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Winning the Chore Battle
Child labor 7/26
Photo by clogozm

I know in most homes cleaning is a major source of conflict--or at least frustration. There's a never-ending list of things that need to be cleaned, and yet there seems to be a shortage of those who are willing to pitch in. In fact, most moms find themselves cleaning alone, and when we do get others to help, it's often more trouble and frustration than it's worth.

Many Saturday mornings when the children were younger I remember getting all excited about carrying out my chore plan. The kids knew what to expect, we all knew what was on our lists, I put on music, and we got to it.

Or at least I got to it. I cleaned, and the girls bickered. They fought more when doing chores than they ever did at any other time--even though they weren't doing the SAME chores. Rebecca would get mad if she thought she was putting in more effort than Katie. Katie would get mad if she felt that Rebecca was telling her what to do. And I would yell and threaten and tell them nobody was getting their allowance if they're going to make my life even more miserable!

We're over that stage now, and I've learned that getting involved in their emotional squabbles aren't worth it for me. It just makes me mad, and it doesn't actually get anything done. Waltzing in and saying in a sing song voice, "Looks like nobody's getting allowance unless you both leave each other alone in the next two minutes and finish your chores", and then waltzing back out, works much better. Sometimes I've had to follow through and not given an allowance, and then they're in a lot of trouble. I won't drive them somewhere they want to go that week, because they made my life miserable. And slowly but surely they've stopped bickering.

But it's not easy. And often chore systems get complicated not because the system itself is hard, but because we let our emotions get involved, and we get wrapped up in the mind games they're playing. So here are several tips on how to recruit help for chores, and maintain your sanity in the process!

1. Accept the fact that you care about the house more than other people do.

Many kids don’t care if the house is a mess and if the only meals cooked are Kraft Dinner. Lots of husbands may not notice a dust bunny until it impedes their view of the television. So we don’t share values when it comes to keeping the house clean.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work towards everybody pitching in. The key is just to realize that they’re not going to do it automatically, because they don’t share the commitment to it. Expecting others to want to do it is to set yourself up for major disappointment.

Approach it another way, though—that nobody really likes doing this, but it’s something that needs to get done—and you can make a difference.

2. Talk about chores as if they're everyone's job

Start with the idea that they’re not “helping” you if they clean; it’s everybody’s job to clean, not just yours. And then just talk about what a fair division of labour is. Of course, different family members require different strategies (you have no authority over your husband, for instance), but you can make a difference, once you stop doing everything and start leaving room for others to help!

3. Stop doing everything

They’re also not going to start pitching in if you keep doing everything. Don’t clean and then fume that no one’s mopping with you. You need to stop some of what you’re doing before others pick up the slack.

4. Find a chore system that works for you

When my daughters were small, we put stickers on the fridge when they did their chores. Since they’ve been five we’ve paid them an allowance, and that’s worked well. When they were small, I also did the chore with them or checked up right then. Now we use a checklist and I expect it all done by Saturday night.

You just have to find a system that works for you. People could choose their favourite chores, and stick to those, or you could put chores on pieces of paper and stick them in a basket, and everyone “chooses” their chores for that week. Or you could rotate. It really needs to be something that works for your family. One suggestion, though: make sure every child knows how to do every chore, even if they don’t do them very often. One day, when they have their own household, they’ll have to do it, so this is part of their training for independence.

The main thing, though, is to be consistent. If you want the chores done by Saturday night, enforce that rule. If you are giving an allowance, actually give it out. Don't forget, or it loses its appeal. And if you're tying chores to allowance, then stop buying them chocolate bars everytime you're out. Make them have a reason to want to earn their own money!

5. Reward cleaning, not attitude

Disrespect is obviously not tolerated. But if a child is dawdling, and cleaning as slowly as possible, is this really worth getting into a fight over? After all, they're going to have to finish the chore before they can go do something they want to do. If they decide to be slower than molasses, they're only hurting themselves.

My suggestion? Ignore behaviour like that. Tell them firmly but happily that they have to get it done, and then leave them alone. Don't start fighting about attitude, because then you end up arguing about intangibles, and you can't win. You start arguing about whether or not someone's really trying, and they insist they are, and then where do you go? They start crying, you try not to yell, and it's ugly all around.

You require the cleaning to get done. That's non-negotiable. If they want to flop on the floor every now and then, or work slowly, or scowl, then leave the room so you can't see them.

If they start fighting with siblings, as mine often do, I just tell them that they're not allowed to make my life miserable and start taking away allowances. Or I just make sure that they're cleaning on two different floors of the house.

