Updated: Jul 20, 2020
If you were to look up the word “chore,” you’d find many forms of the same definition: “Chores are tasks that are viewed as boring or unpleasant.” According to my children, chores have a different definition: A way to torture your kids and make them do all of the work. In my family, assigning chores actually became a chore for me! Every time I asked my children to complete a task, it became an argument and the actual completion of the task was delayed as long as possible. My children, much like all of yours, have done some inventive things to get out of chores. Their tactics were relentless and creative. Top five most common chore-avoidance tactics: 1. “I have to go to the bathroom.” Translation: And stay in the restroom until the chores were done. 2. “I don’t know how to do this.” Translation: I am going to mess this up so badly that mom will never ask me to do it again. 3. “I’m done!” Translation: The job was actually only halfway done, in the hopes that I would not notice what they didn’t finish. 4. Sloth. This one is my favorite. (Hopefully, my sarcasm can be intuited from the written word). Translation: Work so slowly that they were hardly moving. Their legs wouldn’t work, their arms were tired, and they “didn’t feel good.” 5. “I always have the most chores.” Translation: They would list all of the reasons why they were picked on and tortured more than their siblings who, they like to point out, were never asked to do anything. When those arguments didn’t work, they would bring out their second line of defense, peer pressure: “None of my other friends have to do chores.” My answer to that “logical” argument was usually an equally “logical” response: “I’m sad your friends’ parents don’t love them as much as we love you.” Finally, the desperation would set in: “I’m NEVER going to make MY kids do chores.” (Ok.); “How come the baby doesn’t have to do chores?!” (Yes, that’s a real quote.); “It’s my room, I should be able to keep it how I want” (a personal favorite). I am sure you can fill in some of your own.
It does not start out this way; when children are young, they want to help. At three or four years old, Stephanie would ask to do dishes. I would fill up the sink with warm, soapy water, add dishes, and hand her a dishrag. She would stand on a chair, washing and rinsing the dishes, only to put them back into the soapy water and begin the process over. As long as I didn’t mind wet countertops and some water on the floor (I didn’t), she would be happy for hours. However, by the time children are older, the joy of helping has long since faded and they would rather be doing anything else than what they have been asked to do. “Why do we have to do chores?” I would bet this is one of the most commonly asked questions in all of childhood. It’s a good one. As mothers, we may ask: “Why do we add this aggravation to our already stressful days?”
Every spring break, while every other child in the world was allowed to play and do whatever they wanted (I know this because my children told me.), I would engage my children in spring cleaning. We all worked together. Each day had a new cleaning goal and after we were done, we would do something fun: pizza delivered, watch a movie with treats, etc. There were days the “fun” was lost on my children, and they would solely concentrate on the “unfair” amount of work they were asked to do. One particular day, we were cleaning the kitchen. Kitchen day was the longest and required the most detailed cleaning. Eric’s last job was to clean the fridge. I have to point out that spring cleaning the kitchen did involve some creative tools. I’ve been known to have my children cover butter knives with washcloths to get the dirt out of small crevices. When that didn’t work, I would hand them toothpicks. While I thought this was genius, none of my children shared this opinion. By the end of the day, having to use a knife in this way to clean all of the dirt out of the folds of the weather stripping around the door of the fridge, Eric reached his breaking point. I got the “Why do I have to do this?” question. After I told him it was part of learning how to clean a refrigerator, Eric turned to me and asked, “Mom, why do I need to know how to clean a refrigerator?” I answered, “So that when you get married and know how to keep a fridge clean, your wife will love me.” Eric was not amused and to tell the truth, I came up with the answer on the fly.
(For the record, Anna, Eric’s wife, has expressed gratitude that Eric was taught how to work and clean a house, including the fridge.) As good of an answer as that was, that was not the reason my children were “asked” to do chores. That alone would not have been enough for me to stay firm and consistent amidst all of their complaints. The answer to “why children should do chores” had to be good and strong, strong enough that I would stand by my belief in the face of any excuse, objection, or tirade.
I came to this understanding one winter at a Relief Society Women’s Conference while living in Northeast Ohio. The speaker was home management and family living expert and author, Daryl Hoole. She gave a wonderful talk; it was so encouraging and inspiring. When the subject of chores came up, she said it was her belief that if mothers (parents) taught their children to be responsible for their room and one other room in the house, they would develop the skills they needed to succeed as an adult. The truth of that statement pierced my soul and by the time she was through speaking, I knew that through the power of chores and the process of learning how to work, my children could grow up to “rule the world.” Bold words, I know, but this became my mantra and my purpose. I came home from the conference with a better understanding of the teaching opportunities and the developmental potential of chores. Even though the older ones were already doing chores, it was with this renewed purpose and deeper understanding that, over the years, I was better able to field the complaints, stick with it until they did things right and not back down when they tried (often at the top of their lungs) to convince me my life would be easier if I would just let them off the hook.
I have spent years “torturing” my children based on my belief in Daryl Hoole’s message. As a result, I feel some pressure to provide proof that what I believed is true. While writing this chapter, I conducted some research. I found a few studies and a couple of books by experts who cited that the physical actions of work helped develop a child’s brain, increased learning, and played a vital role in their development. All of this is good, but it didn’t answer the question: do chores have the power to teach our children how to “rule the world?” A thought went through my head: I may not have initials after my name, but I did just fairly recently complete a 32- year observational study on child-rearing. All I had to do was collect, compile, and evaluate the results. I asked my children if they could tell me something they learned from doing chores that helps them in their adult life. In other words, are they now ruling THEIR worlds?
Melanie’s childhood tactic of choice :
Melanie talked about the “I am done” attitude she carried with her as she worked on her chores. When presented with her finished product, we would tell her what she had left to do and then add, “It is a waste of time (and actually takes longer) to do a job halfway.” Adult application: Melanie said, “The work ethic I have today is because of this ideal. When I am faced with a task or job, I figure I might as well dig in and do the job right the first time. Otherwise, it will take me twice as long having to come back and do it right.”
Adult application: William went to graduate school while holding down a full-time job, a full-time internship, and busy jobs in the church. Not to mention, he was a husband and a father of three children. There were days when he thought, “This is just too hard,” and times when he struggled with classes in his program that he felt he wasn’t “good at.” William said, “I would take the lesson I learned growing up to heart. Just because something is hard or challenging isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t get you out of doing it. Just because you aren’t good at it doesn’t mean you get to quit.” So, he would solve his problem. He would hire tutors to help him learn and keep going until he finished.
Stephanie’s childhood tactic of choice We ask our children to learn, stretch, and grow. Individual chores and jobs help them do that. They learn that they can accomplish things they didn’t think possible. Stephanie talked about some of the hard things she was asked to do and how she felt when they were done. Adult application: Stephanie said, “I learned and appreciated that you could trust me to do hard things. You knew you could count on me.” Now as a mother herself, when life becomes hard, she remembers that I believe in her and her abilities, and this gives her the courage she needs to face her challenges. She said, “I have done hard things before and can do hard things now.”
Eric’s childhood tactic of choice Eric said that he remembers being taught the importance of details. When he was assigned a chore, such as cleaning out the fridge, it was important that all of the individual tasks be accomplished before the job was considered complete. For example, the kitchen wasn’t cleaned when the dishes were done, nor was your room finished just because you made your bed. Adult application: Eric teaches high school and says that this attention to detail, and understanding that doing a good job includes more than one task, has helped him develop the skill of remembering and putting weight into the details of his job. He strives to enhance his lessons by finding additional details and insights that might be interesting to his students. This allows for more meaningful discussions than if he had done the bare minimum.
Daniel’s childhood tactic of choice Our family lived in Indiana for about eight years. During that time, we lived in a house with a large, finished basement. Every once in a while (actually more than once and more than a while), it would need a team clean and I would have the kids work together. While they were cleaning, I would periodically go downstairs and check their progress. I would look around, tell them it was looking great but there were other things to do and point out what the next steps should be. The basement was large and it took about four or five passes until the “all done, it looks great” signal was given. Adult application: Daniel recalled cleaning the basement and said that, as an adult, this process is replicated at his job. He will take a project he is working on and give periodic updates to his boss, who will say something like, “It’s a great start, but there is more to do,” give him suggestions of what to do next or what else to look at. Sometimes, it takes a few passes before he gets the ok. He said, “Other people at work come out of a meeting like that so upset. They will feel unappreciated for what they have done, or that their boss hates their work. Because I am familiar with this process, I don’t take it personally. I trust that the back and forth ultimately leads to the best outcome.”
Caroline’s childhood tactic of choice She said, “You always told me that a job worth doing was a job worth doing well.” She also remembered doing family work projects, like raking leaves or cleaning the garage. Caroline (and all the children) would ask, “When will we be done?” She remembers Rich saying, “We’ll work until the job is done.” Adult application: Caroline has adopted those sayings into her adult life and when working on a project, she and her husband, Blake, say those things to each other to keep them going until they are done. Both of these sentiments are included in their “family constitution.”
