Kids And Chores: Five Tips for Painless Participation

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

First, a baseline: we are not a punishment-reward family.

I have never issued a time-out, withheld a reward on account of “bad behavior”, or grounded a teenager. On the flip side, I have never given my kids an allowance, or rewarded them with screen time, money, or other special prizes for pitching in around the house. I am not proposing that this is the best way to do things or because I think I deserve a peaceful parenting gold star, but to simply provide a starting point for what comes below below.

While I didn’t always expect my kids to participate in the running of our house, I do today.

Without punishment; without rewards.

The truth is, they didn’t always pitch in.

When they were small, my kids (like most kids) were eager to jump in and sweep, mop, cook, and hang laundry. But their enthusiasm gradually faded as they grew older. By the time they were 10 and 6 I began to notice the imbalance. Though they were big enough to help out, they were gradually moving away from their constant-helper-at-my-side role and slipping off to read and play instead of cook or clean.

The drudgery of doing the work alone was wearing on me, and we were frequently buried in unfolded laundry and dirty dishes as Pete or I hurriedly cooked dinner and wondered how we’d get it all done. I realized it was ridiculous that the adults were doing everything with two capable kids at home, and decided that I needed more participation from them. But I was unsure how it would unfold.

Was punishment and reward necessary for participation? I was hoping not, but I didn’t know what to expect.

I believe that punishment-and-reward strategies are destined to backfire. When they play into our decisions, cost-benefit analyses are made, and decisions become based on either securing a reward or avoiding a punishment, rather than making good choices or doing the right thing. And I didn’t want that to muddy the waters of my family and home.

And so cautiously, I began a “participation without coercion” experiment to see if my kids would jump in and help. They did! I was elated.

Mowing lawns, cooking meals, cleaning the house: they were eager to help and readily jumped in day after day, voluntarily doing their part with the day-to-day work of running a house.

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

Until they weren’t.

Until it got old and they were more keen on books or play than mopping the floor.

If I’m being honest I would admit to feeling frustrated. (Very!) It seemed the whole experiment was a failure. Like the only way to ensure participation was with a power-over strategy, which appealed to me exactly not at all. Ack. This was not the outcome I was banking on. So I paused, regrouped, restrategized.

It took us a while to find a new groove, but finally we did.

And while it looked slightly more coercive/less peaceful than I originally envisioned, the long game has been a benefit for my kids far beyond my expectations.

The upshot? There is still no punishment; no reward. It is also not an opt-in/opt-out arrangement. Instead, the expectation that this is what we do. It takes a family to run a family. And everyone needs to do their part.

And just as buckling your seatbelt in the car is not optional, the same goes for pitching in. Boom. Done.

No need for rainbow sprinkles or sparkly confetti. It’s just everyone quietly doing their part.

No drama, no fuss.

Do they always love it? Of course not. Is there occasional drama? Sure. We’re human. But are they almost always willing to pitch in and pull their weight? Absolutely. I feel the same about my work in this family. We might not be excited for the opportunity to scrub the toilet, but we’re grateful for a clean toilet once it’s done.

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

Last night, Sage (now 15) was in charge of dinner. He groaned as he set to work chopping onions mincing garlic, and steaming cauliflower. But then, ever so subtly, there was a palpable shift. He was bright, focused, cheerful. “Are you having fun?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied (in a “well, duh, of course I am ” sort of tone), placing a pan of homemade meatballs in the oven. And he meant it. He was having fun.

He just needed a little nudge. Like we all do now and again.

The rest of the night he was upbeat. Because: he made our dinner. And I believe that participating in the work of the family, knowing how capable you are, and (bonus!) getting some props for a delicious dinner feels good to almost everyone.

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

It’s been five years since my first tentative steps into punishment-and-reward-free participation in chores, and here is what I have learned along the way.

Participating in housework makes kids better citizens of our home.

“Can everyone please line their boots up where they belong in the mudroom? I just mopped in there and it’s already a mess.”

