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Chores without a Challenge: 8 Tips for Getting Help Around the House

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Responsibilities & Values

“I don’t want my child to do as she’s told. I want her to do things without being told!”  

So how do you get there? How do you get your child off the couch and into being helpful? Let’s talk about what you can do, starting today. But first, let’s find out why kids need to be taught to be helpful.

First, kids don’t see it.

Kids don’t notice that things are messy or that you need a hand opening the door or that the baby is fussing because he can’t reach a toy. Kids are naturally self-absorbed. They cruise along in their own little world and only notice a problem when it crashes into their happy mindset.

Second, helpfulness is a learned skill.

Becoming aware of others’ needs and being helpful doesn’t just happen. Children don’t just grow into it all on their own. They need to be taught how to recognize that others are having a problem and taught how to step in to help. This means that you have to teach this.

And, third, every child can become more helpful.

Everyone can learn to be self-reliant and more thoughtful. Don’t provide your child with the excuse that he’s too young or too unskilled.  And don’t convince yourself that letting your child help is too much work for you. She can do this. You can help her learn.

It’s important. Part of being an adult is being able to manage one’s own affairs, make decisions, and demonstrate sound social skills. These are key elements of becoming a helpful kid. They’re the first steps on the road to autonomy. Children’s desire for autonomy is our way in.

Competence, capability and contribution

Kids want autonomy. They want to be able to do things themselves and be admired for it. A feeling of independence comes about through feeling competent, capable and valued through their contribution. So your efforts to engage your children in helping out around the house will help teach them to be helpful.

Competency. That’s the feeling that “I did it. I did it by myself.” In order to feel this way, a child needs to have a task on his radar screen and to know what it takes to do it and when to know the job is done. The task has to have a defined beginning and – even more important – a defined end. So a task that contributes to a feeling of competence is getting all the toys off the floor before bedtime. “Keeping your room neat” is not so well defined and it has no clear endpoint.

Capability. This is the feeling that I am powerful, I have skills and abilities, and I have impressed even myself with my own success. To feel capable, the task a child is set has to stretch him. It has to be a challenge. It can’t be too easy. This is where we parents often get tripped up. We think that to get our kids to help out, we should assign them a task that’s no challenge. Instead, appeal to your child’s desire to feel capable of great things. This desire is satisfied by challenging tasks.

Contribution. Does this task matter? Does anyone care? This is why cleaning the garage is more fun than cleaning one’s own room. A clean garage matters to other people. A clean garage is a real source of pride and truly contributes to the happiness of the family. Kids love to feel like they’ve made a real contribution.

Now let’s talk about what you can do.

1. Think about your child. What does he like to do, what is he good at, what task would he think is challenging and grown up? Your child can be any age, and the task will obviously change with the age of the child.

2. Choose one task to start. It should be something that can be repeated at regular intervals. It should be something that provides obvious clues that it’s “time” to perform the task. It should have obvious indicators that the task has been completed and completed well. Its success should be within the control of the child. And it should operate on a fairly short timeframe, depending on the age of the child.


Regular intervals: Good choice – take the bins to the curb on trash pick-up day; less-good choice – change a burned-out light bulb.

Obvious trigger clues: Good choice – keep the dog’s dish filled with clean water; less-good choice – keep the house neat

Obvious completion indicators: Good choice – take clean dishes out of the dishwasher; less-good choice – pick up all the pine cones and sticks that fall on the lawn.

Within child control: Good choice –  find all the books to go back to the library;  less-good choice – Keep your sister out of trouble

Short timeframe: Good choice – water the grass every week; less-good choice – keep the grass watered all summer

3. Tell your child what you want her to do. Talk with your child about your need for her help. Reinforce the importance of the task and how grateful you’ll be to have it completed. Help her to imagine making you happy. Be sweet, be pleasant but be clear that doing the task is not optional.

Tell her what

Tell her when or by when

Tell her what the goal is

4. Let your child decide how he’ll do the task. In order to develop a sense of ownership and autonomy, it’s important that at least some of how the chore is done be under the child’s control. You may need to teach how you do things, just to give your kid an idea. But if he does it a different way, let him try that. Let this be his task.

5. Remind him to come to you if he needs help.  Ask him if he’d like your help the first time. Thank him for taking this on.

6. Step back and be quiet. Will your child do the task the way you would do it? No. Will she make mistakes the first time? Yes. But you must let her own the task and find out for herself how to do it and how to do it better.

7. Remind if necessary. Your child may not have thought you were serious, especially if nothing has been asked of him before or if in the past he’s been able to slip by without doing what he promised. You must follow through and make sure he starts the task within your agreed-on timeframe.

8. Thank, inquire and reassign. When the task is done, thank your child, no matter how poorly the result is. Then ask your child how the task went. Let the child say the job was not done very well if it wasn’t.  Let her own the task and own the outcome. If the job was not done to standard, and the child doesn’t seem to see this, suggest one improvement for next time. No matter how well or poorly the task was completed, reassign it for tomorrow or whenever the next reasonable time to do the task is.

You might be thinking right now that this sounds like a lot of work – for you. And, yes, initially it is. You might be thinking that this is all more bother than it’s worth. You’d rather do the jobs yourself….

And that’s been the problem all along, right? Because you haven’t committed before to teaching your children how to do jobs, they haven’t learned to do them. They may even believe you don’t really want them to do chores. You may have sent the message that don’t think they can do hard things.

Remember that the main reason for kids to do chores is not so much the chores themselves, those it’s nice to have some of those done. The main reason is to teach children responsibility and initiative, to guide children in working collaboratively, to develop feelings of altruism and working for something larger than themselves, and to learn specific task-related skills. This is why letting children decide when and how to do a task is important. This is why letting kids evaluate their own work makes sense. And this is why making certain that children own their tasks and are responsible for them is so key.

What you are doing here is developing attitudes and character. That’s why doing chores is important. That’s why you’ll want to start your children doing chores today.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.