A couple of years ago, we had a service technician from an alarm company in our home on a Saturday. He moved from room to room, checking out our existing set-up in order to calculate a quote for monitoring service. During his inspection, our two boys (aged nine and ten at the time) busily went about their weekly house chores: dusting, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming away without any prompting from me or my wife.
The tech was visibly impressed. “How in the world do you get them to do that?” he asked. “I can’t get my kids to do a thing around the house.”
The answer was and is quite simple. It comes down to a thoughtful balance of negative and positive motivation, looking something like this:
- The negative motivation. We are the parents, and as long as you live under our roof and eat our food you will follow our rules and do as we say. Failing obedience, vaguely defined and definitely uncomfortable consequences will be sure to follow. Oh, you don’t feel like doing chores today? That’s okay, because we didn’t ask.
- The positive motivation. This is the orientation we prefer to emphasize more. It’s predicated on the doctrine of work before play – an essential concept for life success. In exchange for about an hour of labour around the house on Saturdays, each boy earns five dollars. In addition, we also allow them an hour or two of iPod time – something they don’t get on most weekdays. Again, properly completed chores are a prerequisite for screen time. No work? No play.
We’ve been running Saturday chores in roughly this fashion for the last few years, and it works beautifully most of the time. It’s never been much of an issue to get the boys moving on their lists. Early on, my wife even added a cheerfulness clause requiring that the chores be done with a good attitude. Bad attitude = no moolah. So much for complaining.
But how do we get our boys to clean over half our house without constant prompting? How does it not require constant supervision and handholding to make sure the jobs are done well? It’s all about The Chores List.
My wife and I are serious G Suite nerds, so of course The Chores List appears in a Google Sheet. I set up a clean tab every Saturday, and the boys come by an open laptop (left on the dining room table and always highly visible) to put an X by each item they’ve completed. Here is a screenshot of some (not all) of our younger son’s chores:
Because the list is in the cloud, my wife and I can both access it from any device and at any time throughout the week. We are free to add and edit items whenever it seems appropriate. And of course we can check in on the boys’ progress in real time from any other part of the house. It’s a beautiful thing, I tell you.
Once the boys claim to have finished every item on the list, I choose one or two items to randomly inspect. If I’m not satisfied with the state of affairs in a given area, they’ll have to re-do the job. And of course that will lead to closer scrutiny of their other jobs as well. All of this is very painful for the boys, so they usually work fairly hard to avoid an inspection fail.
Finally, let’s go back to the little matter of monetary compensation. Some might critique the idea of pay-for-work in the sense that children must learn to serve without getting paid. This is a fair take, and it’s worth noting that our boys are asked to do all sorts of impromptu chores throughout the week: wiping the table, taking out the compost, filling the dishwasher. They don’t get paid for those little jobs. Instead, we talk about the value of contributions from every member of the team. We all work during the day, we all get tired, and we all still do our part to make sure our house doesn’t descend into a state of chaos.
Perhaps the $5 is too generous. Or too meager. But for the time being, it’s a value that just sits right with us. As Dave Ramsey likes to say, there’s one place to go to get money: to WORK. We want our boys to learn the dignity and satisfaction of working hard to provide for themselves and others. And the wage – as small as it is – gives the boys opportunities to practise the financial practices of save, spend, give.
“”Go to the ant, O lazy one; Observe her ways and be wise.” The work-for-pay paradigm also fights the epidemic of entitlement. Our boys don’t ask us randomly for cash, because they understand it must be earned. We trust and pray that as they grow into men, they’ll learn to be workers and providers without the sense of I-deserve-everything-for-nothing so rampant in our society today.
What about you? How do you approach household chores with your children? I’d love to learn from your best practices as well.