Modern Parenting: To Chore or Not to Chore?

To chore, I say.

Early this spring, Bee began campaigning for a fish.

Actually, nine, she says, for swimming together.

My hesitations were many. More responsibility for our kids often means more management for us, and with two kids, two dogs, two jobs, we were fresh out of any available management margin. She’d be on her own here. Could a four-year-old handle a chore with (slightly) higher stakes, a few literal mouths to feed?

Let me talk to your dad about it, I tell her.

Ken and I chatted through the importance of saying no to kids, but also the importance of saying yes. We talked about entitlement, about how it’s prone to running rampant in so many generations, of how it happens to be a particularly thorny issue in Bee’s own. We talk about ways in which she can earn her fish. We talk about our own pets and chores as kids, about how proud we were of the small responsibilities assigned to us and us alone. We talk about how diligently Bee feeds the dogs daily – her own chore – but certainly with a fair amount of grumbling attached.

And we decide: Yes to three fish. To earn them, she must learn to complete her current chore with a happy heart – no whining or complaining about feeding the dogs.

For how many days? Bee asks.

Ten in a row, I tell her, a number thrown out on a whim until she races off to the office, comes back with a self-made bubble chart: ten circles ready to be checked off.

The deal is sealed.

And this is how, on her fifth birthday, we walk into a fluorescent-lit pet store to tell the salesman yes, please, can you walk us to your starter tanks?

I know enough about modern parenting to know it’s far less modern than we think. When faced with a dilemma or decision, I am forever referencing the many mothers who have adventured before us – whether in books of years passed or chats with wise grandmothers. And so, when I think of chores, I think of an old poem that is oft-referenced in our own home, one that Bee and I have been memorizing for the summer – The Camel’s Hump by Rudyard Kipling:

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.

Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump-
Cameelious hump-
The hump that is black and blue!

We climb out of bed with a frouzly head,
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;

And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know’ there is one for you)
When we get the hump-
Cameelious hump-
The hump that is black and blue!

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump-
The horrible hump-
The hump that is black and blue!

I get it as well as you-oo-oo-
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo!
We all get hump-
Cameelious hump-
Kiddies and grown-ups too!

And I suppose this is what I think of when I think of chores: the modeling, the showing, the leading. For my kids to understand the value of hard work, generous help, good attitudes – I must understand it first.

To see it in my kids tomorrow, they must see it in me today.

A few practical thoughts, then:

  1. “But it’s not my mess.”
    One of our daily chores is to keep the main areas of the house (fairly) tidy. And while we absolutely encourage personal responsibility in our home, all kids tend to grumble and complain over cleaning up someone else’s mess. I combat this as much as possible by offering to help Bee clean up her messes when the job feels too overwhelming (a fort here, a craft gone rogue there). When she complains about picking up Scout’s toys in the living room or cleaning up after her playdates, I offer the gentle reminder that I’m often doing the same for her.
  2. Leave a place better than before.
    Another everyday “chore” is the simple mentality that we can help others anytime, wherever we are. After playdates at someone else’s home, we can clean up any messes – regardless of who made them. If we see trash on the sidewalk, we can pick it up and throw it away. If we’re in our favorite small coffee shop and notice the toilet paper roll is empty, we can offer to replace it for the busy barista. (Note: this extends far past tangible help — leaving a place better than before sometimes just means offering a kind compliment or a few words of encouragement on your way out the door.)
  3. Read the room.
    I’m often teaching Bee to ‘read the room,’ or to take the temperature of a situation. How does the room feel to you? Are you noticing the adults are in a deep conversation? Not the best time to ask a question. Is your friend’s baby brother getting ready for a nap? Not the best time to practice loud cartwheels. In doing this, we’re teaching Bee to be proactive and to see a need before it’s asked of her. This translates well when guests visit, as Bee’s “chore” is often filling and refilling of water glasses, or hanging someone’s coat or hat. By teaching her to notice each need, she can take full ownership over completing her chore all by herself.
  4. “You should be so proud of yourself.”
    Instead of praising kids for helping others, I far prefer they learn pride in the work itself. There is a small difference in saying “I’m so proud of you” vs. “You should be so proud of yourself!” The former might train a child to rely on external rewards or praise to accomplish a goal, but the latter teaches one of the less noticeable gifts of hard work: that familiar swell of personal pride after a job well done.
  5. More freedom, more responsibility.
    This one comes out of my mouth far more often than any of the above, and it’s the simple reminder that we are constantly growing into new roles, new chores, new ideas, new responsibilities. If Bee wants the freedom to play with kinetic sand in the dining room, she’s responsible for sweeping the grains from the rug. If Bee wants the freedom to play outside on the swing set, she’s responsible for remembering to wear her sun hat. The natural consequences are many here – if the responsibility goes ignored, the freedom is re-evaluated.
  6. Bonus > allowance.
    We have many conversations about money management and can sometimes be seen on the floor in the living room playing bank and swapping coins. But for now, Bee is taught to do what is expected to help the house run smoothly without payment or an allowance – and instead, with quite a bit of verbal encouragement and notes of gratitude. On rare occasions, when she’s gone above and beyond her regular chores, I’ve snuck in a surprise treat into the dog food container or the drawer where she folds away her clothes – a simple bonus for a job well done.


