Kids and Chores

It takes a lot of time and effort to keep my household, and probably yours, running smoothly. From making the beds, doing laundry, packing lunches, and putting clothes away, to setting the table, washing dishes, and taking out the garbage… feeling tired yet?

They are necessary tasks, but at the same time, not fun for most people, which is why they are known as chores. In most homes with young children, the grownups do the vast majority of these tasks. It wasn’t until last summer, when our two oldest children were 6.5 and 4, that I realized they were old enough to be pitching in with some of these household jobs.

While it would be nice if they were motivated by the pure desire to help out, my children had a different agenda. There certainly were many times that we had been in a store where one of them would longingly eye something and – the mean mommy that I was – I said no. When they inevitably whined or complained, I told them that they could save their own money for the toy/craft/book that they definitely didn’t need and probably wouldn’t use past the first few days, but hey, I can’t always be the buzz-kill. Sound familiar?

Aside from birthday money and the occasional money from a grandparent or other family members, however, there was really no way for them to earn money. This could be a win-win situation – they could take over some of the household chores, thus saving me a bit of time, and earn some money for all the fabulous stuff they wanted. Not having to make at least one bed in the morning, and one or two less lunches to pack, is the stuff dreams are made of in my house.

I did some reading about kids doing chores for allowance and asked a few friends, coming up with mixed results. Some articles suggested that tying money to chores was not a good idea because these are tasks that should be expected from people living together in a house. Money should not be the only incentive for completing these tasks. To a degree, I agreed with these articles – after all, I wasn’t getting paid for doing any of these chores, but I still had to do them! Wow, if I were actually getting money for doing the dishes…

Some of my friends had great success with having their kids choose a few household chores in exchange for a weekly allowance, so I decided to give it a try. Of course, this came right around the same time that my daughter decided she wanted a second American Girl doll.  The first one was a birthday gift from her grandparents. I told her that there was no way I was buying her a second one “just because”, but if she wanted to do some chores and earn an allowance, then she could purchase it herself. If she were a cartoon character a little yellow light bulb would’ve been flashing over her head. Suddenly, she was the most willing and eager participant!

When setting up a chore-for-allowance system, there are some important considerations.  Who gets to choose the chores – the parent or the child? In our case, we discussed some ideas together. I figured if she had some say in it then she would be more likely to do it.  My daughter chose making her bed and packing her lunch, for which she would be given $4/week if it was successfully and consistently completed.

Another decision is how much money to give.  As mentioned, we chose $4/week, which was somewhat arbitrary. You could also attach an amount to each chore, or give a sticker for completing each chore with a prize given at the end of a certain amount of time, instead of money.

You may have to consider what happens if the chore is not completed each day. Will she still get the full allowance? Partial? Nothing? We chose an all-or-nothing policy and made a quick chart so she could keep track of it. We also mapped out how many weeks it would take to earn enough money if she consistently did her chores. This turned out to be a great opportunity for a math lesson and started a good conversation about money and responsibility.

Fast forward a few months (she also had some money saved in her piggy bank) and we took a trip to American Girl to buy the coveted Saige doll. My daughter was beyond thrilled and I do think she was proud of the fact that she saved her own money (yes, I know it’s really our money, but it’s tough to get around that.)

It was at this point that a glitch in our system arose. She had been so incredibly motivated to do chores and save her money for this doll. Now that she owned Saige, however, the motivation to do the chores disappeared. You may be thinking, “Well, she should just pick something else to buy.” We did talk about what other things she might want to save for, but the truth is we could not find something as motivating as the doll.

This brings me back to an earlier point that kids should not only be motivated by the money and the prize, but rather a desire to contribute to the household. I recognize that this intrinsic motivation may take awhile to develop. For a time, we fell off doing chores altogether. At first, I was frustrated that she had been motivated only for the sake of the doll, but then I realized she was only six-and-a-half, and developmentally that seemed appropriate.

Recently we tried a slight variation of the chore-for-allowance system with both my son and daughter. They got to pick chores they wanted to do, and each time they did it they received a quarter on the spot. In today’s world of instant gratification, this seemed to work better. I noticed that they were starting to clear their dishes without me asking, or offering to make a lunch, or make their beds, and oddly enough, sometimes my almost 5-year-old was better at this than the 7-year-old. Of course, they always reminded me that I owed them a quarter, but I could see a glimpse of this intrinsic motivation that I was looking for. My son is saving for a Lego Set and my daughter talks about wanting a Wii.

Who knows how long it will take for them to each reach their goals and if their interest will wane, but this time, there seems to be a better balance of wanting to help out around the house, and wanting to buy something special. As you can see, chores in our household are an evolving thing, and I think that’s okay. Sometimes you have to abandon what’s not working and try a different path. Sometimes you won’t know if something is working or not until you commit for a longer period. I am assuming that my feelings about chores – and their response to them – will continue to change as they get older. And, I guess, at least for now, I will have to be okay with making all of the beds.

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Lauren Fishman M.Ed, is a former Fifth Grade teacher. In her “life after children,” she is the family CEO – now if she can only figure out how to get paid like one! She lives in Natick with her husband and three young children.

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