A Chore System That Ended Nagging

Meeting the most dreaded task of the day with an approach that honors the little humans in my life.

Right before summer vacation started, I sat down for a day and made a calendar of the things we wanted to do over the summer, and a list of the day-to-day things that I wanted my girls to do each day. With a long summer stretched before us, it was important for me to provide a little structure in our family because my youngest does much better when she knows what’s happening and what’s expected ahead of time.

I dragged my feet hard on the least fun part of that daily list: chores. It’s a chore just to assign or figure out a system, and I was sick and tired of nagging, arguing, and rationalizing my way through their “chores”. However, in summer, it’s pretty imperative that everyone else pitches in if we want to do anything fun during the week. So I browsed Pinterest for a bit, looking for cute and clever ways to get the whole chore thing over with. There were adorable jars and buckets and rewards and rules, but nothing really resonated with me.

So I thought a bit harder about these 2 questions: 
“What’s the reason we are doing chores in the first place, and how can I make a chore system that’s in line with our values as parents and honors our kids?”

Most of the work I do with clients and my kids revolves around the person-centered concepts in self-determination theory. The theory posits that there are 3 universal basic psychological needs: belonging/relatedness, competence, and autonomy. I wondered if I could create a chore system that honored basic psychological needs and in turn, ended the nagging and arguing that made me crazy. In addition, if I could limit the role that the reward (in this case, money) had in motivating them and in turn make them a little more motivated to do it on their own, all the better!

My first discussion was with my partner in crime- my husband. We decided that our goals for getting the children to do chores were pretty simple:

  • Help them grow in their abilities to do household tasks on their own.
  • End the arguing and hassle that chores had become.
  • Grow their own motivation to continue to do tasks.
  • Have fewer tasks that need to be taken care of by adults on a daily/weekly basis.

If you are looking for your children to become miniature versions of expert housekeepers, you may want to consider a different approach. But in reality, once we laid out our goals for the new system, I was able to reframe my expectations. The summertime gave us ample time to work on becoming more competent in the tasks through direct instruction from me, my husband, or a sibling, and make the chores more of a habit and less of an “event”.

We sat down with the kids and explained that we were considering a new system for doing chores. We acknowledged that the old way wasn’t working for us and asked them to consider if they liked it or if it was good for them, which they, in turn, told us emphatically that it was NOT (I’m not sure if at this point they assumed they would be done with chores by saying that, but, alas…) We told them we had some ideas for a structure, but that we wanted their input. Getting “buy-in’ was a key factor to increase motivation and make them feel like were (are) part of the solution. These opening conversations addressed a huge piece of the need for belonging. Instead of feeling like a structure was imposed from the top, the kids had a lot of say in the beginning and continue to make suggestions and revisions to the system. In your family, you can completely customize this system and get buy-in from your kids by having the same types of discussions.

The little one likes to use the binder clips to clip the chore “in progress”. The front of the 3 part bin.

We started with a 3 part box from the Target dollar aisle and wrote the names of the kids on the two smaller compartments. This is where their completed chores would go (my youngest likes to use the binder clip to post the “chore in progress” as well). That way, it would be easy to tally up who had done what (for compensation purposes or to keep track on a daily basis) and see which chores were already complete.

The larger compartment in back is for unfinished chores and notecards, while the front are for each kid with completed chores to be accounted. Credit: Author

The third larger compartment was where we placed the chores that needed to be completed, a couple of pens, some notecards (for notes-one of the chore choices), and some blank chore cards. The kids and I decided which tasks were doable and how much they were worth- initially, the two categories were 50 cents and a dollar. We used blank cards to write the chores and note how much they were worth on one side and the instructions on how to complete the chore on the other side. As we have worked over the summer, we have revised the value of the chores and added chores they could do to the bucket. Their competence and skills grew from the discussions about what the chore entailed, practicing it while I was there to help, and from having the directions on the back of the card to remind them of what to do.

Illustrations by the kids and instructions to remind them on the back. Credit: Author

Our discussion continued to include what principles we could agree on for the chore system. I wanted it to be simple and easy to remember without my nagging, and they wanted it to be not very much work (shocker!). We agreed that the 2 main principles were: 
* You could do any chore that remained in the big compartment “to do” pile. * You could do as many chores as you wanted (to earn money and help out), but you needed to complete at least one each day. The trigger here was that it needed to be completed before any electronics or TV were used.

These two principles gave the girls a lot of autonomy, which basically helps them to act within their values and their desires. The kids had many choices and levels at which they could participate, and that made this chore system powerfully effective for my strong-willed kids. If they wanted to earn money for something, it was within their power because they were not capped on the amount of money they could earn each week (this was not a problem for us because they always ran out of steam on chore doing before their total became much at all). They could choose the level and way in which they wanted to participate in chores on a daily basis.

Each week(ish) we tally the chores and keep a running record of the money they’ve earned. They can cash out for money or store purchases at any time, which also relieved us of having to remember to give them cash every week. We originally had the tallies attached to the front of the box, but the older one said this public display made her feel like it was a competition, and so we keep them tucked away in a drawer.

Overall, the system is not perfect, but that’s not something any real mom is shooting for, is it? (I really, really hope you’re with me on this one!) It has its ebbs and flows like any good system. But is has the hallmarks of any great system: it’s flexible, it’s customizable, and it is people-centered. As far as our satisfaction with it, we have by far and away accomplished the goals that we set out with and everyone is happy to be a part of this system, which in turn makes us closer as a family. By considering the basic needs of our kids (and ourselves!) for belonging, competence, and autonomy, we have restored a little sanity and humanity to the unpleasant task of doing chores.

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