Hearing words like this uttered from my children’s mouths never ceases to delight me. Participating in housekeeping raises their awareness of how easily things can spin out of control. If you wash the dishes each day, you are less likely to leave leftovers on your plate when you clear them for someone else to wash. Without participating, children (like anyone) will live in a more self-centered world view that doesn’t benefit them or those they love.

It takes a family to run a family

This sentence is what I’ve been telling my kids for the past five years. The grown-ups can’t do this alone. And more importantly, we shouldn’t have to. When everyone pitches in it creates a more balanced family dynamic and models respect for every member of the team.

A job for everyone

Even the youngest child can help fold washcloths, put away silverware, or place napkins around the table. And when children help out they know that their contributions matter. They grow up knowing that the their work in the family has value. What a powerful lesson at any age! As my kids have gotten older their jobs have grown up with them. Instead of only setting the table they have moved into washing dishes after every meal and cooking for our family at least once a week (usually more). Sage once only mowed the lawn or shoveled snow, but today he also carries in the day’s worth or firewood each morning. Etcetera.

Self-reliance feels good 

I will be the first to admit that I haven’t always nurtured self-reliance. I’m a softie, and when you ask for help I’m fairly sure to give it. But allowing my kids to be more self-reliant has been one of the best choices I have made, resulting in more capable, confident, independent kids. And when we stop to reflect that we’re really raising future adults (versus present-day kids), that feels like the best choice I can make.

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

Ready to get your kids to pitch in, but want to avoid punishment and reward? Here are five tips to get you there.

1. Start slow

Don’t expect your kids to jump in and sweep floors, wash the laundry, and cook dinner every night just because you mentioned a desire for more participation. Begin with a single small daily task, then gradually add more over time. Expecting too much at once guarantees mutiny.

And reevaluate. As my kids have gotten older we’ve gradually gone from one small task per day to a full daily tasks list. We’ve added, but we’ve also subtracted. When a child is struggling with a task (because it’s “gross”, difficult, or boring, for example), switch things up. None of this is set in stone, and your flexibility will go miles toward making this easy for everyone.

2. Choose together

Rather than tell your kids what task you expect them to do each day, tell them you need everyone to pitch in, then let them decide how. Come up with a list (together) of all the work that needs doing. Then let them choose what they want to do most. While in the short-term this could result in a bit less benefit for you, in the long-run it’s a win. Because your child will learn to participate with less resistance and more joy. This makes it easier on everyone going forward, and eases the flow of adding more responsibilities down the road.

3. Lower your standards

Let’s be honest. Towels folded by a 4 year old will not look like towels folded by a 34 year old. The same applies to table settings, bed makings, and floor sweepings. Resist the urge to “fix” your child’s work, and allow them to take pride in doing a job to the best of their abilities. If the messy towels freak you out every time you open the linen closet, consider it an opportunity to practice the art of allowing and your favorite deep breathing strategy. After they have done the task for a few of weeks, help them up their game by gently teaching them a few techniques.

4. Raise the fun factor

Work ≠ drudgery. Do what it takes to make it fun for your everyone to participate. Crank some tunes, tell each other jokes, play air guitar with your mop. Planning something fun for after a big task is finished is another motivator. Reading a book after washing the dishes; going for a walk while the freshly mopped floors dry, that sort of thing. If this looks mildly like a reward, so be it. If we have a big housecleaning day, we often follow it with a homemade pizza night or a fun family outing. I don’t set this up in a cause-and-effect context, but use it instead as encouragement. “Let’s get this work done so that we can head out for a ski!”

5. Remember the long game

Sometimes having kids help means a bit more work in the short term. Teaching them how to do a particular task, reminding them to complete their work, and breathing through your desire to have it done your way are all challenging in the moment. But the long game is that you are raising future adults who will notice when someone around them is carrying more than their share of the burden. And you’re raising adults who land in their first apartment or house knowing how to cook, clean, take out the trash, and otherwise run a home. Keep this vision in mind when things get sticky along the way.

Kids and chores: five tips to get them to pitch in painlessly. (No punishment - no reward!)

Today I have kids who daily or weekly: wash the dishes, cook meals, do laundry, split and haul firewood, care for farm animals, and clean the house. At 11 and 15 they are nearly as strong (or stronger!) than me, and can carry their weight as well as I can.

