No More Chore Wars

“I thought kids were supposed to hate chores,” Jennifer said as we watched our kids glistening and gliding through swim practice the other day. “But ever since I got serious about sharing the load, Ryan and Megan have had a better attitude—about everything. For the first time I feel like our family is a team.”

A few months before, Jennifer had shared with me how things weren’t working at home. She was exhausted from having so much to do, and she resented her kids’ unwillingness to help. “Most of the time I end up doing their chores myself because I want them done right,” she said, “and I’m just too tired to fight about it anymore.”

Jennifer was worried about how to make the kids work without first clarifying why they need to work. When you keep the reason behind chores in mind, you’ll take a more positive approach, be more consistent, and get through the tough times with even the balkiest of kids.

The why of chores is this: children need responsibility at home to reach their full potential. Requiring our kids to complete their chores doesn’t just ease the burden for us, it releases the best in them. A secret I learned during my Montessori training has been confirmed through 29 years of raising 11 children: practical work brings out the best in our kids.

I’ve seen children begin to shine as they learned to polish silver and shoes. Kids who accomplish practical tasks have a head start on self-esteem. We all know the feeling of looking at something we’ve done and knowing it is the best we can do. Kids need that feeling, too.

Focus on the following guidelines and you’ll see the benefits of your kids carrying out household responsibilities.

Start Them Young

Three-year-old Madison is trying her best with the broom. “No, Maddie, you’re not ready to sweep yet,” Dad says, putting it away. “How about a puzzle, honey?” Three years later, when Dad thinks Madison is ready to learn to sweep, Madison balks.

What happened?

God built into our kids sensitive periods for learning. The sensitive period for learning domestic tasks—like sweeping —is in the preschool years. Sure, children can learn to do these things later, but the learning won’t be as filled with joy as it would have been when they were eager to learn.

Use Incentives

While we all want is children with hearts to serve, in the real world adults are rewarded or paid for our work. Incentives fill in the gap, keeping kids motivated to complete tasks. They receive a tangible return for their work even as they experience the feeling of accomplishment. At some point, we trust (and I have seen my older kids make this transition), the inner motivation will become more important than the outer.

Luis and Linda offer each of their four children a weekly base allowance based on age and responsibility level. Each Saturday, they evaluate the week’s “job performance” with each child— including quantity and quality of work—plus attitude. Children who have given their best — and cheerfully — are awarded a bonus for the week.

“We know it’s subjective,” Luis says, “but not as bad as Olympic ice skating. And we do depend a lot on God’s guidance,”

Sometimes an incentive can be built in through timing. “You need to clean your room before you go out to play.” “I know you want to see a movie today. I’ll take you to the 2:00 show if you can get the lawn mowed by then.” “Dinner’s in the oven. Can we take fifteen minutes and get the house in shape before we eat?”

The idea is that we do our work, then we reward ourselves.

Make Things Possible

“Me do it!” Tyler says. Mom may think it unlikely that a two and a half year old could peel carrots. And yet, with a little careful thought about the task—and a lot of patience—she can indeed help it happen.

Tyler will need a stool so he can stand at the counter with Mom. He’ll need to see exactly how to hold the carrot in his left hand, the peeler in his right (or vice versa for lefties), how to peel away from himself so as not to cut his fingers.

Likewise, Madison’s dad can fulfill her yearning to sweep. He can ensure her success by breaking down the task of sweeping into a step-by-step process. A chalk circle drawn on the floor defines a target area. Once every inch of the floor has been swept into the target, Dad can demonstrate the secrets of sweeping into the dustpan, then dumping into the trash. Last but not least, Madison needs to know how to put the broom and dustpan away.

When Tyler and Madison succeed at tasks, they want to repeat them. Preschoolers have a natural inclination to give their best at any chores we teach them.

Older kids may need more oooomph. I gave my boys some with Don Aslett’s video, Is There Life After Housework? (1-800-451-2402). They laughed their heads off, and caught his enthusiasm. One trick is to assemble cleaning supplies into related sets. Invest in a few plastic containers and stock one with everything needed to clean the bathroom, another for the car, another for windows. You’d be surprised how appealing the jobs will become to your kids!

