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Training Helpful Kids

Mary Kate's helpful post inspired questions about how to get kids to actually DO the chores fairly willingly. For example:


" I am still struggling with getting the kids to actually do chores during designated chore time. They just end up playing or start reading a book they are supposed to be putting away and lo and behold chore time is over and nothing’s been done. I’d love suggestions for motivations that don’t involve threats, screaming, pleading, and bribes - alternating in about that order."


Here, Mary Kate replies with plenty of detail. This is very motivating for people like me who want it just to work already. Here goes:


"In our home I had the same exact struggle. For years. And so I gave up time and time again because the battle wasn’t worth it. I sometimes did the work myself, but more often I just lived with the mess because I thought my choice was “live with mess” or “be a mean screaming mom.”  I knew there must be a better way, a higher way, but I did not know what it looked or sounded like or how to get there from here.

Teaching the Jobs

But then grace began to whisper in to help me. And I realized I had to carefully, patiently teach the jobs. So even though my long-term goal was kids doing their jobs masterfully and mostly without me, I spent a dedicated two weeks teaching them how every day. See, they had spent most of their lives never doing these things much at all! How could I then expect them to do them repetitively and well?

Here’s how I did it. I put on the persona of friendly but detached McDonald’s manager. And I moved like a butterfly from station to station during morning job time. In the kitchen I’d say (notice the affirm-teach-thank pattern), “Joe, you did so well rinsing all the plates! (Big smile from me!) You did however forget the utensils. (Big smile, no raised voice.) Please rinse these also and don’t forget to wipe and dry your side of the sink. (Stay the one minute and 30 seconds until he does it right. I am teaching here. Making sure he understands the work and the standard.) Thanks, Joe. (Sincerely, I am grateful.) You’ve now left it so nice for the next person to come in an make a snack.” The next day, the same flitting and teaching, but he had remembered the utensils, so I just had to give the counter reminder. The third day was a lot better, the second week way better, but I never left them alone. I was teaching, teaching, teaching. And I did this for each of my kids each morning for two weeks, for their household jobs which they did first, then for their 3 grooming jobs.

These grooming jobs are: get dressed, brush teeth, make bed in any order. For these I moved to the bedrooms and watched their very real efforts at bed-making. They were being obedient. The beds looked horrible. They had never built up the muscle-memory needed or the coordination needed or (in most cases!) even the knowledge of how to make a bed. So here I’d go again. (Note the affirm-teach-thank.) I’d say, “Sebastian, you are working so hard! (Big smile from me.) Actually, it’s best to pull the top sheet up first. No, not that one, this one. Yes! OK, then the comforter. Yes! But don’t sit on the comforter while you are trying to pull it. Um, you are on the top bunk. OK, try sitting on the pillow. Yes! That worked great! Stuff it down the sides hard. (He’s hit his frustration limit. Don’t over teach on day one.) Awesome! You did it! You got all the parts! Thank you! I’m just going to help tuck in so you can see what it will look like after a few days of practice. It will be so nice for you to come back here and read here throughout the day. Bravo!”

In writing all this, I realize I may sound like a crazy lady.

No Clock

So you can see these 15 minutes worth of chores took way longer at first. They were learning, I was teaching. That is an example of why I am committed to routines, not schedules. We do all our morning jobs before we move on, no matter how long it takes. First things first, second things second, etc. We do our work until it’s done. I am known to sing as I flit – and I am neither a singer nor a dramatic person, so if I can do this, anyone can! – “We must each finish our household job and our grooming jobs before doing anything e-else!” Often I add, singing and flitting, “I am the meanest mom in the wo-orld!” Really, humor should be our first go-to for teaching and discipline because it disarms our children, is a little self-deprecating, and makes us very human.

(An aside -- Summer is an ideal time to do this teaching because a mom has even less internal pressure to move on before chores are all the way done, but I did it in the school year by just deciding nothing was more important. Hope Schneir wrote a powerful article in the mother’s journalSoul Gardening about becoming the queen of my castle, the queen of my domestic kingdom. That clarified things for me and strengthened my resolve, even my self-image as queen!)

Disciplining the Jobs

Now of course as I flit through the living room, I see six-year-old Elisa is reading a novel on the couch before she has finished putting away all the stuff on the living room floor. I am not angry. She must be taught. (Maybe she must be taught how to do the task or taught obedience. I am about to find out.) So I say peacefully, “Elisa, I see you are reading before finishing your job.” She may jump up, say, “Oh, sorry” and finish her job. (Perfect! I stay the two minutes, watching her peacefully the whole time, so I can make sure she has mastered this in the same way in which I would watch her tackle a tricky math problem. When all done right, I say, “Thank you! That makes this such a lovely place to read and play today.” (I am sincere! It really does help our family so much!)

