I peeked into my living room as I unloaded the third set of food for the day – my four sons were playing happily, a few on iPads, a few rolling on the floor acting like snakes they saw at the zoo. I knew something was seriously wrong with this photo, and a far cry from the vision I had of my family when we decided to have four children under the age of 7. We weren’t a team and I had become the good one. So, I took a large poster board and a marker, and decided to change the dynamic. Months later, it still works, to my own surprise.
As a former teacher and wife of a school administrator, we have a lot of experience between us about what motivates kids and what doesn’t, but we hadn’t tried in an organized way to put that knowledge to profit. So we decided to create a chore board, but with a few changes that we had seen working in our classrooms. I never believed other parents (especially on their boastful Instagram posts) when they said their kids willingly helped with household chores, but now it’s true. Here’s what worked and why.
Give children power over the process
Sitting in front of this big blank sheet of paper, I really wanted to do the painting, but I resisted. It’s because I’ve seen up close and personal what happens when adults create processes for kids. They walk away, without real ownership of what is happening. Instead I laid out the problem, explaining how many dishes I had made that day (I went with 50, but who knows the actual number…it felt like triple), sheer exhaustion mothering can be, and then I asked a question, appealing to their urge to find an answer. “What can we do about it? So they set to work identifying the tasks that needed to be done.
Infuse humor and role play
The jobs they identified were inspired by shows, songs and books they read, and just like in school, we named jobs and defined responsibilities. Before I knew it, they had chosen a “butler”, who sets the table and serves drinks and plates, the “wash person”, who does the dishes, and the “sweeper”, who picks up 10 things and passes the vacuum cleaner. Dr Bethany Cookparental psychologist, says these strategies work because they don’t feel like working.
“Olivier do not clean the butler is cleaning – when I say butler, my face has changed. I speak a little differently, so you take on a task almost like you’re performing, and they’re on a stage,” she says. “It becomes magical… it becomes visually less of an adult act, and more magical and playful.” She recommends making it a race or playing some fun music.
She also adds that these clear definitions of expectations “help everyone” and that you need 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 away your planned schedule
Putting a 3, 5 and 7 year old to work means cleaning up the kitchen and downstairs after meals takes about triple the time. But it also allows adults to pour themselves a (second) glass of wine, change the laundry, prepare lunch for the next day or even have a conversation.
Cook says not rushing could mean getting a fun dishcloth or sponge with a character on it, or as she did, getting her barbies to help her with the dishes when she was a kid. Eliminating the timeline freed up room for imaginary play, increased motivation, and encouraged brotherly bonds.
Offer choices, but don’t ask if they want
When we filled out our chart, kids “could” sign up for whatever spots they wanted, as long as it was essentially even. They wrote their initials curvy and upside down in the boxes, making it them who signed up for these jobs, not me who assigns them. I was no longer the bad guy. Cook warns parents not to ask their child to do something, but to ask nicely and firmly, while leaving the choice of how to do it.
“Kids want to feel a little in control,” she says. “They’re going to be more engaged in the process and feel responsible.” And most surprisingly, the board led to team interaction as no one blamed the coach for everything anymore. Instead of “Mom, where’s my drink?” I hear them visit the board to find out who the butler is, then shoot drink requests instead.
Ultimately, Cook says to make sure to highlight exactly what the kids have achieved and help them feel proud of it. “Part of that 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 at what you did !’ They’re proud, and I’m not (too) exhausted anymore.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, writer and editor specializing in health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education and lifestyle. life. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also a mom to her four sons under 7, who keep things chaotic, fun and interesting. For more than a decade, she has helped publications and businesses connect with readers and bring them high-quality news and research in a relevant voice. She has been featured in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today’s Parent, Reader’s Digest, Parents, Women’s Health and Insider.