Michael’s childhood tactic of choice When we moved to Texas, our backyard did not have any landscaped beds, just grass. Because of this, we decided to make some raised beds. Michael and Rich worked out in the yard together. He said that he saw his dad work hard and take pride in a job well done. They worked together laying the bricks around the beds then laying down the dirt, planting, and mulching. He caught his dad’s enthusiasm and it became important to him to do a good job. When they were done, he was so pleased to see how good the beds looked and this became one of his favorite memories with his dad. Adult application: Michael said that when he has a big project for school or work, he remembers how it felt to take pride in his work, take his time, and do his best. I shouldn’t have been, but I was genuinely surprised all seven of my children quickly identified lessons and practical applications that were learned while being given age-appropriate responsibilities as children. Daryl Hoole taught that in the overall picture of things, helping our children be successful in life comes from teaching our children to do for themselves. I believed this to be true when I heard her express this sentiment all those years ago, and I believe it to be true now.
The above lists include very practical applications for their individual chores. But, the power of chores does not stop there. By giving children responsibilities, you can help teach your children about themselves. Children spend much of their young lives trying to figure out “who they are.” They try on different personas, watch for reactions from family and their peers, gauge that reaction, and either keep on or change their behavior. Sometimes they need a little help with the “moving on” part.
When Eric was in middle school, I had asked him to put something away. After about the third or fourth time reminding him to do it, he said to me, “Mom, when are you going to just accept that I am lazy?” I did not react to that specific comment but told him to get up and finish his job. But I thought a lot about it later. Now, Eric isn’t and wasn’t lazy; he was a 14-year-old with an attitude. I came to the conclusion that I would help Eric learn the hard truth: he was not lazy.
This comment was said about a week before the end of the school year. I bided my time and on the first day of summer vacation, I asked him if he would please help me pull down some wallpaper in the front entry hallway. He did. We worked together and when we were finished, I asked him to help me tear some wallpaper down in the kitchen. He did. We worked together and when we were finished, I asked him to help me put up new wallpaper in the hallway. By this time, a good month of his vacation had gone by. The home we lived in at the time was laid out such that from the hallway we were papering, you could see clearly into the family room, where the TV was. It was about this time that Eric noticed that not only did I not ever ask any of his siblings to help with the wallpapering project, but they were also at this particular moment sitting down watching a movie. “Mom?” “Yes.” “Why am I the only one having to help with the wallpaper?” This was the moment. I turned to him and said, “I wanted to prove to you that you were not lazy.” I explained that he had worked hard, with a good attitude, on a job that is difficult and frustrating, and he did it for a month without realizing he was the only one being asked. To this day, the word “lazy” does not pass his lips.
There is power in working together as a family. When families work together, great life lessons are taught, unity is built, and memories are made. First of all, your children see you working just as hard and with the same standards, you require from them. It cements what you are teaching them and gives validity to the standards by which you judge their work.
And just like the individual chores, family projects have real-life applications. I believe that working together is a cornerstone for teaching children the value of being a “team player,” while also giving them lessons on how to be a leader. They learn how to evaluate skills against what needs to be done, how to delegate, and what it means to work together. Instead of leaving the job when their assigned tasks are done, they learn to look around and see what is needed or who needs their help until the work is complete.
When Stephanie got married, we decided we wanted twinkle lights on the trees at the outdoor reception venue, so we asked to meet up with a more knowledgeable person to discuss stringing the lights. All I had to do was bring some help, so I brought my children. They ranged in age from 8 to 21. Due to a miscommunication, we soon realized we would be doing the actual light-draping ourselves. I turned to the kids and said, “Help.”
They were on it. Because they were used to working together, delegating, and accepting assignments, they quickly got organized and had a couple dozen trees wrapped with lights in under an hour. Working together in this way created a bond and made the reception all the more fun as we talked about how lovely the trees looked and laughed as we retold the story.
As mothers, we figure out our system to clean and organize our house. We tell the children what their responsibilities are within that system and then hold them accountable. But as the children get older, letting them have a say in this process teaches great problem-solving skills and outside-the-box reasoning. I like to call it the “or” solution. When Rich and I are discussing possible solutions to a problem, I love it when one of us says the word “or.” What follows is usually a more creative or effective way of solving the problem. By having our children identify why doing a job or task is so difficult, and having them come up with the “or” (i.e., another way to accomplish the same thing), we gain opportunities to teach this needful skill.
I can remember an “or” moment with my sons, Eric and Daniel, who were aged 13 and 11 at the time. I love to do laundry. I know, I know; it is the never-ending story because there is always more to do. But, I enjoy the doing. We have lived in many places, but when we lived in Indiana, I had the best set-up. The laundry room was part of the large finished basement I mentioned earlier. In addition, there was a play area, a place for me to spread out my sewing projects, and a bedroom for Eric and Daniel. Every Monday was laundry day and I only had that one goal to accomplish. I would spend the day in the basement with my children as I went through the various stages of cleaning the clothes. The busyness of life slowed down to a peaceful pace and all was right with the world. I had a system. The kids would bring the dirty clothes down to the basement in their laundry baskets. After their clothes were washed, I would fold and put the clean clothes back into the baskets and they would take them back to their rooms and put the clothes away. This last step is where the wheels of this well-run machine fell off; the birds stopped chirping and like a needle being scraped along a record, the happy music would stop.
