help with chores? Many little ones love wiping windows or putting clothes in the washing machine.Young kids have an almost insatiable desire to be helpful.
Is this just a fascination with the novelty of something new? Perhaps. But what if it’s something more? What if humans are wired, almost from birth, to be helpful?
There is some research to support this helpful hypothesis. One insightful study showed that toddlers as young as 18 months old will aid an adult with a door when their hands are full. Given the young age of these children, it seems as though the helpfulness tendency is almost innate. Whether it occurs naturally or through modeling, young children do show amazing helpfulness.
If humans are wired (at least somewhat) for helpfulness, what happens as kids grow up? There aren’t many 10-year-olds who jump at the chance to vacuum or wash windows as they did when they were toddlers. Does that drive to be helpful disappear?
Not exactly. It seems that over the course of childhood, the concept of chores takes on a whole new meaning for kids. When kids are toddlers, the idea of being a “helper” is powerful. In fact, a study out of University of California, San Diego showed that when researchers talked to the children about helping, the children were much more likely to help pick up toys after a play session when the researcher used the noun form, i.e. “ children like to be helpers” rather than a verb like, “children like to help.”
As kids mature, the desire to help remains, but, in some instances, chores have now become not things to do as a “helper” but tasks to do to either avoid punishment or to make money. In other words, the kids may not have changed, but the understanding of “chores” has. Chores take on a kind of negative connotation and the intrinsic motivation to do them disappears. For many kids, the threat of punishment or the enticement of money is not enough to keep the chore chart completed.
What if we could reignite the desire in kids to be helpful and contribute to the family? What if chores could be reframed, not as menial tasks that have to be done but, rather, as meaningful ways of supporting and caring for other members of their family?
This is the real secret of getting kids to accept (or maybe even enjoy) chores.
The benefits of chores seem to result from both the regular completion of them and the promotion of family empathy and bonding. When chores are framed as a way of supporting and caring for the family, children feel a sense of accomplishment and meaning. This feeling of accomplishment and self-efficacy is a basic human need. When chores address this basic need, the motivation to do them is wired in. This feeling brings children back to that innate “helper” mentality of their toddlerhood. We all want to feel like we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves, something meaningful. When chores fulfill this need, children will not have to be bribed or threatened to do them.
How do we reframe chores to tap into this intrinsic “helper” motivation?
The Key to Making Kids Feel Good About Doing Chores
- Start early. Capitalize on that innate “helper” mentality of young kids. If toddlers or preschoolers are eager to help, avoid discouraging them because it makes the task take longer or they are unable to do it correctly. Encourage their helpfulness, even if you have to redo their work.
- Discuss chores not as “have-to’s” but as “want to’s.” This is key! Try to resist making chores all about earning money or as punishment for misbehavior. Keep chores in the category of family support and contributing to something meaningful (the family!).
- Point to the benefits. Discuss the inherent benefits of chores and how completing them makes children feel. People (even children) are much more motivated by feelings than logic. Point out how good they feel after contributing to the family’s well-being. Discuss how caring for each other (through chores and acts of service) actually makes them feel happier and closer to their family members.
- Make it as fun as possible. Chores are, well, chores. Working together as a family can make them more enjoyable. Crank up the music, have an impromptu dance party in between washing windows and folding clothes. Illustrate to kids the fun and cohesive nature of working together.
Reframing chores as an essential contribution to family life taps into our basic need for accomplishment. On top of having a cleaner, more organized home, there’s another huge bonus that can come from reframing chores — it can strengthen your family’s bond.
Learn how to reframe chores in a way that children will actually enjoy doing them and feel great about it (it is possible!). Do your children have chores? Do they complete chores without a struggle? Share your personal experiences and tips below. Let’s all learn together!