They aren’t “helping”. They are participating. Because this is their home, too. And we all share the responsibility of keeping it humming along smoothly.

It’s like I always said: it takes a family to run a family.

No punishment, no reward. Just the expectation that everyone will participate. Because, like buckling our seatbelts or chewing with our mouths closed, it’s simply what we do.

Cue the confetti! (I’m kidding.)

Kids and Chores: five steps for painless participation. (Without bribery, punishment, or coercion!)

101 (fun!) Toy-free Gift Ideas for Kids

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean | www.lusaorganics.typepad.com101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |

Are you inspired to have a more simple holiday with a little less excess at the end of the season? Especially when it comes to your children?

You’re not alone.

Since I shared these two posts to inspire more simple celebrations and to share our family’s almost toy-free journey, I’ve gotten several emails asking for a bit more guidance.

Less toys? Yes! Less clutter? Please! Less consumption? Amen.

These ideas are easy to get on board with until it’s time to wrap presents or stuff stockings.

But then what?

Right. That’s when it gets sticky.

So my then 8 and 12 year-olds and I worked up a list of 101 fun, toy-free (and many clutter-free, consumption-free, stuff-free!) gifts to give to your littles this season.


Remember: just because it’s a new idea for your crew doesn’t mean it won’t be fan-freaking-tastic. You might find that you all love it more than you ever imagined.

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |

A few thoughts before we embark:

  1. We often go overboard in our culture. Way overboard. I’m as guilty of this as the next. But when I started to pull back on the gifts (and the toys) I expected my kids to be a bit disappointed. At least at first. But they weren’t. The first low-stuff year was voted the “best Solstice ever” by them both (That was the year they each received an ornament and a love coupon.) Go slowly and see how it feels to everyone. This isn’t a formula for a better way to do anything. It’s just how we do things around here. It might be a fit, it might not. Be open to either option.
  2. Consider making a gift of something you might do anyway. It sounds silly, but if you child wants to take a class or go to camp, why not give that as a holiday gift? It would surely be appreciated. And your budget will be so darn happy about it.
  3. And finally, consider the child. What does your little one love? What makes them tick? I’m betting it’s not only toys. Craft a gift that suits their passions. Because these are the gifts they will remember. A train-obsessed two year old would flip for a ride on a real train or a visit to a train museum. And a ballet-obsessed six year old would be wild with anticipation to see a ballet rehearsal or performance. You get the idea.

Many of the gifts listed below are items I have actually given my kids through the years. Obviously you have to consider the age and interests of your child, but this is a solid jumping-off place.

But enough chatter. Let’s get to it. (A handful of links follow. Some are afflinks, others are simply links to our favorite shops or products we love.)


101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


These are among our family’s favorite gifts – to give, to receive, and to cash in!

  1. Gift certificate to the skating rink
  2. Gift certificate to restaurant, cafe, or ice cream shop
  3. Movie theatre tickets
  4. Museum membership
  5. Love coupons for special dates together (one per month or one per season would be fun!)
  6. Music or dance lessons
  7. Tickets to a play, a concert, or the ballet
  8. Horseback riding lessons
  9. Magazine subscription
  10. Sparkle Stories subscription
  11. Gift certificate to summer camp
  12. Sleepover party “gift certificate”
  13. Media time tokens (if children receive limited screen time in your home)
  14. Home pizza party coupon
  15. Breakfast in bed gift certificate
  16. “Coupon” for an night at a hotel with a pool with a parent and a friend
  17. Certificate (homemade is great!) for a performance or special event (a play, midway tickets for the county fair, etc.)

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


My kids have been busy in the kitchen since they could stand on a step stool at the counter. For this reason special kitchen-related gifts are always met with enthusiasm. (And yes, treats are too.)