Revise Your Expectations

Once you’ve thought through a chore and taught the sequence to a younger child, be ready to receive her work graciously. Make a decision in advance to accept your child’s personal best as though it were the best.

Older children require more parental discernment, as they may try to get away with less than their best, sometimes with incredible creativity. For weeks, one of my sons amazed the family with his speed at sweeping the kitchen — until Dad investigated the lumps under the dining room carpet. Of course, this goes beyond balking to dishonesty — and that’s how we treated it.

When Penny asked her eight-year-old to sweep the kitchen, Emily said, “I don’t sweep very well.”

“Then you’re the one who needs the practice!” Penny said. I like that good-humored approach.

Think in terms of process rather than results. Your child, sweeping floors for many years, will have plenty of practice at getting it right. Be appreciative. Above all, don’t let your child see you redoing the job. When a child feels successful at something, she’s more likely to continue enjoying it.

Older children who try to get away with less than their best will have no feeling of satisfaction. For that reason alone, parents need to insist on the best they can do even if it means doing a chore over until it is right.

Try a Team Approach

Housework is everyone’s job. Do the math with your kids: if one person works alone, cleaning house might take four hours. But if four work together, it will take only one — leaving more time for fun together.

Organize with shared housework in mind. A stool in the laundry room means even the shortest family members can help fold clothes. Dishes on the bottom shelves enable a three year old to put away dishes or a four year old to set the table without help.

On housecleaning day, get everyone involved — really involved. Some parents make a list for each child. I like to make just one list of all that needs to be done, give my kids a chance to choose what they’re going to do, and then turn them loose. When everything’s done, everyone can relax.

A friend of mine found a way to give her kids the big picture. They sat down together with a stack of National Geographics from the second hand store and cut out pictures of children all over the world helping their parents in the home. Now in their laundry room is a beautiful collage: African girls walking back to their village bearing stacks of shiny silver fish on their heads, Mexican children helping their mothers pound the corn to make tortillas, children from every corner of the world sweeping huts, fetching water, washing clothes by rivers and spreading them to dry, toting younger siblings for busy parents.

Even though in our society we may not need our children’s help quite this much, there’s still a lot to be gained from following this pattern. It’s good for the family and it’s good for the child. A family working together is a beautiful thing.


Each child has his own timetable, so ages are suggested and approximate. Ages given are on the early side; for boys, who mature more slowly, add six months to ages given.

1 1/2 years:

Getting diaper for self or new baby
Putting disposable diaper in trash
Picking up small items from floor
Shutting cabinet doors
Turning on dishwasher

2 years:

Putting away toys
Unloading dishwasher — putting away plastic dishes and cups

2 1/2 years

“Folding” napkins
Helping set table
Putting away silverware
Peeling carrots
Pouring measured items into mixing bowl
Putting away broom and dustpan.

3 years:

Dusting lower shelves
Emptying small trash cans
Carrying stacks of clothes to rooms

4 years:

Feeding baby
Putting away books
Further dusting
Sorting recyclables

5 years:

Making bed
Setting table
Feeding pets
General straightening of rooms

6 years:

Pouring milk for family meals
Clearing table
Emptying trash
General folding
Polishing silver, brass.

7 years:

Loading dishwasher
Sweeping floor
Opening cans
Cleaning windows
Helping with grocery shopping

8 years:

Washing pans
Cleaning bathrooms
Beginning cooking skills
Sewing buttons
Helping with grocery list

9–10 years:

Changing baby’s diapers
Helping with meal planning
Further cooking skills
Washing car

At this age, the child should be able to learn any housekeeping skill, as long as you are willing to teach him. Certain skills, such as ironing, mowing lawn, and babysitting for siblings depend on maturity level and/or family circumstances. Parents know best.

Barbara Curtis, an award-winning author with nine published books and over 700 print articles, finds tons of material as mother to 12 children, grandmother to 10 (so far!). Visit her at Also, pick up her outstanding Mommy Manual at: