Getting Daughter To Do Chores

Question: My third grader has always been difficult but now it’s even worse. She won’t do anything I ask unless there’s something in it for her. I’ve have talked with her about this a lot. She knows what her daily chores are. There aren’t even that many of them, just the usual stuff like make your bed, do your homework, put away your dishes. I’ve told her that it hurts that she doesn’t respect me. She agrees that she should just do her chores without all the yelling but nothing changes. What can I do?

Answer: When it comes right down to it, very few of us do things unless there is something in it for us. This is at the heart of behavioral theory: people and other living things act in ways that either earns rewards (reinforcement) or prevents punishment. This is where I’d suggest you start.

As parents, we want our children to have everything that their little hearts desire, so it often is tough to determine the difference between rights and privileges. This distinction is vital. Rights are something that children should get regardless of their behavior, things like love, affection, safety, food, and shelter. In contrast, privileges are things children earn through good behavior. These can include watching television, money, special trips, playing with friends, or time spent doing things with mom (e.g., cooking, reading, playing games). Once you decide what your daughter likes to do the most, then you can set up a chore chart.

Chore charts are great tools. They can be as simple as a chart drawn on paper or as elaborate as a chart with magnets. There are even examples of chore charts online. The chart should contain the list of chores and places to check off when she does them every day. Then you can set up short-term rewards and long-term rewards. For example, at my house, each “check” earns 5 minutes of time for a favorite activity. Having a good week earns an additional 10 minutes of favorite activity time. The key here is getting her to participate in checking off her chores (with a checkmark, smiley face or sticker – whatever she is most interested in using) and figuring out what’s in it for her. The chart is a win-win as well because, not only does she complete her chores without you yelling at her, but she also learns how to work toward a goal. This is an essential skill necessary for success in the larger world.

Respect is a tricky thing because it isn’t really something you can demand. I also don’t think that kids respond well to it as an abstract concept. While I believe that most kids respect their parents as caregivers and don’t want to hurt their feelings, many kids do not respect their parents as disciplinarians. Respect is earned, not given, and kids need to know that parents are serious about helping them learn how to contribute to the household and behave appropriately. This means using appropriate and consistent disciplinary methods (remember that the word discipline comes from the Latin root to teach). Once kids realize that their parents mean what they say and will instill consequences for poor behavior, then they start respecting them more in that area. Thus, in addition to chore charts in which kids earn privileges, parents must ensure that kids lose privileges if poor behavioral choices are made. This double-whammy of behavioral reinforcement will help guide behavior in the way you want it to go.

I also think it is important to address what other things may be going on for your daughter. Children often act out when they’re upset or depressed. She could be having trouble at school with academics or a bullying situation. She may be having friend problems or is missing someone who is now gone from her life (like the death of a grandparent or a friend who moved away). Whatever the case, spending time with kids listening to them talk about their day and their feelings is always time well spent. Oftentimes that is the biggest reward a parent has to give.

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