Reader Q&A: Chores & Kids

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Occasionally, readers write with questions that I know others might be able to add to or benefit from. Today we’re talking about helping kids learn responsibility through doing household chores.

Take whatever I say with a grain of salt, and be sure to add your two cents in the comments section.

Q.I’m wondering if you could give advice about chores. My 4 year old son has chore cards for his am & pm routines (4 each on an O-ring hanging in his bedroom). These cards work great; he loves to do them.

Now move downstairs to the great room and he refuses to take care of or put away his toys…. I would like to start a rewards system for him to earn computer game time, one on one time with Mom or Dad, tv time etc. I just don’t know where to start.

A.Β I wish I could say that there is a “one size fits all” answer to the kids and chores dilemma. I think most of us parents want to teach our kids responsibility as well as get a little help around the house.

And there’s the added fact that we’re in relationship with one another. Good relationships require cooperation between the parties involved. Only trouble is children don’t always want to cooperate or understand the social mores involved in communal living.

Not to mention that you’re the parents and get to call some of the shots!

On rewards

I’ve struggled with the rewards system for about 14 years now and have never really found one that worked successfully for our family. Personally, I struggle with the fine lines between incentives/bribes and consequences/punishments. I don’t want to be too strict or too lenient.

The result is that we tend to look at cleaning up after yourself and contributing to the workings of the household as just part of the territory. You live here, so you are a part of what we do. We offer monetary incentives (from a quarter to a few dollars) for extra jobs, depending on the child and the task that needs to be done.

Some things motivate one kid in one season and then fall flat with the next kid or even with the same kid during a different stage of development. So, some of this is just trial and error.

Currently, washing the car is considered a veritable treat for my little people. But, in a few years, it may very well become a “chore.”

On cleaning up one’s toys

I have no qualms about taking away toys that are not cared for. While I think every child or household should have some fun, developmentally appropriate toys, most kids I know, my own included, have more than they “need.” If those playthings aren’t important enough to put away, then maybe the children don’t really need or want them any longer.

Or they’ll learn a valuable lesson on stewardship.

If you (the parent) don’t play with them, I don’t think you should have to clean them up.Β While all children are different, many as young as two are capable of picking up their toys. You may need to reconsider how you store them and make the clean up process as easy as possible. But, physically picking up a toy and dropping it into a plastic tub is well within the reach of many kids.

On your particular situation

In your particular instance, I would simply add a card to each O-ring that says, “Pick up your toys.” A twice daily pick-up is probably reasonable protocol or you might even want to create a mid-day ring of cards that includes some fun things like snack time or stories.

Since your system is already working, I think that adding one card should fit nicely. Talk it up that he’s getting to be such a big boy, that he’s able to handle more responsibility. And feel free to add in some extra privileges that go along with the extra responsibilities.

That said, I am no parenting expert. Some days chores go like clockwork at our house and everyone cooperates beautifully. And other days, I’m tearing my hair out to get folks to move. But, that’s where my thought process is these days.

To quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all I’ve got to say about that.” πŸ˜‰

What do YOU think?

How does YOUR family handle chores for children? Let us know what works for you in the comments section.

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  1. I also go back and forth in terms of a reward system. We’ve also seen that *for our kids* punitive consequences do not work. Both our children are extremely willful (they come by it genetically, ha ha) and taking toys or priveleges away only serves to motivate them by spite. As in they don’t care. My husband once went an entire month without toys because he wouldn’t do his homework. Apparently I was the same way as a child.

    We have found our 5 y/o is somewhat motivating by a chore chart but like the person who wrote in, that doesn’t always work in terms of picking up toys. What sometimes helps is to do it with them as in telling them exactly what to do. Like, “Put all the cars in this red bin.” When that’s done, “Put the red blocks in the tub.” That works better than just telling them to pick up their toys.

    Honestly, what I struggle with is sometimes it’s less work to just pick up the darn things myself rather than coach them through it. Ha ha. But my kids are 2 and 5 so I’m hoping that changes. And to clarify, we do make them pick up themselves most of the time. No matter how much a pain it is. πŸ™‚

  2. Our current system is that the whole family does some weekly chores at the same time. This way, everyone is involved, and when we are done we can do something fun as a family. Usually it is a board game, at home movie night, etc., but once in a while it is a fun outing. My kids respond to the idea that once we have our work done, I really want to play and spend time with them. We also talk about the fact that we have to take good care of our things, or we can’t get new things on occasions.

    1. Love this idea, thanks so much for sharing! I especially appreciate what you say about letting your children know that you want to spend time with them, not just be a mom that nags them about cleaning and such. Thanks for the thought!

