Are you thinking about using a chore chart to get your kids to do their share around the house? I wouldn’t recommend it. In this article I will break down the science of chores, explain why a chore chart is a bad idea, and reveal what you should do instead.
But first, a bit of important context.
In a recent study, sociologist
But inside of the home the opposite trend has occurred. In this domain, today’s kids have more freedom. Parents
Why did this happen?
During the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there was a huge increase in the importance parents place on academic achievement. Markella’s research shows that, as we have become more and more concerned with instilling the value of learning, we’ve started to care less about teaching responsibility.
The chore chart is a perfect example of this.
In fact, the chore chart is a relatively new invention, but it is a symptom of a much deeper change that has taken place during the past 50 years in the way parents approach responsibility. The study found that, while parents in the 1940’s expected their children to participate in all kinds of household chores from planning meals, shopping, cooking, and cleaning to maintenance, woodworking, and yard work, parents today see schoolwork as a child’s main job.
With this shift came the entrance of the chore chart. Up until the end of the 50’s, children were expected to pitch in with all household chores and the only reward needed was “pride in a job well done.” But today parents almost universally rely on external rewards to motivate their kids to do chores. This includes allowance and points that can be cashed in for prizes or money.
This is why many parents turn to the chore chart.
But the bribes are clearly not working. Today, while 82% of parents report that they were required to do chores as a child, only 28% say they require their own children to do any, according to a recent study.
Why am I making such a big deal out of this? Who cares if kids aren’t doing as many chores today? Well, it isn’t just my personal opinion; science proves that chores are a good thing for kids. Decades of studies confirm that chores lead to positive outcomes later in life. For instance, consider the research of Marty Rossman. She spent about 30 years studying the same group of kids all the way through young adulthood and she found that the ones whose parents gave them chores starting at ages 3-4 were more successful during their mid-20’s, had better relationships, and were better adjusted.
Yes, chores are good for kids.
So then what’s the problem with using a chore chart to motivate them a bit?
Why a Chore Chart Won’t Work
One of the most famous studies in the history of social psychology was conducted by Edward Deci of the University of Rochester in 1972. Fascinated by the concept of motivation, Deci recruited a group of students and had them work on a difficult puzzle. Some of the students got paid for solving the puzzle correctly while others just did it for free. Then he left them alone for 8 minutes while a second researcher watched them secretly through a one-way mirror.
The students who had been paid for completing the puzzle showed little interest in playing with it during their free time. Those who had done it for free spent significantly more of the 8 minutes working on the puzzle voluntarily. Deci realized that payment had reduced intrinsic motivation.
Fast-forward to the present day.
In a more recent paper, a pair of economists from Princeton and MIT followed up on Deci’s groundbreaking work, analyzing the hidden costs of paying people to do things.
One of the problems they uncovered is known as diminished task attractiveness. Here’s how it works. When you pay teens or use a chore chart to reward them for doing chores, they internalize the message that chores are not fun. You are subconsciously communicating to them that helping out around the house is so lame they shouldn’t do it unless they are paid.
For the rest of their lives they will see chores as unattractive.
Another consequence these economists uncovered is reduced self-esteem. Studies show that when a child does a chore without being paid it has a positive impact on his or her self image. The child thinks, “I am a helper,” and “I am a good person.” But when children are paid for doing work, even if they do an excellent job, this effect disappears. In fact, their self-esteem actually suffers.
A chore chart causes kids to internalize that they are motivated by money.
Many parents think that paying their children for doing chores is a good thing because it teaches money management skills. I point out in my article about underage drinking that my research shows that parents often hold misconceptions about what is best for their teens. The myth about money management is one of those misconceptions.
Here’s What You
Can Do Instead
First, you need to consider how you are assigning chores to your kids. Parents today are often unfair in the way they distribute chores around the house. Studies show that girls spend 30% more time doing housework than boys and are 15% less likely to receive allowance for their chores.
So fairness is critical.
One possible strategy that some families use is a chore rotation, where different kids are assigned different chores each week or each month. But this approach is not ideal.
I don’t recommend assigning chores to your kids at all.
To understand why, consider a study I just completed a few months ago. I created a website that gave teenagers information about alcohol, which was designed to reduce their drinking. For some of the kids, I programmed the website to tell them that they had been assigned to receive the information about alcohol. For others, I programmed it to display a slot machine-style spinner in which 8 different topics whirled by for a few seconds before it “randomly” stopped on alcohol.
Which group of students do you think responded better?
Yep, you guessed it. When I followed up with the kids a few weeks later, the ones who “randomly” got alcohol feedback had reduced their drinking significantly more than the ones who were “assigned” to get it. But the feedback was exactly the same in both conditions! So what happened?
People, and especially children and teenagers, are resistant to anything that impinges on our freedom. Numerous studies have confirmed this over the years. But my research shows that using random chance reduces or even completely eliminates these defensive reactions.
This is one of the major problems with a chore chart.
When you use a chore chart, you are telling your kids exactly what they need to do in order to gain a reward. This is a threat to their freedom. They might comply with your demands in order to get the prize, but they definitely aren’t going to like it.
Instead, try using an element of random chance.
Keep a list pinned to the fridge or a bulletin board in a prominent place like the kitchen. On this list, keep track of the things that need to get done around the house. Importantly, allow and encourage anyone in the family to add items to the list as they see fit.
Next, select a time when the family will do chores. This could be once a week, like an hour every Saturday afternoon. Or it could be three times a week, like 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Or even daily, like 15 minutes each evening at a certain time. It doesn’t matter when or how long, just that all family members are available during this time to do some chores.
When the time arrives, sit down together and look over the list. Instead of assigning the various tasks to family members, or writing the tasks on a chore chart, introduce a random element. For instance, you could have everyone roll dice and let whoever rolls the highest number pick a chore. Or you could write the chores on slips of paper and have people draw them out of a hat. Make it fun.
Trust me. Hold off on the chore chart and give this a try instead. Unlike the chore chart or a chore rotation, this approach is actually based on scientific research. But remember:
Parents have to participate in this as well.
This is critical. If you try to force your kids to do chores without doing them yourself it will invoke a concept I discussed earlier: diminished task attractiveness. Your kids will get the message that chores are not really as good or attractive as you say they are. Parents are not exempt from this ritual!
I get it. You work all day and drive your kids around and coordinate their schedules and spend thousands of dollars taking care of their every need. So why should you have to actually do chores together with them? It doesn’t seem fair.
But think about it from your child’s point of view. They have busy lives too. Depending on their age they likely have school, homework, sports practices, clubs, and organizations to attend. By exempting yourself from chores, you communicate to them that your responsibilities are more important than theirs. This will invoke the other concept I talked about earlier: reduced self-esteem.
Getting Your Teen
to Accept This
If you’ve been using a chore chart up until now, or assigning chores some other way, this will be an easy transition. Your kids will love the idea of you joining in and making chores into a game.
But if you haven’t been requiring your kids to do many chores (or any at all) this can seem like a difficult sell. How do you break it to them that you’re going to start requiring them to do a lot more work?
There are a few different ways to approach this conversation. For some helpful tips on how to talk to a teenager about difficult topics like this, claim your 5-day free trial for our interactive online course here. It’s free. Also, before you have any important talk with your teen be sure to listen to my podcast episode about Putting Yourself in the Right Space to Talk to Your Teen.