  1. Child-sized tea cup or dishes set (we’ve found some lovely vintage pieces at the second hand store that have been loved for many years)
  2. Recipe and ingredients for a special dessert
  3. Tea party dishes and “coupon” for a fancy tea party with a friend
  4. Fresh fruit, dried fruit, or fruit leather
  5. Chocolate
  6. Homemade cocoa mix
  7. Cookbook
  8. Candle for the dinner table
  9. Homemade or purchased placemat
  10. Travel cup or drinking mason jar (my DIY drinking jar tutorial is here, or I have an already made version available here with your choice of closure.)
  11. Nuts in the shell and a nut cracker (we adore this version!)
  12. Personalized cloth napkin
  13. Homemade or purchased apron
  14. Child-sized kitchen tools
  15. Recipe box with favorite recipes and blank recipe cards

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


Get out there! To the county park, to your backyard, anywhere. Even if you live in the city many of these gifts can be used at your nearby park or even on your patio.

  1. Herbal Adventures, my new herb book for kids!
  2. Garden tools, seeds, small pots, and potting soil
  3. Rope, pulleys, and other open-ended hardware store treasures
  4. Pocket knife (we love this knife with it’s built-in fire starter, but this one is nice as well and has a blunted tip for younger kids)
  5. Snowshoes
  6. Skis
  7. S’more ingredients and a winter campfire coupon
  8. Nature exploration kit (magnifying glass, bird call, field guide, bug boxes, plant press, butterfly net, etc.)
  9. Sunprint paper
  10. Ice skates
  11. Treasure bag or backpack for nature walks
  12. Water bottle and snack pouch
  13. Headlamp (We love this model. Unlike other brands, they last for years!)
  14. Fire starting kit
  15. Sleeping bag and bedroll
  16. Certificate for back yard camp out with a parent
  17. Fort-making supplies
  18. Gift certificate to your local hardware store
  19. Tinkering kit – hammer, nails, screwdriver, screws, and wood

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


Crafting is our number one way to spend a day. That makes crafty gifts a natural win.

  1. Play dough ingredients and recipe
  2. Glitter, glue, sparkles, scissors, tape, glue gun
  3. Beading or jewelry supplies
  4. Stamp pad for thumb-print stamps
  5. Colored pencils (these have been our favorites since our teen was tiny!)
  6. Watercolor paints
  7. Sketch book
  8. Pencil sharpener
  9. Acrylic paints, brushes, and paint mixing tray
  10. Sewing supplies
  11. Markers
  12. Potholder loom
  13. Yarn and knitting needles
  14. Calligraphy pen
  15. Modeling wax
  16. Scratch board and tools
  17. Candle rolling kit
  18. Peg dolls (we buy ours from here), paints and perhaps a peg doll book
  19. Fimo or other bead-making clay
  20. Paper bead making supplies and instructions
  21. Washi tape
  22. Needle felting kit
  23. Embroidery book, needles, thread, and fabric

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


Simple things can be gifts too. When I was a child I think Santa brought me new socks and underwear every year!

  1. Mittens
  2. Hat
  3. Scarf
  4. Wool socks (we adore Goodhew and Darn Tough brands)
  5. Slippers
  6. Pajamas
  7. Analog watch

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


For some kids a spa gift is heaven on earth. Read those labels though, won’t you? Go with the good stuff. (Disclaimer: shameless self-promotion to follow.)

  1. Lip balm
  2. Soap
  3. Bubble bath
  4. Natural perfume
  5. Face pencils
  6. Body glitter roll-on
  7. Jewelry
  8. Jewelry box
  9. Non-toxic nail polish
  10. “Spa night at home” coupon and supplies for pampering (quality/nontoxic/synthetic fragrance- and preservative-free soap, sugar scrub, moisturizer, etc.)
  11. DIY body care kit (we offer a DIY organic Lip Balm kit that’s clean + fun, and my DIY natural perfume kit tutorial is here.

101 toy-free gift ideas to simplify your holiday | Clean |


These didn’t fit anywhere else. But all are fun, so there you go.

  1. Bath crayons
  2. Personalized pillowcase
  3. Books of every sort! A few of our favorite read-aloud books can be found here, and field guides, craft books, and my children’s herb book are delightful bookshelf additions as well.
  4. Homemade or purchased holiday ornament
  5. Deck of playing cards
  6. Board games
  7. Geode
  8. Stationary
  9. Photo album or homemade story book of the child’s life so far

Tell me – are you inspired to go toy-free this year? What would you add to our list

Originally published in 2014 on Rachel Wolf CLEAN.


