Wednesday, December 2, 2009


or, Get to work, kid!

I’m a big believer in chores. Of course, they’re there whether I believe in them or not, but I believe in making my kids do as many of them as possible. Part of this is just practicality – it takes a lot more work to maintain a house with five people than it did when there were just two of us, and four of those people are complete slobs. Err, I mean three of them are. Just the kids, of course. Yes, my wife reads my blog.

Anyway, if all five of those people can contribute to cleaning up, it obviously makes the work load less burdensome for everybody. But I think there are bigger reasons for my kids to do their chores. One of the reasons I can only hope will actually pan out, but the other is all but certain. The latter being that I want my kids to know how to do chores. There’s nothing complicated about cleaning a toilet or vacuuming a carpet – they’re not great mysteries to be magically unveiled when you’re all grown up and finally decide to act like an adult. A hundred years ago, kids well under ten were vital members of the household, responsible for the smooth operation of their parents’ farm or business. Granted, in some cases they were supporting the burgeoning second industrial revolution by having their fingers ripped off by steam-powered looms, but even then at least they were being productive with their time.

My kids have a regimen that includes cleaning the toilets, sinks, counters and mirrors in the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms. They also vacuum the carpets on the main floor, and take out the garbage on trash day. None of these chores are particularly onerous, but at least they can’t ever say that they don’t know how.

The other goal is more lofty and less certain. I’d like it if my kids gained some sense of personal responsibility for maintaining their domicile. I’d love it if they felt some compulsion to carry their share of the burden in maintaining our shared residence. I’d be ecstatic if they felt like giving back to their parents for all we do for them by taking on some of our labor and helping us out. So far, I’ve seen not even the most minimal evidence that these sorts of thoughts have entered their minds. In fact, while they’ve demonstrated that they’re more than capable of doing these and other chores entirely unassisted, they will whine and moan to my wife if she’s home until she agrees to help them by doing some of the work for them.

So we’ve got a long way to go on that one. Which concerns me – I know there are kids in the world who are capable of thinking of others before themselves, of greeting the world with a sense of charity instead of entitlement. I just don’t know how to instill those values in my kids. We try to lead by example – we certainly do for them all day every day, largely without complaint, but they don’t seem to make the connection. We donate to charity, particularly to the Rescue Mission, and we involve them when we do, but they don’t seem to feel any desire to imitate us through their own generosity.

So, I don’t appeal to their altruism. But neither do I conscript them and compel them by force of will or force of arms to execute their duties. Instead, I essentially bribe them. But I don’t really trust them with actual money just yet, so I created my own household currency.

This is a picture of a Chore Card. I created a whole deck of them, one for each of my two older kids. The youngest will get his deck sometime in the next year or so. There are approximately 100 points that could be earned, per kid, in a given week.

This is a picture of a Reward Card. There’s a separate stack of these, which the kids can earn by redeeming their chore points. When I designed these cards, I did it with the idea that as a stretch goal each kid might earn between 80% and 100% of their possible chore points in a given week (although most chores are do-able only once a week total, not once per kid, so both kids couldn’t actually earn all of the possible points if the other kid also did chores). I then set the point costs on the reward cards such that the kids could make the equivalent of about $5 per week, or a bit more by aggressively doing their chores.

We’ve been using these cards for about a year now, and that isn’t what happened. In fact, the kids generally earn about 15% of the possible points each week, and that only because I designated certain key chores as “mandatory.” If they fail to do them, they not only don’t earn those points, they actually have double the number of points they could have earned SUBTRACTED from their point totals. EACH. Yeah, I was annoyed, but it was frustrating that they found even a minimal number of chores so onerous that even outright bribery didn’t faze them. And the rewards could be fairly lucrative if they chose to save their points from week to week, culminating in things like dinner at favorite restaurants or even Wii games that I’ve already purchased and which they really want to play.

So let’s recap. Learned how to do chores? Check. Imbued with a sense of charity and personal responsibility? Dismal failure. Susceptible to outright bribery? Nope. That last one may be a plus if they ever get into public service, I suppose. In the meantime, I can at least take solace in the fact that whatever chores they do, for whatever reason they’re doing, is at least one less I have to do myself. I can live with that.


  1. Mike,
    Your kids, as all kids, have a lot of trouble dealing with delayed gratification. Most adults do too. Look at the level of credit card debt in this country.

  2. Don't lament, the whole chore thing is a constant battle for us as well. I have hopes that even though they don't appear to care much now, it is still worth teaching and that it will re-surface later in their lives. That being said, I am going to close their bedroom doors, better for me not to see the mess!

  3. I know, I know, I'm singing the same song as generations of parents going back to the dawn of mankind. I just keep repeating my mantra, "Every chore they do is one less I have to."