I glanced around my living room, while I unloaded the third set of dishes for the day — my four sons happily played, a few on iPads, a few rolling around on the floor acting like snakes they saw at the zoo. I knew something was very wrong with this picture, and far from aligned with the vision I had for my family when we decided to have four kids under age 7. We weren’t a team, and I’d turned into the maid. So, I got a large piece of poster board and a marker, and set out to change the dynamic. Months later, it’s still working, to my own surprise.
As a former teacher, and wife to a school administrator, we have plenty of background between us on what motivates kids and what doesn’t, but we hadn’t tried in any sort of organized way to put that knowledge to use. So, we set out to make a chore chart, but with some changes that we’d seen work in our classrooms. I never believed other parents (especially on their braggy Instagram posts) when they’d say that their children gladly contribute to chores, but now it’s actually true. Here’s what worked, and why.
Give kids power over the process
Sitting in front of that big clean sheet of poster paper, I really wanted to make the chart, but I resisted. That’s because I’ve seen up close and personal what happens when adults create processes for kids. They zone out, without any real ownership of what’s going on. Instead, I laid out the problem, explaining just how many dishes I’d done that day (I went with 50, but who knows the actual number…it felt like triple that), the sheer exhaustion that mothering can be, and then I posed a question, appealing to their urge to want to find an answer. “What can we do about this?” So they went to work identifying the jobs that need done.
Infuse some humor and roleplaying
The jobs they identified were inspired by shows, songs, and books they’ve read, and like at school, we named the jobs and outlined the responsibilities. Before I knew it they’d chosen a “butler,” who sets the table and serves the drinks and plates, the “washy person,” who does the dishes, and the “sweeper,” who picks up 10 things and vacuums. Dr. Bethany Cook, parenting psychologist, says that these strategies work because they don’t feel like work.
“Ben is not cleaning up, the butler is cleaning up —when I say butler, my face has changed. I’m talking a little bit differently, so you go about a task almost as if you’re acting, and they’re on a stage,” she says. “It becomes magical…it becomes less of visually an adult act, and more magical and playful.” She recommends making it a race, or blaring fun music.
She also adds that those clear definitions of expectations “help everybody,” and that you have to teach them step-by-step how to do it. You think your kids know things until you realize your toddler can’t identify what a dishwasher is. So we started there.
Throw your expected timeline out
Putting a 3, 5, and 7 year old to work means that the kitchen and main floor post-meal cleanup takes about triple the time. But it also frees the adults up to pour a (second) glass of wine, change the laundry, pack a lunch for the next day, or even have a conversation.
Cook says not rushing it might mean getting a fun dishcloth or sponge that has a character on it, or like she did, having her barbies help with her dishes job as a child. Eliminating the timeline freed up room for imaginary play, increased motivation, and encouraged brotherly bonding.
Offer choices, but don’t ask if they want to
When we filled out our chart, kids “got” to sign up for which spots they wanted, as long as it was mostly equal. They wrote their squiggly and backwards initials in the boxes, making it them that signed up for these jobs not me assigning them. I was the bad guy no more. Cook cautions parents to not ask their child to do something, but to kindly and firmly request it, while giving choices of how it’s done.
“Children want to feel a little bit in control,” she says. “They’re going to be more engaged in the process and feel accountable.” And most surprisingly, the chart led to a team-like interaction because nobody was blaming the coach for everything anymore. Instead of “Mom where’s my drink?” I hear them visiting the board to figure out who the butler is, and then shooting drink requests his way instead.
In the end, Cook says to be sure to point out exactly what kids have accomplished, and to help them feel pride over that. “Some of this is teaching them the joy of when you’re all done… when we step back with them and show them and say ‘Look at this. Look what you’ve done!’” They are proud, and I’m no longer (as) exhausted.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.