One of the big opportunities, but also one of the biggest struggles, in having kids home all the time is getting the housework done. Having more time at home together means that we have the freedom to teach our children about real life, through real life.  Now is the time to pick up some of the slack around life skills that gets overlooked when kids are in school.

I used to be surprised when new families we’d met would ask some version of the following question:  “How do you get your kids to…cook, clean, play together, do laundry, shovel the deck, unload the dishwasher?”…Pick a skill!

I didn’t know how to answer.  I didn’t know how we got them to do it.  It seemed like they were just born doing those things and liking it.  It came naturally to my children, as it had come naturally to me as a child.  Didn’t other children do the same?  Evidently not.  

So, I became a student of other families. 

Sure enough, Mom was doing all the work. The kids were often grumpy and discontent with their stuff, their siblings, with life in general. The kids thought my kids were WEIRD for doing all of the things they did. The parents thought we were WEIRD for making/letting them. I admit it, we’re weird, but we like it, and our kids like it.  

But the question remained, “HOW did we get our kids to work and be happy working?” 

After thinking through all of the tricks and training tips we had for teaching different skills it occurred to me that it really was none of these things. 

It wasn’t about charts or cards or incentives or any of that. It was about attitude.  

Kids want to be wanted… 

They want to be needed. They want to be loved and admired for their prowess in a variety of arenas. They want to be the best at something. They want to climb mountains and conquer uncharted lands and do things that no one else that they know who is their age can do. Just like we grown ups. 

This is what causes our children to work and like it. 

Our two year olds proudly put away forks and scream bloody murder if anyone else tries to do it for them.  Our ten year old daughter matter of factly served baked salmon, steamed asparagus, fluffy rice, salad and bread that she had prepared, from start to finish, completely by herself to guests around our table. Of course she should cook, it was her night. She beamed proudly when the guests exclaim over her accomplishments. She knew that she was doing something important, and she was justly proud of her accomplishment as any hostess three times her age. 

When Ezra was four, every morning he hollered after me to, “WAIT Mama!  You CAN’T do laundry without me!!”

And so I couldn’t. He believed that he was the only one who could push the three buttons in the correct order to start the morning’s wash, probably because he couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone else do it. Laundry is HIS job. 

I remember one winter when snow was thick and frequent. One particular day we’d had a thick snowfall.  Lots of it.  As another foot or so roared down off of the roof and crashed onto the deck Gabe leaned around the corner and peered out the door to survey the damage. “That’d be my job!” , he announced, before heading out the door to clear it off, knowing our friends were arriving that day.

Later that afternoon, as we Mamas sipped tea and visited, Gabe and his eight year old friend came up the stairs and plopped six neatly pressed and folded napkins on the table, “Here Mom, we ironed these, I taught James how”. And so he had. Isn’t it completely normal for one eight year old to teach another how to iron cloth napkins on a snowy afternoon when they’re sick of playing outside?  

So what’s the point? 

That my kids can do great stuff? No, of course not. They aren’t doing anything special. We all have to learn to cook and clean and do laundry. 

The point is that kids CAN do things and SHOULD do things and WANT to do things…even if they don’t act like they do. 

They want to matter. They want to accomplish things and be proud of their accomplishments.  Why not channel that enthusiasm and drive to conquer things into chopping and stacking a huge pile of wood? 

Just like we as adults get pleasure from giving to others and contributing to society, our children want to give back and feel like who they are and what they think, feel and do MATTERS in their world. What is their world? The four walls of your house.

A good friend of mine who came late to the idea of training life skills put it this way: 

“I was doing everything for them because I thought that’s what a good mother should do.  But now, the house runs so much more smoothly and they actually LIKE working for the family, they’re proud of it!” 

Of course they are!! 

Training kids to work isn’t rocket science… 

There are a million books and charts and systems out there to help get you started. But you don’t really need them. 

All you need to do is change the attitude in your home toward work. 

There is no faster way to motivate a kid to work than to casually mention, within ear shot of the kid, to some adult visiting your home, “You should see what Gabe did, that big pile of wood over there, he moved it ALL by himself. He’s becoming quite a self sufficient guy! I can’t imagine how we got by without him!” 

Or mention to the dinner guests on Monday night, “The bathroom is the second door on the right, it’s very clean, Elisha is the best bathroom cleaner we have!” 

Justified praise, praise they’ve earned for a job well done, is the best motivator.  

Strategies for Success in Developing Work Ethic in Kids

Set times for things…

In our house, we had set blocks of time (5 to 15 minutes) four times a day for “housework.” In the mornings we did the big things, like toilets, trash cans, or a closet. At noon we did a “ten second tidy” of bedrooms. Before dinner we did a “ten second tidy” of common spaces. After dinner we cleaned the kitchen for the day and did any remaining tasks.

Working together for set periods of time makes it more fun.

The 10 second tidy…

Set an alarm for ONE MINUTE (or two minutes) and give the space you are in the fastest tidy up job you can swing. RUN from room to room to return things to their places. Vacuum on warp speed. Fold blankets like it’s an Olympic race.

Set jurisdictions…

Give each kid a jurisdiction, perhaps for the day, the week, the month, whatever works for your family. Make sure everyone knows who is responsible for what and then praise or hold accountable as necessary for the status of their jurisdictions.

Work TOGETHER…

The fastest way to make a kid hate work is to make them feel like they’re the only person being “made to” work. Always work with your kids and model the type of job you want done and the attitude you want it done with. 

The attitude is half of the job…

There were times when my kids struggled with their attitudes around their work (I struggle with mine sometimes!) I can’t tell you the number of times that we had the discussion over the two parts of a job: 

  1. The task itself (proficiency)
  2. Cheerfulness (attitude)

There were many times when a certain child was sent back to sweep the stairs again, because, while the stairs were clean, the attitude was not. If a toilet is cleaned with slamming and stomping, it is not clean.

Attitude is everything. Anyone can strong arm a kid into doing a particular job and fighting the entire way. Helping a child learn to work with cheerfulness, THAT is the real victory. Put some elbow grease into this one. It pays off in the teen years especially!

Rotate tasks…

Make sure all kids are learning all the jobs by rotating the tasks. Our task chart rotated daily, so that no one got too bored and no one felt like they were getting slammed with the “bad job” for long periods of time.

If you’ve got little kids who are just learning and aren’t “great” at a particular job, layer them in between older people on the same job who will make sure that a whole week doesn’t pass with a substandard outcome :).

Choose cheerful!

My friend Melissa used to say this, about a million times a day, to her kids. I stole it. But this is not about the kids. This is about YOU. YOU need to “choose cheerful” in teaching kids to work and working alongside them. They will never learn to work cheerfully if you don’t.

If you frame the work as something that has to be “gotten through” they will pick that up. Instead, frame work as the ability to serve people you live with and love, a way to build community, and a way to exhibit the habit of careful stewardship. We want to take care of what we have! 

It’s especially important to choose cheerful when the kids are NOT. 

Try This: Don’t MAKE them work, LET them work. Not FOR you, but WITH you. 

Develop team spirit. Conquer the big, hard things. Create Olympic events out of the little, mundane things.  Work is a happy part of daily life. A way to give back to the community and develop self worth, or at least it should be. 

Take advantage of this time you have together at home to think through where your kids can up their games in contributing to housework and where you can teach them how to do the next big thing. Home care lessons are vital “adulting” skills for later!