(Not) such a chore: 5 tips for creating a do-able chore system

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Kids chores feature

because-I-said-so-REDMy kids are officially out of school and preschool for the summer, and I’m stoked to shed the shackles of the school bell schedule. But I’m also a little apprehensive about the chaos and messes that are an inevitable part of having my kids and their friends flow in and out of the house all day long.

As a parent, I know that my house isn’t going to look like a show home, and I’m mostly OK with it. The more kids I have, the more relaxed I get in my housekeeping. Disclaimer: My friends are shaking their heads right now because truthfully I am still pretty uptight about cleaning and clutter. But I really have taken it down a few notches.

I care about the way my house looks because it impacts the way I feel. That may not be the case for you, but for me, clutter equals crankiness. I don’t want to live in a museum, so I try not to sweat the messes that will eventually get tidied up. But I also know that I am not happy in a dirty, messy home. (I re-learn that every time I have a baby and my house falls apart in the first few weeks when I’m getting absolutely zero sleep.)

So in order to survive the summer, I’m rededicating myself to our family chore system. Here are the basics of what works for us:

1. Keep it simple

My older kids are still really young, ages 5 and 7, and I want them to have plenty of time to play every day. But I know that we all do better with a little structure. Their daily chores take less than 15 minutes if they’re moving at a regular pace. They include some self-care, with tasks like brushing teeth, getting dressed, styling hair, and some actual chores, including making their beds, wiping bathroom counters and helping to empty the dishwasher. They have an additional daily task that is related to my household chores for the day; these are things like helping me sort the laundry or empty the trash.

2. Make it speedy

Although the chores can be done in much less than 15 minutes, often it takes way longer simply because my kids aren’t motivated. I expect them to help me around the house as part of the family, but I also want to incentivize them to help without so much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So we pay a small weekly allowance for chores. Here’s the catch: If I have to ask them more than once to finish their chores, they don’t get credit for doing it.

3. Get in the zone

I have my kids do their chores in the morning before they can play with friends or move on to other activities. But by night the house has usually deteriorated into various states of chaos. So each child (and me and my husband, too) is responsible for a specific zone in the house. Before bedtime, we spend a few minutes making sure our zones are tidy. Some areas, like the basement playroom, are always messier than others, so I usually set a timer on my phone and everyone cleans up as much as they can in five or 10 minutes. Which leads me to my next point …

4. Keep expectations low

Even young children are capable of helping around the house, but don’t expect them to dust the bookshelves the way you would. Preteens and teenagers can do a better job on most chores, but the bathroom won’t likely be ready for a white glove inspection. Show them the right way to do a chore, but don’t freak out if they don’t load the dishwasher according to your exact specifications. I find it also helps to split more complicated jobs. For instance, my 7 year old and 5 year old each empty a certain part of the dishwasher, not the entire thing. Oh, and I try to store cleaners and cleaning tools where I want them to be used to encourage a bit more independence.

5. Don’t forget fun

Not everything in life has to be fun. I have yet to come up with a way to make cleaning toilets thrilling. But if you can make something fun, why not do it? Try having a race to see who can get their chores done the fastest or offer a fun excursion if things get finished by a certain time. Start a water fight after window washing — which, honestly, I haven’t done in years — or maybe more realistically as part of a car wash. Every once in a while, surprise your kids with a treat for a job well done.

Even though we’re going to try our hardest to keep on top of things this summer, I’m sure I’ll still have little piles of sand from the sandbox in my entry and inexplicable bread crusts on my counter almost daily. All of the beautiful messes that come with family life will still happen. But at least underneath it all, I will know my house is clean.

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Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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