Chores Without Bribery

February 23, 2012 at 7:55 am (Positive Discipline)

When it comes to doing chores, there is a positive approach that can be summed up in two words: Take Time.

To teach, that is. Chores, while seemingly straightforward to us parents who do them all the time, take time for kids to learn. And we need to take time to teach them. And to expect independence with them. And also to form a habit of them. Oh, and enjoyment of them. Well, we might be waiting a LONG time for that one!

But promises of rewards and threats of consequences aren’t necessary as long as the chore-learning process is cooperative and encouraging. In our house, “We do it together,” is our motto right now, with an addendum of, “(until you can do it alone)” to come later. Here are the four steps that help us get there:

1. Model. They see me do stuff first.

2. They help me. I get to have an assistant.

3. I help them. Now it is their turn to take the lead.

4. They do it alone. We’ve done it enough times together that it is not unreasonable to expect them to get a job done on their own.

Of course, the length of time to get through this 4-step teaching process depends on the task. Getting the dog her food is much less complicated than cleaning one’s bedroom.

For big tasks, break the job up.  Make the bed. Put toys away. Pick up clothes. Vacuum. Clear dishes. Throw away garbage. Wipe surfaces. Each one is its own learning process. That’s why it’s overwhelming to say, “Clean your room,” and expect it to be done 1) quickly and 2) without supervision/ direction/ guidance/ help.

Here are some jobs that my kids were able to handle alone at various ages:

Age 1-2 (not expecting perfection)

  • dusting
  • window washing
  • fruit & veggie prep (washing & drying)
  • choosing clothes
  • unloading utensils from dishwasher
  • sweeping

Age 3-4 (also not expecting perfection, and expecting some “No”s)

  • food prep
  • setting table
  • feeding animals
  • sorting clothes
  • folding laundry
  • shelving books
  • clearing the table
  • get dressed

Age 5-7

  • laundry (Depending on the machine…ours is fool proof with a 1-button setting)
  • vacuuming
  • helping to cook
  • doing dishes
  • get the mail
  • making lunch
  • measure ingredients
  • clean bathroom sinks
  • pack own carry-on for trips
  • pet care
  • JJ enjoys plunging the toilet!

Though my kids can do these kinds of jobs on their own, I still expect to give directions as to when they need to be done. I don’t expect them to notice on their own and take the initiative to do some chores (except when the toilet needs to be plunged…that takes no prompting for JJ). At their ages, they simply have other priorities than I do. I think the first time I started taking initiative for doing chores is when I had my own house! That’s when it began to matter to me.

What if they say ,”No,” or argue when it’s time to do chores? My answer is, “Yes, let’s do it together.” Even if it’s a task that I know they can do on their own, they may simply be needing some extra encouragement right then. So my answer is, “Yes, it needs to get done. Let’s do it together.” I break the job up into “You do this and I’ll do that…” No arguing, negotiating, reasoning, bribing or threatening…just cooperation and some re-teaching.

I expect to remind my kids often to do chores. I expect to teach them (do it together) for a long time. I remind myself that their whole childhood is time for teaching. Like me, my kids may not exhibit “proactive-chore-behavior” until they’ve moved out into their own place. But because of the years I’ve invested teaching chores and instilling the importance of getting jobs done, it will be second nature to tackle their own chores with confidence.


  1. donamatthews said,

    how delightful! a great article based on personal experience — this friendly, thoughtful, somewhat strict approach to getting children to help with chores is developmentally supportive in lots of important ways. bravo!

  2. Lisseth Orozco said,

    Absolutely love the pictures within the article. It gave it a great visual! Wonderful and motivating article!! -Lisseth Orozco

  3. Andrea said,

    This sounds great in theory, but for me it seems to work that, I say we’ll do it together, but I’ll be doing almost all the work, the kids will be on a “go slow”, slowing down till nothing. Eventually I end up directing them to the smallest thing, eg pick up those tissues off the floor, and they complain bitterly, take for ever, have excuses (too tired, too hungry, need toilet – it makes no difference to tidy up after a snack & break first), or will just side track it into a game that makes even more mess. They are 5 & 8, I have been trying this for years with no success. Other people seem to do the same thing with success, but my kids are not at all compliant.

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Andrea, that sounds so familiar…we’ve definitely had those phases too! I found a few things help us with that kind of scenario…

      1. We decide together when is the most convenient time to do chores that day. Then we plan our “fun” stuff around that…some before, some after. But when it’s time to get the tasks done, we just follow the order of events. We don’t move on to B until we’ve completed A. So, I might say something like, “When the living room is picked up, we will play our game.” It’s not a bribe or a punishment, but just the order of events.

      2. So as to ensure that one person doesn’t do all the work while another one just sits there, we divide up tasks equally. “It’s time to clean up the living room, let’s all work together. Elia, you get books and blankets. JJ you get garbage and toys, and I will vacuum the floor.” Each person is responsible for finishing their job(s) before we move on to our next activity (usually a “fun” one, see #1 above :)).

      I am happy to help either of them do their jobs…as long as they are helping, too, and as long as I am not already done with my share of the work. So if JJ is just sitting there watching Elia and I work around him (sticking to our individual jobs), we may be finished before he is. Which means we may move on to, say, playing a game. Since we’ve already decided that we don’t move on to ‘B’ until we’re done with ‘A,’ he is welcome to join the game when he is done with ‘A.’

