The activities that distract kids from chores get more exciting all the time! Between the lure of screens and the frenetic pace of life, mundane tasks can fall between the cracks. It’s no wonder parents come to us wanting to know how to get kids to do chores.
In our role as parent coaches and educators, we often hear that one child in the home struggles a lot more than the other kids, and trying to get that child to do chores can even set off an enormous outburst of anger. And these resistant kids can become increasingly aware of the comparison between themselves and (what they perceive to be) their favored siblings, and discouragement can settle in.
Our decades of helping parents have made it clear – getting unstuck from unhelpful patterns like this starts with an honest look at: “What’s going on in me?” and “What’s going on in my child? What’s it like to be them?”
You may notice your anxiety rising as you work harder to get kids to do chores. “Chores weren’t such a problem when I was a kid. We just did what we were supposed to. Why can’t I make this happen?” Or “What’s wrong with my child?” You may even begin to believe you’re an inept parent or your child is lazy, selfish, or entitled. But if you engage with anxiety, shame, or judgments, it’s a surefire way to keep everyone stuck.
Even the phrase, “Get my kids to do chores,” can be an unhelpful way of framing this challenge. When was the last time you felt encouraged or empowered by someone trying to “get you to do something” you didn’t want to do?
What about if you ditched the pressure of that phrase and reminded yourself of the grace-filled truth that “God understands how hard this is and will partner with you as you grow valuable responsibility in your kids.” Phew. You’re not alone. There’s so much grace in this messy journey! God’s “come-alongside help” is with you every step of the way.
Recent brain science is helping us understand more clearly that the kids who struggle the most with chores are often not determined to be rebellious, defiant, or disobedient. Instead, they naturally have lower levels of the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine. This predisposes them to chase pleasurable distractions of all kinds more intensely. Their need for this chemical is what’s often behind their distraction, and when you call them back to routine chores, they cry, “I don’t wanna do it!”. (Read more about dopamine’s role in ADHD)
What’s the answer?
It’s tempting to get more demanding and firm about rules and consequences. But we’ve found that this isn’t helpful with kids lacking dopamine. This actually tends to stress kids more, and as we discussed in our post, “Are We Dealing Drugs to Our Children,” stress depletes dopamine. Stressed kids may do any number of things to get their chemical “fix.”
It also isn’t helpful to simply brush off expectations and go easier on kids with low dopamine. Your inclination to set clear parameters and high expectations is likely just what they need. But it helps them to see your compassion and understanding and that you’re being intentional about making these tasks less stressful for them.
God designed us to work hard every day and feel good about it. But, it is normal and natural to seek what we consider pleasurable and avoid what we perceive as pain.
Given that truth, how in the world can you motivate kids to do hard work?
Christopher Bergland is an endurance athlete, coach, and author. He states that the secret is to “view struggle and perseverance as a doorway to pleasure” by feeling good about accomplishing something every day.
If we don’t accomplish something every day, it drains our dopamine levels. Bergland offers hope for parents and kids, “Learning and conditioning yourself to self-administer this [dopamine] ‘reward molecule’ every day can turn anyone into a go-getter.” He’s essentially saying that a child must consciously acknowledge (celebrate!) the success of achieving a goal in order to release the dopamine that strengthens perseverance. If you skip that celebration step, there will be no brain change.
Some simple ideas to turn a chore-avoider into a go-getter
Help your child value perseverance
- Share stories: Kids love to hear stories from their parents’ lives. So share examples of times when you’ve persevered and “harvested a good crop” and times when you didn’t! What did you learn? (You can also Google “stories that demonstrate perseverance”; there are many for all age levels!)
- Share scripture: “So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time, we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up or quit.” (Galatians 6:9 MSG) You can ask your kids, “What do you think that means? What is a ‘good crop?’”
- Highlight their success: What are examples of times your child has persevered at something important to them (even if it wasn’t important to you 😉 ) and what was the result?
- Teach kids a “growth mindset”: a child’s brain grows the most when things are difficult*, just like how they build muscles by pedaling up a hill, not coasting down a hill! A book we recommend for ages 5 to 9 is Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.
*Growth mindset is a term that was initially coined by Child Psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized by numerous authors. Her work most closely informs our use of the term.
Set kids up for success
- Make tasks shorter – to be a “just-right-challenge.” Help your child break overwhelming chores into more manageable tasks that can each provide a mini-dopamine burst from a sense of accomplishment. Or ask kids to help with small, more frequent tasks. Researchers studied indigenous families to discover how they raise such eager-to-help kids. They found that parents invited kids to help with small tasks on an average of three times an hour!
- Insert a brief, fun break between small chunks of more extensive tasks. Sometimes our daughter would practice half her piano lesson, then take a five-minute play break on the swing we had hanging in our basement. That gave her the dopamine boost she needed to finish her task.
- Build a dopamine booster into the task, such as music, a snack, or figuring out a new, creative way to do the task. “How could you get the bathroom really clean but do it a little faster this time?” “Could you wipe down the counters while standing on one foot?”
- Encourage your child to be part of the team as your family works together. Whenever possible, try to have a time when your family does chores alongside each other. It’s often easier to get a job done when you know everyone else is doing theirs too!
- Tap into the natural dopamine boost from food – (but not by using it as a reward!) Numerous families find it helpful to have everyone doing their chores right before a meal. Mom or Dad is working at meal prep while others help or work on a different chore. Then you all sit down at dinner or snack together. This increases the dopamine value of accomplishing the task – get it done, and get to the table! Other families, with kids who tend to get “hangry” easily, do much better doing chores after meals, when everyone is well-fed and hopefully in a good mood.
Give kids ownership
- Family meetings can help give kids ownership in figuring out chore rotations because unless a child loves a task, doing it week after week is a sure-fire “dopamine killer.”
- Help your child self-congratulate after each small chunk. This is really important. You can ask questions like, “Wow, what did you get done?” “How is that helpful?” or “How do you feel about that?” Christopher Bergland says, “…when you succeed, get in the habit of saying, ‘Yes! I did it!’ silently or under your breath. Being self-congratulatory isn’t about ego or hubris; it is about harnessing your reward circuitry and tapping your dopamine pipeline.” So teach kids to be “happy of themselves” when they work hard or accomplish something.
Low dopamine levels might explain why one child struggles while another is easily responsible. But it isn’t an excuse to let a child off the hook and cause them to miss learning the value and pleasure in hard work. Working with your child to help raise their dopamine levels might be just what they need to grow the responsibility and perseverance that will serve them well in life.
As you begin to shift away from, “How do I get my child to do chores?” to, “What does my child need to make it easier to enjoy responsibility?” a lot can change. And your child gets the important message, “I am loved and understood”.