Getting Teens to Do Chores

Getting Teens to Do Chores

Using a chore chart to get your teenager to do their share around the house might seem like a good idea. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Getting teenagers to do chores can be difficult. What is age appropriate?

In this article I will break down the science of chores, explain why a chore chart is a bad idea for teenagers, and reveal a better strategy parents can use to get teens to start pulling their weight around the house.

Things aren’t like they used to be…

In a recent study, sociologist Markella Rutherford analyzed the content of parenting advice columns going back to 1931. She found something really interesting. Parents today give their kids a lot less freedom outside the home.

While parents in the 40’s and 50’s had no problem letting kids walk to school as early as age 5, or ride to bus to a strange city by themselves for the day at age 12, today’s parents feel the need to supervise their kids constantly.

But inside of the home the opposite trend has occurred. In this domain, today’s kids have more freedom. Parents are now much more likely to let kids make their own decisions about food and eating, clothing, hygiene, and how clean or dirty to keep their rooms.

Why did this happen?

During the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there was a huge increase in the importance parents place on academic achievement. Markella’s research shows that, as we have become more and more concerned with instilling the value of learning, we’ve started to care less about teaching responsibility.

The chore chart is a perfect example of this.

In fact, the chore chart is a relatively new invention, but it is a symptom of a much deeper change that has taken place during the past 50 years in the way parents approach responsibility.

The study found that, while parents in the 1940’s expected their children to participate in all kinds of household chores from planning meals, shopping, cooking, and cleaning to maintenance, woodworking, and yard work, parents today see schoolwork as a child’s main job.

With this shift came the entrance of the chore chart. Up until the end of the 50’s, children were expected to pitch in with all household chores and the only reward needed was “pride in a job well done.” But today parents almost universally rely on external rewards to motivate their kids to do chores.

This includes allowance and points that can be cashed in for prizes or money.

Many parents turned to the chore chart.

But the bribes are clearly not working. Today, while 82% of parents report that they were required to do chores as a child, only 28% say they require their own children to do any, according to a recent study.

Why am I making such a big deal out of this? Who cares if kids aren’t doing as many chores today?

Well, it isn’t just my personal opinion; science proves that chores are a good thing for kids. Decades of studies confirm that chores lead to positive outcomes later in life.

For instance, consider the research of Marty Rossman. She spent about 30 years studying the same group of kids all the way through young adulthood and she found that the ones whose parents gave them chores starting at ages 3-4 were more successful during their mid-20’s, had better relationships, and were better adjusted.

Yes, chores are good for kids.

So then what’s the problem with using a chore chart to motivate your teenager to help out a bit?

Why a Chore Chart Won’t Work

One of the most famous studies in the history of social psychology was conducted by Edward Deci of the University of Rochester in 1972.

Fascinated by the concept of motivation, Deci recruited a group of students and had them work on a difficult puzzle. Some of the students got paid for solving the puzzle correctly while others just did it for free. Then he left them alone for 8 minutes while a second researcher watched them secretly through a one-way mirror.

The students who had been paid for completing the puzzle showed little interest in playing with it during their free time. Those who had done it for free spent significantly more of the 8 minutes working on the puzzle voluntarily. Deci realized that payment had reduced intrinsic motivation.

Fast-forward to the present day.

In a more recent paper, a pair of economists from Princeton and MIT followed up on Deci’s groundbreaking work, analyzing the hidden costs of paying people to do things.

One of the problems they uncovered is known as diminished task attractiveness.

Here’s how it works.

When you pay teens or use a chore chart to reward them for doing chores, they internalize the message that chores are not fun. You are subconsciously communicating that helping out around the house is so lame they shouldn’t do it unless they are paid.

For the rest of their lives they will see chores as unattractive.

The problems with using chore charts for teenagers.

Another consequence these economists uncovered is reduced self-esteem. Studies show that when a child does a chore without being paid it has a positive impact on his or her self image. The child thinks, “I am a helper,” and “I am a good person.”

But when children are paid for doing work, even if they do an excellent job, this effect disappears. In fact, their self-esteem actually suffers.

A chore chart causes kids to internalize that they are motivated by money.

Here’s What You
Can Do Instead

First, you need to consider how you are assigning chores to your teenager. Parents today are often unfair in the way they distribute chores around the house. Studies show that girls spend 30% more time doing housework than boys and are 15% less likely to receive allowance for their chores.

So fairness is critical.

What about using a chore rotation, where different kids are assigned different chores each week or each month?


This approach isn’t ideal either.

I don’t recommend assigning chores at all.

To understand why, consider a study I just completed a few months ago. I created a website that gave teenagers information about alcohol, which was designed to reduce their drinking. For some of the kids, I programmed the website to tell them that they had been assigned to receive the information about alcohol.

For others, I programmed it to display a slot machine-style spinner in which 8 different topics whirled by for a few seconds before it “randomly” stopped on alcohol.

Which group of students do you think responded better?

Yep, you guessed it. When I followed up with the kids a few weeks later, the ones who “randomly” got alcohol feedback had reduced their drinking significantly more than the ones who were “assigned” to get it. But the feedback was exactly the same in both conditions! So what happened?

People, and especially children and teenagers, are resistant to anything that impinges on our freedom. Numerous studies have confirmed this over the years.

But my research shows that using random chance reduces or even completely eliminates these defensive reactions.

Problems with the chore chart…

When you use a chore chart, you are telling your kids exactly what they need to do in order to gain a reward. This is a threat to their freedom. They might comply with your demands in order to get the prize, but they definitely aren’t going to like it.

Instead, try using an element of random chance.

Keep a list pinned to the fridge or a bulletin board in a prominent place like the kitchen. On this list, keep track of the things that need to get done around the house. Importantly, allow and encourage anyone in the family to add items to the list as they see fit.

Next, select a time when the family will do chores. This could be once a week, like an hour every Saturday afternoon. Or it could be three times a week, like 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Or daily, like 15 minutes each evening at a certain time. It doesn’t matter when or how long, just that all family members are available during this time to do some chores.

When the time arrives, sit down together and look over the list. Instead of assigning the various tasks to family members, or writing the tasks on a chore chart, introduce a random element.

For instance, you could have everyone roll dice and let whoever rolls the highest number pick a chore. Or you could write the chores on slips of paper and have people draw them out of a hat.

Make it fun!

Try putting a chore list for teens on the wall and roll some dice to decide who does what.

Trust me. Hold off on the chore chart and give this a try instead. Unlike the chore chart or a chore rotation, this approach is actually based on scientific research. But remember:

Parents have to participate too.

This is critical. If you try to force your teenager to do chores without doing any yourself it will invoke a concept I discussed earlier: diminished task attractiveness. Your kids will get the message that chores are lame. Parents are not exempt from this ritual!

I get it. You work all day and drive your teen around and coordinate their schedule and spend thousands of dollars taking care of their every need. So why should you have to actually do chores together with them?

It doesn’t seem fair.

If you want your teenager to do more chores, you will have to do some yourself too.

But think about it from your teenager’s point of view. Kids have busy lives too. Depending on their age they likely have school, homework, sports practices, clubs, and organizations to attend. By exempting yourself from chores, you communicate to them that your responsibilities are more important than theirs.

This will invoke the other concept I talked about earlier: reduced self-esteem.

So the formula is simple: assign the chores randomly, do them together, and don’t pay your teen to do them.