When Chores Become a Chore

Transform your interaction around family chores by reinforcing your kids’ behavior.

By Shir Zion, MA

If You’re a Parent, you’ve no doubt experienced it: the endless battles and excuses that arise when children are asked to do their chores. Many parents claim that their children don’t complete these tasks because they’re “lazy,” “rude,” or “just don’t listen.” But what if I told you that your children are actually resisting because they aren’t motivated by positive reinforcement?

Let’s look at an example that you may be able to relate to. Let’s say you pack your lunch every day. Why do you do that? Maybe it’s because you’ve experienced a situation in the past when you were hungry during your lunch break and didn’t have anything to eat. As you might imagine, this experience can be quite unpleasant, so the next day you prepare a yummy lunch in an effort to avoid that same feeling. Lo and behold, when hunger strikes that day, you have a tasty meal at your fingertips. Benefiting from a satisfying meal has positively reinforced your behavior of packing your lunch.

There’s no doubt that it can be frustrating when your child resists your calls to help out at home. You may feel that your son or daughter doesn’t respect you or even love you. Rest assured that this is not the case. It’s not a personal affront; rather the behavior is the result of two very important variables: the current environment and learned history.

What does that mean? Let’s say you grew up in a family with a certain rich, ethnic heritage. It’s very likely that you, as a child, learned to appreciate the different facets of that environment, which may have included specific foods, smells, mannerisms, religious beliefs, and so on. As a result, your current behavior, which includes steps you take to honor and engage in that cultural tradition, is a product of your environment and the experiences you have gained.

So, how do you change the environment you are establishing for your own child and begin reinforcing the behavior of task completion?

To identify reinforcers that will motivate your child, you first need to understand what they will respond to in a positive way—what passions and interests will inspire action. These can be play, edible, tangible (toy, iPad, bike), attention-based (physical affection, story time, focused conversation), or escape (alone time) preferences. To do this, you’re going to become a bit of a detective.

Pay close attention: what does your child gravitate toward when given the freedom to choose an activity or reward; what inspires a smile, a thank-you, a sense of satisfaction? With this information in mind, you can use these observations to transform interactions around chores.

Put the Information to Work

To understand how you can put your newfound awareness of your child’s preferences to work, consider how motivation played out in the lunch-packing example. Really, it’s a scenario that reflects deprivation and satiation: your deprivation of food was what led to your uncomfortable, hungry feeling during lunch; this feeling prompted your decision to pack a meal for the following day. Your food-packing behavior was reinforced by the satiation you experienced—you had learned your lesson.

Now let’s apply these principles to your child.

Before you put your detective work to use by using your child’s preferred activities or toys as positive reinforcers, take a look at how they are engaging with these things or participating in these experiences right now. If time spent on the iPad is the favorite activity, do you currently allow your child free reign with the device—not contingent on the completion of homework or chores? If so, that will need to change. If he or she is already allowed to spend unlimited time on their favorite device, it won’t be a motivating factor to inspire the child to do his or her chores.

Deciding to establish a new normal— in this case, denying access to the iPad until a specific chore is complete—will likely be tough initially. Your child may be angry or sad about this new arrangement; after all, the iPad is the preferred activity. And, yes, there might be a few tantrums in the early days; but know that this is temporary, and don’t give in. If you’re consistent and do not respond to the emotional outbursts, your child will get used to the new arrangement and will start complying with your requests.

When it becomes clear that you will allow access to the iPad (or whatever reinforcer is most relevant to your child) as a reward for the appropriate behavior of completing a chore—as well as give ample verbal praise and gratitude for the help—the rewards of this plan will be clear.

Understanding your child’s behaviors, preferences, and motivating factors can go a long way toward encouraging appropriate behaviors at home. Give it a try and see how you can transform other interactions with your kids to decrease tension around other behaviors, as well.

Shir Zion, MA, has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is the director of family services for Cognition Builders, an education- based company that designs individualized home-based educational programs that address the idiosyncratic needs of clients and their families through a comprehensive program, which includes the implementation of an award-winning curriculum. Shir works with clients and family architects around the globe via Skype and in person to help foster their progress. In her personal life, she is an avid reader, moviegoer, and photographer. She also loves traveling and learning about new cultures.