  3. With my four and two year old kids we just do regular cleanups. There are several times a day when all the toys get cleaned up. Before going outside, before lunch, before naps, before dinner, and before bed.

    It seems like a lot, but because it is done often, it is less overwhelming. We usually work together, but my 4-year old can pick up all his toys by himself which he does probably once a day.

  4. My 10 yo does chores right alongside me, she’s old enough to contribute to caring for the house. She works on a point system, she earns a point for each lesson/chore completed and then with points she can purchase privelages, such as staying the night at a friend’s house. She can also be fined points for unacceptable behavior, which would ultimately lead to the loss of privelages depending on how quickly she learns from it.

    My 3 yo is at a different stage and has a totally different personality. His only chores are to keep his toys picked up around the house and try to keep his room clean. He is encouraged to help me with my chores but it’s not a big thing yet. With him, I have always stood by “Feel free to clean up those things you wish to keep.” Whatever he decides not to clean up goes into a box to be sold at the next yard sale. He has way too many toys and they are obviously not that important to him. I’ve also found that using a timer to tell him how long before clean up time and how long he has to clean up is very helpful.

    That’s how things work in my home.

  5. Our 3 kids (7,5, and 2) have certain jobs they are expected to do everyday including putting their toys away before bed. There have been a few nights when they were being slow cleaning up (because they were playing more than cleaning), that I got fed up, and put the remaining toys in a garbage bag and they had to earn them back by cleaning up faster the next night.

    Other jobs like emptying waste baskets around the house, setting the table or feeding the fish we call “penny jobs” and they get a few cents for each depending on the job. Not much, but my daughter set the prices, I’m sure she’ll want to renegotiate at some point, but for now they just like putting something in their piggy bank.

  6. We’re just edging into this arena, but the mothers I respect most agree that you shouldn’t offer rewards for chores. You do chores because you’re part of the household. I like your suggestion of a little reward for extra duties, but the routines of daily life don’t come with ice cream cones. We also use your “if you don’t care for it, we take it” approach to toys. Usually it’s just temporary (our daughter is only three).

  7. I would also add to have them watch you pick up the toys and put them away. This will show them what you want them to do, and how little time it actually takes. After doing it with them a time or two, it becomes their responsibility, and they know exactly how to do it. Also, for younger children, I only give them one or two things to do at a time. Any more seems overwhelming and they don’t even want to start.

  8. Ironically, I sort of wrote a post about this the other day. My son is TERRIBLE at picking up toys. I am trying to start being more on top of things and make him pick the toys up. I am at the point where I have also put some in garbage bags. It is time to donate some of them. At my link, I wrote what typical chores are for this age and I found a neat website where people can make customizable chore charts!

  9. We use chores as a way to teach our son about finances. He has his jobs, and earns a coin for each one he completes then we take his earnings and divide them 3 ways, he equally splits his money into 3 containers : Jesus (church offering), Bank (savings) and spending money. He also had a chart that he puts a sticker on each time he does some work. At the end of the week, each sticker =1coin. I don’t always have enough of one type of coin so he has pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. We count stickers and count out coins. He loved it, and now if he wants to buy something we check his spending money to see if he has enough, if not we wait til next time yo bug it

  10. We don’t do a reward system for picking up toys. We’ve struggled with how to keep them to clean. The best thing that is currently working for us is cleaning up toys more often–before meals and sometimes twice a day. Honestly we used to just do it once a week and it got so overwhelming. I do go through and organize the toys a little bit and put things in the attic or “the Goodwill box” onec or twice a month.

  11. I think you answered great! We too feel that if you live here, you’ll have to help out. I’m not organized enough to keep up a reward system, although I know allowance will come into play soon.
    Something to consider though, is every child is different when it comes to cleaning. Obviously age is a huge part of it, but my 5 year old goes into the room, spins in a circle, and has no idea what to pick up. I have to give him very specific instruction and only 1 or 2 at a time and he can get to work. But to clean up the whole room overwhelms him and he’s in tears(plus daddy is mad he can’t handle the task). This has helped alot. Now he’ll come ask me what else to clean up once he’s finished the two tasks I gave him.

  12. We have a 7, 4, and 20 month old, and also struggle with toys not being put away. The kids usually love to help out when we put dishes away, make beds, etc., but putting their toys away just doesn’t happen. What has worked lately is a type of “toy jail.” Before bedtime, any toys that are not put away get put in “jail.” Then, the 4 and 7 year olds can rescue 1 toy for each extra thing they do to help out. At the end of the month, toys that haven’t been rescued are donated. A few days before donating, I give them even more opportunities to rescue a toy, just to make sure. Last time, my 4 year old said, “There’s nothing there worth doing a chore for.” so that’s my clue that I’m not donating their most treasured things.

