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Holding Your Children Accountable

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a very hard time getting my children to do their chores. They often volunteer to help people outside of the house but, rarely make extra effort to help out at home. Growing up, my siblings and I saw what needed to be done around the house and just did it. My kids don’t seem to have any motivation to do anything. When asked to do a specific task, the normal response is to do the bare minimum (not always a good job at that) and not an iota more. While I’m sure it’s my fault that they are this way, I don’t know where to start to change things. Help!


Last Straw

Dear Last Straw,

Thanks for asking a question that is truly universal. I think every parent from every society and era can relate. I’ll offer a few tips on influencing children to take responsibility for tasks around the house.

The goal is to build responsibility, not just obedience. One of the challenges we face with teens (and many adults) is that they prize independence and autonomy, but don’t always act responsibly when they have it. As parents we want them to be independent, but only if they are responsible. Household tasks can be a wonderful laboratory for building independence and responsibility.

Build an accountability system that doesn’t rely on you. Currently, you are responsible for all aspects of accountability. You tell your children when chores need to be done, evaluate their performance, and administer praise or sanctions. You are their supervisor. Your goal should be to replace yourself by making your children responsible for each of these elements. This will allow them greater independence, while also making them more accountable.

Expect this to be a learning process. I think you will discover that your children aren’t as unmotivated as you might think. Sure, they don’t like being interrupted in the middle of an important video game to “clean their room right now!” But the real barrier they face will be ability. Few children have ever been asked to create an accountability system before—and it takes some learning.

Ask them to set clear standards. Let’s imagine a few household tasks you might have them do: dishwashing, laundry, and keeping their rooms clean. Ask your children to create a checklist for each task. For example, their steps for doing the laundry might include: collect clothes, sort clothes into darks and lights, wash clothes in separate loads, dry clothes, sort and fold clothes, put clothes away. You should not be the one making this list. Have one child make the list, and then have the other children evaluate it and add to it. Give them as much independence and ownership as possible.

Have them establish roles, times, and reminders. You don’t want to be the one who has to remind your children to do their part. Instead, ask them to figure out who will be responsible for which tasks, how that person will remember, and how they will remind each other. You might need to help them come up with ideas. For example, you could create a responsibility bulletin board where assignments can be kept—e.g., Jamie does the laundry checklist on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Make sure their plans include reminders that don’t come from you. For instance, they could set alarms on their phones. Let them set the times for doing their chores—within reason. These bite-sized pieces of autonomy will mean a lot to them.

Set up peer evaluations. Don’t accept the disciplinarian role. Instead, have your children evaluate each other’s performance. For example, they can use their checklists to check on each other’s quality. In my experience, they will be as strict or stricter than you’d ever be—and they’ll appreciate the autonomy and independence.

Use deliberate practice. Don’t expect your children to be as good at doing household tasks as you are. They are unlikely to be as fast or as effective. For example, there is no reason why it should take them more than fifteen minutes to clean their room (pick up floor, make bed, put things where they belong, vacuum, and dust)—if they stay on top of it every day. Make it a challenge. Have them practice while a brother or sister times them and checks on the quality of their work. Doing a great job in ten minutes should be a source of personal pride for them.

Manage the team and the system, not the individual and the exception. Your children won’t always follow this new system, and you’ll have to hold them accountable. However, don’t hold a one-on-one with the individual child who has failed to do their chore. Instead, hold a brief family meeting, and focus on the accountability system. Point out that the system isn’t working well enough, and challenge them to fix it. Maybe they need to build in better reminders or maybe they need to get better at holding each other accountable. Don’t allow them to put you back in the supervisor role. Make them continue to manage themselves.

I hope some of these tips will be helpful. Of course, you will have to modify them depending on your children’s ages and your own family situation.

Best of Luck,


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8 thoughts on “Holding Your Children Accountable”

  1. John

    Try using an allowance system the rewards work. My 12yr old doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t do his chores. We have a system where he keeps track of his completed work. Mom and I hold the final say on the amount of allowance. There are fines for behavior and incomplete work. We find it works well. best of luck.

  2. Elaine Dominicis

    Very good, tks!
    And how about when there is just one child in the home?

  3. emre44

    On Practice: Remember to point out the secret as to how and why they became good at the video game, or whatever, that they keep playing/practicing until they win at… it is that it was fun and they can make anything into a fun game that when played over and over again (practiced) and there is some win each time it is played. They can go for the best time or the highest score and it is especially fun if there is cheering and playing the game with them.

  4. Paul B

    I think David’s suggestions were great for when you have multiple children, but how would you apply this principle if you only have one child, or only one left at home? It is hard to use the other children to help in the process if there are no other children. Are there any suggestions for dealing with single children homes?

  5. James

    One additional thought – LEAD by EXAMPLE. Set good examples for your children to follow, After all they emulate our behavior as parents so if we are setting good examples it’s much easier for them to follow. You cannot expect a teenager to have a clean room if they walk into their parent’s room and the bed is unmade and there are clothes strew across the floor.

  6. Charisa

    I have heard that giving an allowance can be detrimental to the sense of responsibility to the family. Others say that you can paid kids for going above and beyond what is expected, but that there are somethings that they should just do without being expected to receive payment. David, what do you suggest? And if you do suggest providing payment, how much should a parent pay?

    1. Lisa

      Our kids are required to make beds, keep toys, shoes, backpacks and clothing picked up and put away and to keep their rooms clean. They do not get paid for this but will lose TV time or will go to bed early if they don’t do what is expected of them. We do give a small allowance for other household chores. Dishes, laundry, vacuuming, etc. We give a ticket to them for what chore they do and they get paid on Fridays. .50 cents per ticket. Our kids participate is sports and other activities so I would say per week they earn about 2 dollars and a bit more during the summer.

  7. david maxfield

    Hi Charisa, Good question. When it comes to motivation we look at three sources: Personal, Social, and Structural.
    Personal Motivation is when they do chores because: they believe it’s the right thing to do, they enjoy doing chores, or they like the neat and clean results.
    Social Motivation is when they do chores because: they want to make their parents happy (or avoid making them mad), or they want their friends to appreciate the way their home looks (or at least not think less of them because of the way their home looks).
    Structural Motivation is when they do chores because: it’s a job they get paid for (or there are punishments if they don’t do their chores).
    Ask yourself, “What are the motivations I want my children to have?” Usually, parents want to emphasize Personal and Social Motivations, and de-emphasize Structural Motivations. However most of us use all three in combination.
    Two rules of thumb apply:
    First, use Structural Motivations (rewards and punishments) in Moderation and in Combination. The example I like is Scouts’ Merit Badges. The badges themselves have little intrinsic value, but they are hard to earn and so become a source of Personal Pride. And they provide a context for Social Recognition. They are moderate in size, but good at creating the opportunity for Personal and Social Motivation.
    Second, try to avoid turning Moral and Social Issues into Economic Issues. When moral and social issues become nothing more than economic decisions–you are in trouble.

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