As I mentioned, Eric and Daniel had a bedroom in the basement. It was a mystery to me how the two kids who had to take their laundry across the room could never get any of the clothes out of the baskets and into their dresser drawers.
The next week they would hand me their laundry baskets, dirty clothes mixed in with the clean clothes from the previous week. Grrrrr. I would ask them why they could not just put them away? Week after week after week. They gave me their reasons (none of which made any sense to me), but when I finally listened to them, motivated by my desire to actually solve the problem versus simply making them do it “right,” they came up with the “or.”
I bought three additional baskets. One was for underwear, one for shirts, and one for pants. When the basket of clean clothes made it to their room, they took the items out and dispersed them into their “clean clothes” baskets, which became their de facto dresser drawers. It isn’t how I wanted to do it, but it worked. Because it was a problem they identified and helped solve, they were committed to making the plan a success.
Last of all, I want to consider the power of working one-on-one alongside our children. This allows for some wonderful teaching moments and opportunities to make memories, but in addition, it provides added depth to your relationship as you learn to know each other in a different way.
With my fifth child, I realized that our family had outgrown the small round table in our dining room. We were a few years out of graduate school with little money. I asked the Lord if He would help me find a table we could afford, one that was big enough for all of us to sit around with enough space left over to fit the food. A few weeks later, I found a seven-foot by almost-three-foot table sitting in the attic of an antique store at an unbelievably good price. It needed some varnish, so I quickly rubbed on a few quick coats and put the table into action. I found that I needed to repeat this process about once a year to keep up with the constant wiping and scrubbing. After three or four years of this, I realized I needed to start from scratch. Stephanie helped me move the table out of the kitchen and we began the laborious task of sanding down all of the previous layers of stain and varnish until we had it down to the wood. Sanding, by itself, was a huge job and the design of the table legs required us to sand them by hand, rather than using an electric sander. After the sanding came the varnish. Trying to apply varnish down a seven-foot table, without streaks, brush marks or bubbles was no small task. Each layer had to be completely dry before the next coat was added. It took about a week before the table looked like new.
There were positive things that came out of that project. I had a beautiful table that would hold up to daily use, and Stephanie learned new skills she uses today. But the best thing that happened was a friendship that was created while we talked and laughed and worked side-by-side. As my family at home has grown smaller and Stephanie’s has grown larger, this table, full of memories, is now in her dining room, blessing her and her family.
I asked the question at the beginning of the chapter: “Why do our children have to do chores?” As mothers, we constantly have to evaluate what we fight for and what we let go. I will say that although you may not know it while in the throes of all that you are doing, there is power in chores. One mom to another, hang in there. The truth is, children complain. It doesn’t matter what they are being asked to do. If you had them do nothing, they would complain about having nothing to do. We have to look over and beyond all of that to what we are trying to accomplish and against all odds, stick to our beliefs. We think our children are never going to “get it.” But one day, the child who complained about having to clean the bathroom will call you up from college and complain about the roommate who thinks all toilets clean themselves. The child who never liked cleaning his or her room will call you up and complain about their roommate who throws everything on the floor.
Or, as happened to me one day while Daniel was serving his mission in Idaho, I got a call from the mission secretary who had partnered with Daniel and his companion to get an apartment ready for a new missionary. She said that Daniel looked things over and said, “This place needs the Cindy Anderson treatment.” He then set about cleaning the place top to bottom, including grabbing a knife, covering it with a washrag and cleaning the entire fridge, including all the cracks and crevices. She told me it was clear to her that Daniel had been taught how to work.
At the end of this chapter, you may have the impression that my home was always clean. It wasn’t. I have seven children; toys were out for them to play with, backpacks, homework and other projects in varying stages were on various tables. Sports equipment and clothes, winter boots, and other items as they went in and out during the day were sometimes littered in front of the door. Often after a long day, I washed my dinner dishes in the morning. But, we all had jobs, chores, tasks, and projects we worked on together to keep our home as clean and organized as possible, given the “real life” part of life. And although a clean home is wonderful, it wasn’t the point. There are a lot of ways to keep your house clean and in order. But to teach your children how to rule the world? In my opinion, there is no better way.
Podcast Extra- I thought I would post some pictures of the famous Mt Mulch- or Mt. Doom- project. There is one picture where the kids look happy. I think I bribed them with pizza or something. I should also say, the mulch pile you see in the first picture is almost gone. It was at least twice that height!
Stephanie's children doing some of those chores she talked about.