  13. For some children, it is crucial to have rewards as well as consequences for chore routines . The kids who need this have Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Their brains literally don’t have as much available dopamine, the chemical that plays a key role in motivation and attention. Scientists now know that a phenomenon called “previewing,” -the sight or thought of an incentive -helps the AD/HD Brian manufacture more dopamine. Personally, I don’t think a typically developing child should need rewards for being a responsible family member; howver, I do think setting up incentives for a child who has AD/HD is good, thoughtful parenting.

  14. At our house we have a chore clip board. Each morning as I am picking up the house for the day I note what could be done by the kids after they are done with their school work. I factor in if they have afternoon activities or a church event as to what the work load will be. We pay them for their chores (except for cleaning their rooms), so they have money to learn how to be a good steward with. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to work for us.

  15. I have a 6 and 9 year old, and I can really appreciate the mom who was honest and said, “sometimes I struggle with it is just easier to pick up the darn thing myself than coach them.” Thank you for your honesty, because lately I have been beating myself up for that. Although, I DO recognize how important it is to teach them to be responsible for themselves and my boys are definitely of age to contribute. SO~ on pintrest, my sister shared with me the posting that you turn the front of the fridge into a dry erase board so to speak. Where you write complete with a line for completed and incomplete and the children’s names down the side. Then you write the chores on each individual magnent that you may ever need them to do. The children move the magnent to “complete” side when they are done with that chore. Very simple, and can change the chores from week to week. Anyway, it has motivated me to start a new system with the kids.

  16. I have a chart with a weekly schedule and list of chores (a poster I designed and framed so we can use dry erase markers) for each of my four children. Every Sunday night I have individual planning sessions with each of my kids where we go over what activities are happening and what homework / projects are due in the upcoming week. We write it on their poster in the calendar section. Then we go over what chores they are responsible for that week and write those down in the chore section. The chores are listed vertically and there is a section horizontally to mark off each chore each day of the week. Daily, they get computer, ipod, or tv time only if they complete their chores. Weekly, if they’ve received all the checkmarks for their chores that week they get to pick out a small treat at the gas station the following Monday. The daily reward is a great motivator for my sons who LOVE their electronics (sigh). The weekly reward is a great reward for my daughter who has a sweet tooth, lol. (My 2 year old just likes getting checkmarks.) πŸ™‚ The reason I do daily and weekly rewards is because my 13 yr. old son has ADHD and needs a daily reward in order to be motivated. However, I like that they see how an entire week’s worth of work also adds up to a reward (much like having a job in the real world). Every day my kids are responsible for checking their completed chores off (I help my 2 yr. old). It not only reminds them what needs done (especially helpful for my 13 yr. old) but it teaches them accountability since they have to track and report their work. Our system works really well most days. Of course, each of my children will occasionally have days that they just try to buck the system. Seeing the others receive their rewards is usually enough to get them to do better next time. I forgot to mention that my kids also receive a small monthly allowance but it’s not tied to their chores. However, it is tied to their practice time for their musical instruments. My kids being able to read music and play an instrument is very important to me. While one of my sons absolutely loves the piano and rarely tries to get out of practicing, my daughter and other son are uh, shall we say, a little less intrinsically motivated. Practice time was turning into a battle of wills and my husband and I were tired of being the “enforcers” all the time. So we offered to pay them to practice. Some of you might think this is terrible, but honestly, for our family it works. My kids are much more willing to practice when they can see the immediate reward of money. I’m hoping as they get older they will also begin to realize the long term reward of the intrinsic value of music itself. πŸ™‚

  17. Loved the book “Raising Able” by Susan Tordella… all about raising able kids through chores!!!

  18. We use Accountable Kids. It’s wonderful!! And you can watch a video about it at or on youtube. It’s supposed to be affective from ages 3-14 So far so good on our 3, 7, and 9 year olds.

  19. I have written a lot about chores on my blog. In fact today, I just posted about my 18 month old doing chores

    We have a chore chart, they turn the cards over when they are done, at the end of the week they get tickets (we do take some tickets away) and then they get to trade a ticket for something out of our treasure box. Read more details here: I also have done many “Chore Chart Updates” on my blog if you feel like searching for those. I hope it’s alright that I’m putting so many links in here, just being lazy and don’t want to re-type! πŸ™‚

  20. My biggest struggle with my 4yo is with attitude & motivation. I do believe that family members should help the family/house because that’s just what we should do. What I often hear from her when I ask or tell her to do something is a matter-of-fact “No, I don’t want to” or “I don’t feel like it.” Then I must choose how to respond to this nonchalance….Typically I impose some kind of consequence if it’s flagrant disobedience, or otherwise a verbal mini-lesson on how we all serve the family, etc. But I am at a loss as to how to develop & grow an attitude within her that will even agree to chores for chores’ sake. That said – anytime she proactively wants to help with something (cooking, laundry, etc.), I let her! πŸ™‚ Incidentally, we have done sticker charts for various things, and they do work well for a while, although she’s capable of earning “prizes” a lot more quickly than she does. Must not be quite motivating enough….

