How to Get Kids to Do Chores: 4 Strategies for Consistency

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "1-2-3 Magic" by Thomas W. Phelan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are you tired of asking your kids to do the stuff they’re supposed to do? Are your children becoming annoyingly masterful in negotiation?

It’s a common parenting battle: getting kids to do their chores. In 1-2-3 Magic, clinical psychologist Thomas W. Phelan shares several strategies that parents can use to help their kids establish routines that help them consistently follow through with tasks.

Read more to learn how to get kids to do chores and stop the endless wrestling match that gets in the way of everyone’s joy.

Getting Children to Do Chores

Parents often end up frustrated and exasperated because of how difficult it can be to get kids through tasks such as getting ready for school or bed, cleaning a bedroom, or doing other chores. For instance, getting everyone out the door and ready for a trip to the playground can feel like an Olympic endurance event and can suck the joy out of family outings.

When it comes to the matter of how to get kids to do chores, Phelan notes that counting (his recommended technique for disciplining) generally isn’t an effective strategy. This is because the things we are asking kids to do take longer and require more sustained attention and motivation than simply stopping unwanted behavior. Therefore, he suggests routines as an effective strategy for helping kids get things done.

Setting up routines may take more time and effort on your part, just as completing the task takes more effort on your child’s part. However, Phelan’s routine-building tips foster self-sufficiency and responsibility in kids so that, over time, your role in tasks diminishes or, depending on the age of the child, disappears

Changing Your Perspective as a Parent

In his book, Phelan’s orientation is toward the child and changing their behavior—getting your child to engage in routines is a prime example of this. But to deal with the challenges of parenthood that Phelan outlines, parents can arguably take steps to improve their own behaviors and beliefs.

The authors of The Whole-Brain Child offer a different way to think that could reduce frustration when starting routines for your child or disciplining them: Think of the phenomena of your mind—feelings, thoughts, goals, dreams, physical sensations, and so on—as being on the rim of a wheel. The authors write that when you’re caught up in those phenomena—for instance, when you’re frustrated with your child—you’re stuck on the rim of the wheel and you lose perspective. You start to believe that this phenomenon is a permanent state that defines you. So, you might come to think that you’re an angry, impatient parent and behave accordingly.

The antidote to this feeling is to move into the hub or center of the wheel—in other words, to distance yourself from your mental phenomena. From that vantage point, you can see that those phenomena are just part of your experience as a human. You can then parent with greater equanimity.

You can even turn this process of “getting back to your hub” into a routine for your child. This may help them become more self-sufficient and responsible because they can calm themselves down. It may also make the process of starting other routines easier because your child can distance themselves from negative feelings when they feel irritated by their new responsibility. 

Be sure to temper your expectations of toddlers and preschoolers. This age group isn’t developmentally ready to follow through on lengthy and complex tasks without support. As kids get older (perhaps in the third or fourth grade) they become more capable of doing meaningful work around the house—for instance, getting themselves ready for school or bed or even helping make dinner or fold laundry. (Phelan notes that kids often enjoy being able to contribute to meaningful household activities.) A good rule of thumb for how long you can expect a child to stay on task is 10 minutes for a six-year-old, with an increase of roughly 10 minutes per year thereafter.

Routine-Building Strategies

We’ll highlight a few tools Phelan suggests to help get routines started. 

#1: Timers

You can use timers to encourage your child to finish a task within a timeframe. Timers shift the focus from you making a request to the timer holding them accountable. Kids know that timers can’t be manipulated. And kids also often simply enjoy trying to finish a task before the timer goes off.

#2: The Parent-Payment System

If your child has money of their own, say from their allowance, you can use the parent-payment system (which Phelan calls the “docking system”) to motivate kids to perform routines. If kids don’t do an important job and you need to do it for them, they need to pay you for your work.

#3: Charts and Visual Aids

Laying children’s tasks out visually in a chart can motivate kids to follow through with their routines and stay organized without your input. Charts can also be useful tools for positive outside reinforcement. Phelan also suggests adding a bonus system to your charting where children can earn extra points for accomplishing tasks without your input.

#4: Positive Mindset

Phelan also offers advice for building positivity and avoiding conflict once routines are established.

Practice positive reinforcement. Phelan encourages you to aim for a ratio of three positive comments for every negative comment you make to your children. When you do need to give your child constructive criticism, Phelan suggests using the positive-negative-positive pattern.

Keep your directives simple and calm. Phelan notes that if your tone sounds like you’re ready for a fight with a child, you’re likely to get one, so it’s best to keep any requests non-confrontational.

Embrace natural consequences. In some instances, it’s best to simply let the natural consequences of your child’s not performing their routine serve as a tool to get them back on track.

Exercise: Establish a Chore Routine for Your Child

Use Phelan’s recommendations to create a positive chore routine for your child.

  1. What would be an achievable, constructive routine for your child to start? This might be a morning or bedtime routine or an after-school routine.
  2. Taking into consideration your child’s age and development, what could be reasonable steps for this routine? Remember that you can expect a six-year-old to maintain focus on a task for 10 minutes, with another 10 minutes for each additional year.
  3. What might be some good tools to help and encourage your child to start and stick to the routine? Phelan recommends timers, charts and other visual aids, and the parent-payment system. Knowing what you know about your child, which of these tools might be most fruitful, and how would you go about implementing it?
  4. Finally, jot down a few ways you’ll keep routines positive. You might do this by practicing positive reinforcement, embracing natural consequences, and keeping directives clear and calm. Think about which approach will work best for your child and how you might tailor it to their unique habits and preferences.
How to Get Kids to Do Chores: 4 Strategies for Consistency

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Thomas W. Phelan's "1-2-3 Magic" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full 1-2-3 Magic summary:

  • A simple countdown approach for disciplining your child
  • How to cultivate a warm and loving relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs are ineffective and don't correct bad behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.