But let’s get real. She may put on a grumpy face and whine, “It’s too ha-a-ard. I hate my job. Everyone else is done fi-irst.” OK. She may be right on all three counts. I may actually even need to teach her better where things go and why, so this could be a little my fault. But at this point it doesn’t matter because now she’s crossed the line into disobedience and disrespect. Let me be very clear. If she were to say in a respectful voice with a respectful non-pouty face, “Mom, this is hard for me,” then I would respond like any teacher teaching a struggling student a task that is hard, offering patient, step-by-step modeling. But that is not what we’re talking about. So now I am dealing with disobedience and disrespect, and I have to teach her obedience and respect.  Dr. Ray Guarendi, psychologist, author, and Catholic dad to ten writes about this in You’re a Better Parent Than You Think.

So I stay very calm, but I do not smile. I speak slowly. (What I am about to say I am not making up on the fly. She is not being singled out. This is our family’s decided routine for disobedience or disrespect.) “Elisa, it is not OK to talk to mom like that. You know that if you do not do your job, you must sit in time-out and when it is over, then do your job. And if after time-out you still do not do your job, I will take away your Legos. Do you understand?” (I am not thinking about the job anymore. I am teaching respect and obedience. For me the difference is huge. I am not making a big deal out of nothing. I am teaching her virtue. I am getting her ready for Heaven, for God Himself. I used to fold and not discipline because I didn’t understand this and so didn’t have the strength.)

She may cave, obey, and do her job. But maybe not. And then I must follow through, calmly, without yelling. She cries hysterically while sitting in time out for the number of minutes she is old. (6 minutes!). I am teaching her virtue. Holding this in my head and heart helps me pray inside the whole time she’s crying in time out, trying hard to model the virtues I am trying to teach her. She must learn to be obedient to me as I am simultaneously learning to be obedient to God. This is the big stuff.)  She may then do her job. Or maybe not. So I calmly walk to her room and take her Legos.

She runs to her bed, sobbing. I am calm. Yes, this has become a big-ole deal, but for a good reason. I am teaching her virtue for a life-time. I’d rather teach respect and obedience at 6 than 16. And guess what? After some time, she has calmed down, too. She comes out and says, “If I do my job, can I have my Legos back?” I say peacefully, “Of course.” She does her job and gets her Legos back that very day. And she does her job the next day no problem. And guess what else? Every sibling had witnessed the whole thing (most of them chuckling to themselves) and learned that I am deadly serious about these new clean-up routines of ours. I hadn’t just taught one child respect and obedience, I had taught six.  

Monitoring and Wrap-Up

Teaching the jobs is a huge commitment, but it was absolutely worth it for us and it has changed our family life. We call them “jobs,” not chores, because they are so regular, as regular as dad going to work at his job. A “job” is a regular sacrifice we each make for each other to make our family go. Here’s an awesome bonus: each child does his same household job after each meal, three times each day. A little teaching reaps great rewards. With enough of mom being very present during the learning of jobs, flitting-from-station-to-station as the McDonald’s manager, teaching and reteaching, the children are each very quick now and nearly masterful.

The following helped me be patient, helped me not yell, helped me realize it might take each of my children a really long time to learn his or her household job and grooming jobs. Fly Lady Martha Cilley, author of Sink Reflections, says it takes a person 27 times of doing a job correctly, in a row, without mistakes, to master the task. That matches educational theory. People who master a task faster than this are considered “gifted” in that area. Now I am by nature a very messy person. That is how I got into this debacle in the first place. How unfair of me to expect any of my children to be “gifted” in cleaning up! Seriously. It has taken most of them longer to learn to make their beds properly than it did for them learn to read. But we worked – and still work -- at it every day. And now one year later, our three sets of bunkbeds almost look like Pottery Barn. Almost.

One last thing …after the two weeks of intense morning training, I began to dash back to my bedroom to get dressed and visit with my husband during morning job time. But after he leaves for work and before I start teaching the children their lessons, I still flit from station to station making sure the kitchen table, the dishes, the counters, the beds, the living room floor look okay. Yes, our day depends on this. But even more, the respect and obedience and virtue in our home depend on this. If not done, I gently call the proper child back to fix the one little part (or sometimes the whole job!) that was forgotten. But almost always the mood is light, no one now sits in time-out, it takes but a moment. Now flitting and re-teaching takes a total of 5 minutes, and usually not even that.

You will not hear from me about date nights or laundry success or bedtime routines because in these areas I have little to share. So much for me to learn! How blessed we are to all be on this journey together!"


Thanks, Mary Kate! Thinking of the manager role helps me keep my temper.


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