6. Negotiate in good faith with your husband

If your husband is just not interested in cleaning, I don’t think this is worth getting into a huge fight about, personally. What’s more important to me is that the man spend some time with the children, not necessarily that he mop everything in sight. Everyone should be doing some work for the family, but if it works out fairly that Mom does most of the housework while Dad does most of the paid work, I think that’s okay. Every family needs to come to its own equilibrium.

If, however, you both work full-time and he still does little to nothing at home, you need to talk about it. Tell him how you’re feeling, and ask him to pitch in. If he just won’t, because he doesn’t have the time or because he’s already doing a lot of other chores, like maintenance or yard work, ask for his support in getting the kids to help. Some men still believe it’s the “woman’s” job, and thus it’s none of their concern, and shouldn’t be the kids’ concern, either.

Most men, though, are firmly committed to raising children who will be independent and responsible. If you talk to him about how teaching children chores is part of helping them to be independent, he’s more likely to see the value in it, and less likely to just expect mom to do everything. So have a date and plan for the future. Ask him what he wants the kids to be like in 5 years, in 10 years, in 15 years. How are you going to get the kids to that point? What chores should they have? How many? What do they need to know how to do before they move out? You may just find you have an ally after all!

Tomorrow's Saturday, the big chore day at many people's homes. Are you ready to go? If you want to talk to your family tonight about changing the way you do things, you can download my free chore charts here!

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At 9:19 AM , Blogger Alicia said…

SO timely! I really appreciate this post and I really needed to hear it. I'm feeling so overwhelmed by the housework needing to be done in my house and feeling very very alone in actually noticing it, forget about anyone else even considering helping! But I will definitely try to remember the points you have mentioned on making chore days as enjoyable as possible.


At 2:07 PM , Blogger Katy-Anne said…

"but if it works out fairly that Mom does most of the housework while Dad does most of the paid work, I think that’s okay. Every family needs to come to its own equilibrium."

Well, that might be all nice and dandy if both husband AND wife agree that that is fair. What if the wife WANTS to work too and the husband doesn't want her to because he thinks the house IS her job and that she's not actually valuable enough to deserve to be paid for any work? Besides, my husband thinks that since HE makes the money, HE is the only one that needs to have any say in where it goes. But hey, that's ok, isn't it, because he's a guy and therefore it's only his vote that counts?

And people wonder why some of us women get so frustrated.


At 2:50 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


I'm sorry you're so frustrated, but please note that I never said that the husband should be able to decide who does what. I'm assuming that you're deciding together. I just said that the division of work should be about equal--you both should be working in some capacity, which is something I really believe. I don't really care how families choose to split up the burden, as long as they choose it together and it seems fair.

I think you have a bigger issue than chores here. If you honestly feel that your husband does not think you are valuable, that is your issue, not the chores. If I were you, I would work at trying to cultivate your relationship. Spend some time alone just with him. Develop hobbies together. Talk together.

But remember that if he chooses not to do these things, feeling bitter or angry about it will not help. It won't solve the problems in your marriage; it will just magnify them because now you have a negative opinion towards him to boot.

I know many women have a very unequal relationship. Many men refuse to spend any quality time with their wives, and do take their wives for granted. It's up to you how you are going to respond to that.

It seems to me you have three choices:

1. Be really mad about it
2. Insist that he change
3. Change yourself

The first two, even if you feel justified, won't work. The only thing you can do is change how you respond to him and how you're going to act in the rest of your life to find a measure of peace and contentment.

Marriages are often very rocky for the first ten years, especially when you marry young. There's still an element of immaturity where people (especially men) don't want to live up to their responsibilities. But the simple fact is you made a commitment to this man. Now how are you going to make it work?

I know it's not easy on your own. I know it feels lonely. But concentrating on that feeling does not help anybody. And splitting up doesn't help anybody either. So if you're going to stay, what are you going to do to get rid of the bitterness?

I don't think I'm the cause of your bitterness. I think it's that you don't feel like you're in an equal partnership. I hope and pray that you can come to a measure of peace in your marriage regardless!


At 2:50 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 2:50 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 7:58 PM , Anonymous Bill at FamZoo said…


I think your advice is really sound - very well articulated and helpful! As a veteran of "chore-wars" with 5 kids, I know how emotionally charged and frustrating (yet necessary) the process can be.

The husband-related commentary is a bit amusing, if not discouraging. Seems like some fellas are still living in a previous era. I'll also point out that not all neatniks are of the female persuasion ;-)

Fastidious Work-at-home Dad

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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