      3. If I’m nearing the end of my tasks and one of the kids hasn’t done anything, I might say, “I’m almost done with my work and ready to move on. If anyone needs help with their job, I’m available to help for 5 more minutes, then I’ll be upstairs reading.” They usually take me up on that. But it needs to be equal helping…I won’t do all their work for them! Otherwise, they, too, can move on to ‘B’ when their job is done.

      Does that make sense? It is not easy, for sure! Sometimes I think, in the moment, it would just be easier to all the housework myself. But then I remember that, in the long run, that’s not healthy for anyone. Kindness and firmness and consistency help us the most with this!

  4. Michelle said,

    Sounds a lot like how it works at our house. There’s a routine, we’re kind and firm, and other events don’t happen unless we finish what needs to get done first. We always work together for big clean-ups.

    Now that my son is 6, he does a lot on his own. It always cracks me up when he brings out his full hamper, moves the clothes from the washer to the dryer and then begins loading the washing machine. “Normal and start, right Mommy?” From the time my two were little, when they wanted to help, I always let them even though it often took far more time that way. Young children have a natural desire to help and do things themselves, if we encourage them.

    The other morning my two and a half year old walked out and saw I was getting breakfast ready. She looked at the dishwasher and said, “Oh, we need to set the table.” She put the four plates in the right places on the table. Then said, “ok, now silverware,” walked to the table and said, “oh, we need napkins first.” She got the four napkins, set them on the table, and gave herself silverware. It wasn’t a complete job, but I was pretty impressed!

    I love the photos of your kids! I have tons of mine too. 🙂

  5. Sonia Nicoluccici said,

    Great article.
    Many many years I had the privilege of taking a parenting course with Athlea Poulos, in Richmond Hill Ontario. Throughout the course she repeatedly mentioned Take Time For Training. Your article gives great examples and explanation on how to, take the time.

  6. Jami @monstermamas said,

    This is a fantastic article! I love all of the ideas mentioned here 🙂

    I think natural curiosity really does help out for getting kids interested in chores. In my house these 2 really wanted to know what a vacuum was or how it worked, or wanted to use the mop because it looked fun lol. This helped the transition from watching mom doing it to doing it yourself and being proud of your work after learning from natural curiosity about cleaning 🙂

  7. Naba said,

    Thank you for this. I have to be stern, but it’s hard when there is soooo much whining. It’s like pulling teeth here. Sometimes I feel like the school work alone is a lot for them. That’s why I let some things slide. I also have to remind them a lot to wash their hands, so I don’t ask them often to throw out garbage. I guess it’s all part of the learning process, though. They need to do it. Are you sure about the 1-2 year old jobs? That makes me nervous. The boy holding the spray makes me nervous. Kids 5-7 vacuuming makes me nervous. I’m just a nervous woman, I guess. 🙂

    • Kelly said,

      Those are all the tasks my kids could handle at those ages. And there are probably even more! I think it is important to entrust kids with responsibilities…being able to provide meaningful contribution to the family helps kids develop a crucial sense of significance and belonging. True, things may not get done perfectly, but the experience and practice they get is so worth it!

      That’s my son at age 4 mopping, and the liquid in the bottle is water. 😉 I do get what you’re saying about being nervous, and I also think there are ways to adapt typical ‘grown up’ chores to be appropriate for kids. Our vacuum in lightweight and can be adjusted to have a shorter length, making it easy for a child to control where it goes. Our laundry machine has a “favorites” setting, so a child can push 1 button and have the cycle automatically set appropriately.

      Not all appliances can be adjusted in this way, but what’s most important is to find ways to involve your kids in working independently around the house with the tasks/ items/ appliances/ supplies you do have. If they can’t do the dishes all by themselves, what can they do to help? Hand you items to load in the dishwasher? You hand them glasses, plates and spoons to load? Pour in the soap? Push the buttons? My point is you can find ways to involve kids in lots of (though not all) the everyday jobs you do…there is most likely some way they can help out! 🙂

  8. Kyra said,

    My son is 18 months old and can vaccine and use the shop vac to clean. He loves to help. He feeds the dogs, the Guinea pigs, the fish, & the bird. He has put dishes up(grabbed them from dishwasher and I picked him up and he put them in cabinet). He also loves to sweep or mop although it is not clean. He is always wanting to help someone do something. He also knows how to wash his hands and use hand Sanitizer. This is a great article BC despite what my son does I still try to keep him a baby and I don’t let him do much.

  9. Rachel said,

    Thank you for these words!!!! “My answer is, “Yes, let’s do it together.” Even if it’s a task that I know they can do on their own, they may simply be needing some extra encouragement right then. So my answer is, “Yes, it needs to get done. Let’s do it together.” I break the job up into “You do this and I’ll do that…” No arguing, negotiating, reasoning, bribing or threatening…just cooperation and some re-teaching.”

  10. Kristen said,

    I spotted you on Pinterest, and my eye was immediately drawn to your Basic H bottle. Good work, lady! Keeping the kiddos safe while learning chores and responsibilities 🙂

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