  21. Alright I’ve got a couple of things to add. I just saw this on Pinterest yesterday and I’m impressed with it, especially for the younger kids. It’s call clutter jail and you can see it here:

    The next thing that I’ve been impressed with for older kids is this site:

    However, I can’t afford to give my kids the “suggested” amounts for each chore. I give my kids $1 times how old they are per month. So my 9 year old has the potential of earning $9/ month. So then I took the chores and assigned them reasonable amounts, so that all of their chores *if* completed makes up the amount they get per month. Basically they are only paid like a commission rather than an allowance. If they do the work they get rewarded, if they don’t they get nothing.

  22. Hi everyone!
    I am actually not for using chore charts or paying for chores.. Like some of the comments in our family (and what I coach other moms to do) is to establish the concept of your family being a TEAM. Chores are called Teamwork Tasks yet are never really listed for the kids – they just do them because it’s part of the family’s daily routine. If you’re interested in how to easily set this up, have a look at this :

  23. We have set our boys (13 & 10) up with accounts at There are every day chores that they are expected to just because they are part of life and part of being a family. Then there are ‘extra’ chores that they get commission for. Te ‘extra’ chores are things that need to be done around the house, but usually fall to the bottom of the list like washing windows, cleaning baseboards, dusting ceiling fans, etc. They get $1 for each ‘extra’ chore with a max earning of $5 a week. In order to get the pay out, all of their regular chores must be completed each day. The are also required to tithe on their weekly earnings and put some into savings. We have just started doing this, but it is working well.

  24. Thanks for sharing what works in your home! We use similar methods for chores but I tend to change it up every month or so for my 3 year old. We used sticker charts for awhile (while potty training) and then the timer for quick pick-ups and now I am using “rice bowls” for Lent to encourage positive behavior. This means that she gets a penny to put in her collection box (for charity) every time she exhibits a “good” behavior – like picking up her toys without whining, sharing with her baby brother, etc. Each method seems to work great for a little while and then we both kind of get bored with it. I was kind of hoping that eventually she would just be in the habit of picking up her toys before nap/bedtime and obey us (her parents) when we asked her to do something, but I guess that is just naive wishful thinking on my part… I love the idea of “toy jail” and think that it might be a more sustainable method than any of the reward systems I am currently using. Thanks!

  25. I still have little guys (3 yo and 17 m) so I am sure I will reevaluate when they are older. For now I just want to say, if kids don’t want to clean up toys then they don’t need the toys. We are missionaries in Uganda and living here I have seen the value in making your kids appreciate what they have. I do think kids need to have some things to stimulate their minds but that does not need to be the amount in most of our houses.
    Do not be afraid to put toys up, or in jail, or out of sight. Keep limiting the toys until you reach a happy place of them appreciating toys and being able to keep them clean. We have a closet for toys that are not being desired right now. When I first saw the problem I out more than half our toys away. Now, when I see a toy that is not being played with I swap it. I put the toy that is not being taken care of away and often pull an older one back out. My kIds are excited to see an old friend and they treat it better because they appreciate it. Both my boys have cleaned up their own toys since their first birthday. It is possible, it takes training, it takes more effort from you at first, but they can do it!

  26. I think I’ve found something that works for us! Apparently my 5- and 3-year-olds love food more than they love toys (which I know is not true for some kids). I have been having them do their last cleanup of the day before rather than after dinner and they go super fast knowing that they can’t eat until everything is cleaned up! After dinner they look at books or do a family activity that doesn’t involve dragging more toys out. It’s all about finding a strong enough motivation.

  27. We have a whiteboard where I daily post new “special chores” for each girl (11, 8,7) that can be completed anytime before 3:30, which is the end of our school day and the beginning of “playtime” with neighborhood kids, or turning the computer games on. usually for the oldest one it’s something like “wash and dry a load of clothes,” for the youngers it’s “sweep the kitchen” or “straighten the bathroom.” nothing too complicated but it helps. we also have a Saturday chore(s), sometime done together like yard work or cleaning out the car. On Saturdays they are also to straighten their clothing drawers and clean their rooms more in-depth.

    we do toy/project pick-ups before going out to play and before bedtime. They clean their rooms after dinner.

    For being part of the family and helping take care of the home, they get to enjoy the family income as well and get $5 a week each.

    I’ve tried a lot of different approaches–for now this works for us πŸ™‚