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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)