Mom: “Paul, please bring those dishes into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher.”
Paul: “They’re not mine.”
Mom: “You live in this house, right? So you have to pitch in.”
Paul: “But it’s not my responsibility.”
Mom: “Just do it, Paul.”
Paul: “Okay, but I don’t see why I have to…”
Sound familiar? You are not alone.
It’s often very difficult to motivate children to “pitch in” and help with everyday family chores. One way that children try to get out of “pitching in” is by claiming that household chores are outside of the range of their personal responsibilities. Why do children do this? Well, they come by it honestly. As parents, we appropriately teach children that they are supposed to assume responsibility for their own affairs. They have to clean their own messes; complete their own homework; be respectful of others, and so forth.
Children generally have no difficulty understanding the concept of personal responsibility when it comes to dealing with their own affairs. But how can we motivate our children to assume responsibility for activities that do not fall within the area of their personal concerns? How can we motivate a child to participate in the process of bringing not only his dish to the kitchen after a meal, but helping to bring all of the dishes to the kitchen? How can we get our children to engage in such activities without resentment or complaints?
The strategy described in the dialogue that appears above, while familiar, is unlikely to be of much help. It’s easy for a child or adolescent to appreciate why she should take her own dish to the sink; it’s less easy for a child or teen to appreciate why he should participate in an activity that has no direct benefit to the self. Statements that children should pitch in “because you live here too”, “because you are part of a family” or “because we do things for you” are unlikely to be compelling reasons for children. They are too abstract and too disconnected from children’s concrete experience. What’s in it for me?
Happily, there is an easy way to motivate children to invest in collective family responsibilities (e.g., cleaning the table; performing household chores; or even family movie night). In many daycare centers, for example, when playtime is done, the teacher will sing a little song:
Clean up clean up
Everybody do your share
Clean up clean up
Soon the mess will not be there
Now, you certainly don’t have to sing this song! But the idea behind this simple song is a powerful one: When we are done playing, we all clean up together. It’s simply what we do as a group. There are two parts to this idea: Each individual in the group is responsible for completing the group task (cleaning up); but it’s something that we all do to help each other out. All of the children and the adults participate together in the act of cleaning the toys.
It’s very each for children to identify with and appreciate this process. Why? Because it’s not just the individual child who is responsible for the task, and it’s not just the children together who are responsible for the task. Instead, it’s all of the children and all of the adults. Children can thus see themselves as participants in a larger group task where no one is exempt. This is very different for a child than feeling as if he or she alone has to “pick up after someone else” or that the children have to “do something for the adults”.
Group activities can motivate behavior in a variety of different settings. Families can have “family chore hour” in which everyone in the family contributes to the task of cleaning the house. A list of tasks can be posted and everyone continues to complete the tasks until all the chores have been completed. It is possible to schedule “take out the trash time”, “family cooking time” or one of any number of other shared tasks.
So, it is helpful to distinguish between at least two types of children’s responsibilities: Personal responsibilities and group responsibilities. Group responsibilities are a great way to teach children how to cooperate, perform household tasks, assume responsibility for each other, and make decisions together.