How to Give Your Kids Proper Guidance on Chores

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I follow you on Facebook, and love what you shared about kids who do chores being healthier and stronger people than kids that don’t do chores. I now have my 7 and 9 year-old doing chores, but they are so terrible at doing them that I think it would be easier to just do the chores myself. What am I doing wrong? -Christie, Moscow, Idaho


Kids sometimes can’t do things because they’re kind of dumb, and their little brains are stupid.

Let me be more clinical so that everyone can be more comfortable: certain tasks may be difficult or impossible for children to complete without proper adult supervision and guidance, depending upon the child’s developmental level.

You probably already know that you need to give some support to your kids with some of their chores, but there are right and wrong ways to do this. The wrong way is to reteach the exact same thing over and over when they do it wrong or incompletely. The problem is that the parent who is constantly reteaching how to do a chore quickly finds themselves working harder at towel folding retraining (for example) than the towel folder is working at towel folding.

In actuality, kids are nowhere near as dumb as they may want us to believe. In fact, they are quite smart and don’t need to be told things over and over. They are also pretty sophisticated and very good at wearing out their parents with faux-incompetence (just like husbands). Both kids and husbands often realize quickly that if they can just appear to be incompetent enough, the parent (or wife) will do the chore themselves, because it “would be easier”, as you put it. This is only true in the short term.

The key is to properly support kids while they do a chore while letting them know (with your actions, not words) that you will never, ever do their chores for them, and that you will give them the least amount of support possible so that they will still be able to complete the task with a maximum amount of effort.*

*A good indicator of the required effort level being appropriate is that your kid is tired and annoyed at having to work so hard by the end of the task.

Here’s how I would guide your kids to properly unload the dishwasher after having already given the instructions on how to do so (once). Notice how many questions I ask and how many demands I make.

Kid #1 is stacking clean plates on the counter instead of putting them in the cupboard LIKE I JUST TOLD HIM TO DO!

Kid Whisperer: Where do those go??

Kid #1: I don’t know.

Kid Whisperer: Yikes. Not knowing things is hard.

Kid #1: Yep.

Kid Whisperer: What’s your problem currently?

Kid #1: I’m not tall enough to put these plates in the cupboard.

Kid Whisperer: Hurumph. Do you know anyone else whose job it is to put that plate away who is tall enough?

Kid #1 turns to Kid #2, who has been standing six inches away for this entire conversation and is currently staring intently at his own foot, and hands him the plate. Kid #2 puts away the plate and begins putting away all of the other plates on the counter.

Kid Whisperer: Have you guys come up with a teamwork system that you can use to get this done?

Kid #2: But I don’t enjoy this.

Kid Whisperer: When will you be able to do other things?

Kid #2: When we are done putting away dishes.

Kid Whisperer: Which would work best, to do this safely and slowly, or safely and quickly?

Kid #1: Safely and quickly!

(Questions: 6, Demands: 0)

As Kids #s 1 and 2 work, remember that making demands of them implies that their work is your responsibility (it isn’t). Also, demands will raise your heartrate and will make it more likely that your kids will be annoyed by you. Just use questions to prompt them. “What’s next?” and “Where does that go?” can work wonders. As your kids get better at their chores, you can ask fewer questions, and eventually not be involved at all. Make sure they can’t move on with their lives until they have taken care of their responsibilities, according to your exacting specifications.