Don't give up. Instead, give some the tips below a try. No method will work all the time for all children, but that’s okay. I’ve found that shaking things up a bit from time to time can keep them willing to work, or at least be more willing to get it down now rather than put it off.
Even Little Ones Can Work
When my youngest was a preschooler, she certainly couldn't mop a floor or mow the lawn like her older siblings. But she was still part of the family, and as such, I needed to find chores for her to do. While it was awfully tempting to do them myself—I knew I can do just about anything better and faster than she could—it was important that she, too, contributed to the family and felt part of the dynamic.
So instead of lumping entire rooms into a single chore, I split them up by difficulty. In the bathroom, a toddler can change towels, empty the trash, and maybe even clean the mirror, while an older sibling can scrub the shower, the toilet, and the floor. When all the kids are older, I'll probably lump the rooms together, but until their skill levels are equal, we'll keep it this way.
In addition to having big Saturday chores lists, each child has an assigned a daily chore. These vary by age and ability, and they rotate every six months. Daily chores could include things like taking out the garbage and recycling, emptying the dishwasher, picking up the family room or living room, or sweeping the kitchen. The littlest one gets a daily chore as well, even if it’s a small one. No one is allowed to play with friends unless they've done their daily chore.
Children often need a way to visibly see their progress so they can keep going without getting discouraged. To help, I create checklists for each child on Saturday morning, complete with a box next to each chore they get to mark when it’s done. When our children were too young to read, we’d draw a picture representing each job, such as a rectangle and a rag to represent washing a mirror.
My kids love toting their lists around the house and making nice, big red X’s in each box as they go. It keeps them motivated and on track.
The Mystery Chore Method
During summers, when chores seem more boring than watching grass grow—and the kids are itching to get outside and play in that grass—we sometimes do things the “mystery” chore way. On slips of paper (or even better, on card stock), write down all the chores that need to be done to get the house clean over a 1- or 2-week period. Label two envelopes, one as “To Do” and the other, “Done.”
Each weekday, the children draw out a certain number of slips. As each chore is complete, the slips go into the “Done” envelope. By the time the “To Do” envelope is empty, the house has gotten one thorough cleaning. Dump the slips back into the “To Do” envelope and start over.
A Little Guidance
When one of my girls was quite young, I sent her off to clean her room. Half an hour later, it didn’t look any better. Near tears, she said, “Mom, it’s too hard. I can’t do it.”
She was fully capable of making her bed, cleaning up her toys, and putting her dirty clothes away. But the scope of the job intimidated her; she couldn’t figure out where to start. Instead of cleaning for her, I went to her room and gave directions. “Put those four books on the shelf. Good. Now pick up those Barbies and put them away.” When I broke the job down into manageable bits, she kept on track and got the job done—and I didn’t do it for her.
Younger children especially need motivation, and that’s where getting creative can help. A few ideas we’ve tried:
- Give each child a small plastic cup. You keep the cups—plus a bag of chocolate chips or other small treat—nearby. When given a signal, the kids race around the dirty room, picking up messes, including garbage and small toys. Each time they reach 10 items cleaned (or another predetermined number), they get a chocolate chip into their cup. It's amazing how fast they move just to see their cup fill. (The next time, up the number required to earn the treat!)
- Identify one area that needs cleaning. Set a timer for five or ten minutes, promising that after it goes off, they can be done. Then see how much everyone can do in that short period. Knowing the end is near can be liberating for children. Clean yourself during the countdown; kids work faster when you’re at their side.
- Using sticky notes, write down all the chores that need to be done today, one note per chore. Then stick them all over a door or wall. Each child must to do a certain number of chores (say 4 or 5), but gets to pick only one at a time. As soon as they complete one, they can claim their second by choosing another off the wall. Kids are motivated by knowing that if they hurry, they’ll get the chores they want to do.
Combining chores and kids sometimes feel like oil and water, but for their sake, it’s important that you keep at it and teach them to work. Use some of these ideas—and then come up with more of your own.
One day, they just might thank you.