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The kids complained about chores, so we gave them more

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We’ve been doing something wrong when it comes to chores in our house. And I may have just found out what it is.

For a long time, I have been focused on getting the children to do proper self-care: Personal hygiene. Sole responsibility for all things related to school, including homework and remembering lunches and library books. Keeping rooms neat enough for my weekly vacuuming. Putting their own clean clothes in their drawers. Picking up their own toys from the common areas of the house. Clearing their dishes. Using proper table manners.

This seemed like plenty. When I still had to nag about proper butt wiping and using forks at the table and putting laundry in the hamper, I thought adding more chores would be a recipe for disaster: i.e., a lot of yelling and overwhelmed kids.

But here was the problem: I was of course also asking for help now and again – Please sweep the floor. Who can help set the table? Would you sort these clean socks for me? And every time the whiny or indignant response was the same: Why do I have to? “Because we are a family, and we all pitch in,” I always responded.

The selfishness of their response really irked me. Had I really set the example of complaining about doing things for our family? I didn’t think so, and I still don’t. But what I did do, for years, was assign the kids fixed responsibilities that were solely focused on them, individually, and not on us as a family. So when I asked them to do things for our family, they were understandably interpreted as “extras,” and not expectations.

Understandable or not, no way was that okay, so there were going to be some new expectations. The experts agree. Ron Lieber, New York Times Your Money columnist and author of the recently released The Opposite of Spoiled, says most kids are “not even close” to doing the amount of chores they should be doing. And, he says, they should be doing them as part of their normal family duties because it’s the right thing to do, and not as a way to earn allowance.

[When should you start talking to kids about money? Probably now.]

Richard Rende, developmental psychologist and author of the forthcoming Raising Can-Do Kids, points to the trend of decreasing chores and household responsibilities as “troubling,” given the clear findings that childhood chores yield clear positive benefits on a child’s social, developmental, and behavioral development. Remarkably, Rende points out, long-term studies have shown chores to be “a surprisingly influential factor that offered strong prediction of positive mental health in adulthood and professional success.”

There has been a lot of recent media discussion about whether we modern parents are unwittingly raising narcissists, treating our own kids as if they are more special than everyone else. Rende is concerned about this trend too, especially in connection with declining expectations that our kids be a contributing part of the family, and points out that “we have certainly seen much research devoted to the idea that youth are becoming more entitled across generations.” My kids plainly need plenty of chores, and their whiny responses to requests for household help smack embarrassingly of entitlement. So what’s the best way to add more?

[7 ways to nip narcissism in the bud]

I could certainly just lay down the law. As children, my siblings and I simply had our own lists of chores, which we did mostly to check something off, and without any strong sense that we would ever gladly pitch in if it wasn’t capital-R Required. I wanted to instill in my kids a more expansive sense of helping and working together, a fostering of true empathy instead of I-got-mine-done. And I didn’t want to spend all my time nagging and yelling, which parents often seem to resort to in their good intentions to get kids to follow through.

It turned out I had the words right – we are a family, and we all pitch in — but the execution was not working so well for us. Research has shown that kids are naturally inclined to help from toddler age, and Rende says the best way to build on this is to focus on work as a family “we,” and not as “you” and “I.” He suggests that we “reframe chores as a collective family activity rather than a ‘doling out’ of responsibilities. Taking on household tasks together promotes a social consciousness and an intrinsic motivation to do for others, along with doing for the self.”

Plus, the kids are more willing, as I found out when I put this approach into practice in my house. Our first “collective family activity” was cleaning up dinner as a family. Previously, the kids cleared their places and (maybe) helped wipe the table and sweep, and we parents put away the leftovers, did the dishes, and buttoned everything up for the night. Now, no one is to leave until the kitchen is fully clean and ready for the next day.

It’s been eye-opening. When everyone is working side by side, it truly feels more like teamwork and less like checking off a nag list. Bonus: the kids are actually learning to do helpful things. Ron Lieber was right on in his assessment that kids “are capable of so much more than we allow them to do, mostly because we aren’t patient enough to give them the chance to take on new tasks and do them wrong a few times before getting the hang of it.”

When we’re all together in the kitchen anyway, it’s natural to take the time to teach the 4-year-old where the Pyrex containers are, and let her spoon away leftovers. We’ve found that the 7-year-old and the 9-year-old will happily wash dishes on a step-stool, with Mom acting as the residue police and elbow grease assistant. They are capable, and I can tell they’re starting to realize it too.

I’m hopeful. We’re in it together, as a family, and we feel like a team. Next up, the kids cook dinner?

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her at and on Twitter @216Sharon.

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