101 toy-free gift ideas for kids

101 toy-free gift ideas for kids

Backyard forts (or: let’s not overthink this)

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

I spent one evening this weekend searching Pinterest for the perfect backyard tent to make with my kids.

And I found some charming designs. Wooden frames, hemmed fabrics, grommets, twinkle lights – the works.

Every one was picture-perfect.

And as I closed my laptop I decided that we wouldn’t make backyard tents this weekend after all.

Because I had no bamboo poles, dowels, or 1×2’s. I only had two grommets, and no yard after yard of perfect fabric to cut and sew into a tent. And frankly, no ambition to take on a six hour craft project after weeding eighteen thousand thistle plants out of my strawberry bed.


Don’t get me wrong. I adore Pinterest. I find great inspiration there. But sometimes what I see is all a bit beyond my reach.


And then as I looked out on my kids playing in the backyard I realized what was happening.

It was the perfection myth bubbling up again.

The false idea that if it isn’t photogenic it isn’t worth doing.

That if it isn’t perfect it isn’t enough.


What nonsense.

I wasn’t going to play that game.

We were building forts, dang it.


So instead of going back to Pinterest I went to the linen closet. I pulled out some old bedsheets, blankets, and table cloths.

I went to the barn and gathered all the bailing twine we pulled off the hay bales last winter.

I grabbed my pocket knife and we set to work.

Not Pinterest-style, but old school. Like what I built when I was a kid with only my imagination to guide me.


And we did it. In one afternoon.

Two fabulous, simple – and yes – imperfect play forts.

Total cost: $0.

Total time: 5 minutes for Lupine’s, all afternoon for Sage’s as he tweaked and modified and tricked his out again and again.

And the play value? Fan-freaking-tastic.


Want to make one, too? It’s easy. Really.

You can squeeze it between the sidewalk and your garage, tuck one in the corner of your patio, or set it up in the woods. Be where you are and use what you’ve got.

Heck, you could even make one without a yard if you screwed a couple of lag bolts into your living room walls and anchored the corners with bean bags or duct tape.

And, of course, it doesn’t need to be perfect. (But you already knew that.)

So grab your kids, some old sheets, and get outside.

Here’s what to do:

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.

Make a simple backyard play fort | Clean.


  • Large bedsheet, table cloth, or other sturdy fabric
  • Rope, twine, or clothesline
  • Knife or scissors for rope
  • Tent stakes or a few strong sticks
  • Four small rocks
  • Clothespins (optional)
  • Blanket and pillows for the ground (optional)



1. Find the biggest flat sheet you can spare for the day or the week or forever. (You can still use them for sheets as for this basic version there’s not need to cut or sew it.)

2. Run a strongish rope, clothesline, or spliced lengths of bailing twine tightly between two trees, a tree and an eye bolt on your house, or your fence and playhouse. Whatever you’ve got that will hold the weight of a sheet. Be creative! Set the height based on the size of your sheet (smaller sheet = lower line). Ours is a full sheet and set set it at waist/chest height.

3. Suspend your sheet along this rope. The sheet above is centered but you could also hang it off-center for a more one-sided shelter. If needed use spring clothespins to secure your fabric.

4. Sage suggests tucking a small rock into each sheet corner and tie a rope or piece of twine tightly around the rock. (The rock will keep the corners from slipping out.)

5. Secure to a tent stake, root, tree trunk, or stick pushed into the earth. Angle the stake back toward the tent to keep it from pulling out.

6. Trick it out with doors, windows, walls, tree branch supports – whatever inspires you or your kids. (Optional)

7. Line with a blanket or pile of pillows if you wish, and get in there and play!


There. Now aren’t you glad you didn’t get disouraged by those pretty, fancy play tents?

Me, too.

Take that, perfection.


Originally published in 2014 on CLEAN.

Easy DIY play forts (that anyone can build!)