Recently my oldest teenage son spent a good chunk of his weekend shovelling and moving earth by the wheelbarrow-fulls for a landscaping project. A neighbour with a similar aged son took me aside to ask how we got our son to do that- did we pay him? No, I answered, we just asked him to do it.

My neighbour’s not the only one to ask. Parents ask me all the time:

How do you raise kids who are helpful and responsible? Here’s how…

1. Start young. When your toddler wants to help with everything from putting clothes in the washer to vacuuming, it can be tempting to say no and just do it all ourselves. It is WAY easier to get less ‘help’ from small children than to let them help. The problem is, if we don’t let them help when they want to, they won’t want to help later. (If you want to read more about this, here’s a great article about it) Even if it’s more work for you and takes longer, try to let your small child help you as much as possible. You are growing a future actually-helpful person! 

2. Do chores together and make it fun. In other words, don’t make it a chore! Put on music, throw toys in their bins to get points, have a race. With older kids, do tasks next to each other and make it the quiet time of day where you can listen and pay attention to your child.

3. Give choices. No one likes to be bossed around. Give choices about what: “Would you like to put out the silverware or the plates?” “Do you want to sweep or clear the table?” and when: “Do you want to walk the dog before lunch or after?”

4. Don’t expect perfection. We have to be careful not to be too controlling and make the interaction a negative one. If you really need to get them to do something again or better, thank them for what they’ve already done and help them fix anything that needs fixing with a positive attitude. They WILL get better- with time and practice.

5. Don’t tie chores to money. Our children should be helping because they are part of the family team. It’s fine to offer ‘above and beyond’ chores if your child wants to earn extra money- but the regular family jobs are just because ‘We all do things to help the family.” (If you set this expectation, you’ll get a teenager who will move earth all weekend for free.) Plus, if you pay your child $1 to empty the dishwasher, one day they may decide they have enough money and no, thank you!

6. Have age appropriate expectations. Little jobs for little kids, bigger jobs for bigger kids. Here’s a great age friendly chore list.

7. Provide scaffolding. Scaffolding is the support they need to be successful and do a job well. Your child might need you to break down the steps of cleaning their room (or help them!) “First, let’s pick up all the clothes and put them away or in the dirties. Next, let’s pick up all the books.” And so on.

8. Make it feel good. Thank them for helping. Notice how tidy everything looks. Try to notice and appreciate, rather than praise*. Mastery (pride in a a job well-done) and an intrinsic motivation to help (learning that doing something well and helping feel good) are what makes ‘helpful’ and ‘responsible’ character traits.

9. Expect to have to remind them. (Let’s call it reminding, not nagging!) Your agenda is not their agenda. Even if you do everything above, your child most likely will still drag their feet and try to get out of it. That’s okay! Try to keep your sense of humour about it and ‘get in their face in a friendly way.’ “hey kiddo! The dishes might start to grow a fungus that will enable them to get up and walk around the house soon! When can I expect them to get washed?” Your child will eventually learn that there is no getting out of it! You’re not going to give up and do it yourself. (Right?)

10. Avoid power struggles. If your child is really tired or having a hard time, try not to be rigid and dig your heels in. Help them out if they need it. And once in a while, it’s okay to give them a pass. How would you like your partner to respond if you really didn’t want to do a thing you normally do?

11. Give them something to look forward to. “After we get our work done, we can all…” (play a game, do a fun activity, go to the park, etc. 

12. Ask for help to solve the problem. If you are experiencing a lot of push back and resistance (and you’re doing all the suggestions above) have a problem-solving session. “Guys, it’s important that we all chip in and clean up our messes and do our jobs to help the family. I notice we’ve been arguing a lot about it and it really doesn’t feel good! Does anyone have any ideas for how we can change this?” Kids often have brilliant ideas! There is a lovely article about this here.

13. Think long-term. As I noted above, helping with chores give children a sense of pride and accomplishment and encourages them to become helpful and responsible people. Helping the family gives also children a sense of belonging and importance. They are part of something bigger than they are, the family team. This sense of belonging is crucial as your child grows up and moves out into the world.

Do kids have to have a ‘regular’ job? If it works for your family, great. I find sometimes kids aren’t home when I need something done and then “it’s his job!” becomes an issue. So we agreed that some jobs are designated (the 14 YO is on compost, garbage and recycling, the 11 YO is on dishwasher) but if people aren’t home, someone else has to do it. On the weekend, I write a list and they divide it up themselves. Some experimenting in this area might be necessary.

What if they refuse?

:: Work on your relationship! Defiance is often a relationship problem. Kids who feel connected will help out because they want to help YOU even if they don’t want to do the thing.

:: Talk about repercussions. NOTE: not punishment! Natural consequences happen without you getting involved. The idea isn’t to make your child feel bad, but to help them see what happens when jobs don’t get done. “If no one empties the dishes, we won’t have any clean dishes to use.” “If no one takes out the garbage, it’s going to start to smell really bad.” “If we don’t clean up our toys, they are going to get lost, broken and stepped on.” (for that one, I would say, very kindly, “We can’t take out so many toys if no one is going to clean them up.”)

Be patient and consistent with the strategies above (even when it’s easier to just do it yourself!) and someday you’ll be able to leave a list of chores for your kids while you go out for the day on a Saturday – and no one will complain. And maybe occasionally you’ll find the dinner dishes done or the bathroom cleaned without asking (Really!)

*Confused about praise vs. appreciation? Praise is how WE feel about our child. Appreciation lets them decide how they feel about themselves. True high self-esteem is what we think about ourselves, not about what others think of us. More on that here.

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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 12, 15, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com