Tell me, what’s your take on kids and chores? I’d love to hear! Plus, a few of my online pals are chatting through their own chore rhythms — enjoy a few other mothers’ perspectives right this way!: Jen, Kim, Catherine, Stacey & Alex.

  • You’ve made some great points in your post and our chore module have such similarities. I love that you touched on modeling too. Our kids tend to model what we do and I’ve seen first hand how that influences their approach to chores. Also we talk about money management in our home all the time too-i might have little entrepreneurs in the making-the youngest recently told me he wanted to lose more teeth so that he could get more money from the tooth fairy haha! Very thorough post and I enjoyed reading. x

  • I always love reading your posts, but ‘love’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word for my thoughts on number three! This idea of teaching social awareness to kids, encouraging observation, and of anticipating needs before someone makes them verbally aware is completely genius, but not at all unexpected coming from you! Thanks for sharing :)

  • As a new step mother to two awesome boys, I think about this a lot. Their dad is very much in the camp of ‘this is our home together, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep it running,’ while their mother pays them for chores. I do find myself grumbling about feeling like I have to pick up more than I used to (when I lived by myself) – I’m using your tips above to help reframe my own thinking! :)

  • We’re definitely in the thick of which chores to assign, how many, rewards to offer (or not)…and he’s definitely in the thick of complaining that he “has to do it aaaaalllllll himself?!” so it’s a balancing act every day. I figure we’ll all work it out eventually. = )

    • Ha —- loads of complaining around here. ;) I have a tiny wooden camel figurine (a nod to the kipling poem!) that we pass around from family member to family member for the person who completed their chores with the happiest heart. It’s an imperfect system, but helps keep the complaining at bay (for all of us, ha!).

  • I remember as a young child my chores were to empty Dad’s ash tray and to dry the silverware.Picking up my toys was a given; not a chore.

    • Yes! Bee has a few of these types of chores as well – feeding the dogs, sweeping the deck, folding the socks. It’s so important to teach the importance of chipping in! :)

  • I love your thoughts on this! I like that you are teaching a responsibility mindset. Also, love that poem! It’s even a good reminder for me. I have a hard time with all of the chore charts and reward systems I see constantly on Pinterest. Primarily because that’s just one more thing for me to manage and remember. My biggest hang-up with chores is that I feel like I need to be a better example. I get busy and forget to make my bed or the baby needs a diaper change and I leave my plate at the table or I bring a million things in from the car and they sit by our front door for a couple days. I want to be such a better example to my kids! Of course, if I teach my kids they’ll probably be good at reminding me the way kids always do 😜

    • Ha — amen! Bee is forever reminding me to take off my shoes when I get int he house, and I’m constantly saying, yes, yes, let me put your brother’s car seat down first. ;) (And I’m very chore chart-averse over here — so overwhelming — I’ve found Bee prefers making her own anyway.) ;)

  • We have a just turned 4 and just turned 2 year old and are navigating this all as well. They are expected to take care of their belongings and each are starting to do chores to share the duties of each day. The 4 year old has more to do than the 2. I appreciate the attitude of your post. “Read the room” and “‘more freedom, more responsibility” are helpful tips to add into my teaching. We haven’t included payment yet, but I want to incorporate that for extra work eventually. In our home, there are some things that we all do as part of a family and some things that they can do for earning. Also, a great to poem- thanks for sharing!

  • I love the poem.
    I too agree chores are a must for kids to find pride in their work. Although, I must admit I admire your gentle touch on parenting.
    As a mother of a strong willed nine year old boy, whose not afraid to speak against what he feels is unjust, I find myself in a battle of wits with him. That is untilI have a sudden epiphany that I’m the parent.

    Also, love the part about reading a room. I’m going to steal that one!

    Niki – Midlife Lifestyle

    • Oh, I have plenty of moments where I remind myself I’m the parent, ha! I’m gentle by nature, but also easily frustrated by conflict so strong-willed battles are definitely present in these parts. :)

  • Just Wow! I love the poem you shared, what a much needed reminder. Helping and chores have been on my mind lately since I have an almost 3yr old and one due in December. My son is responsible for picking up his toys, he helps me unload the dishwasher, take out the trash, sort laundry, and sometimes helps feed our chickens.I are up in a large family (5 kids) we were all expected to do laundry, help cook meals, wash dishes, sweep, keep our areas clean. These were just part of our daily routines. Chores were considered weeding the garden, sweeping the porches, washing the cars, etc. I try to keep a positive attitude with my son when it comes to housework. Things like thank you for helping, it’s sp nice to help. We are so blessed to have toys/clean dishes/clothes etc. Cheesy and I don’t always succeed but I hope to cultivate gratitude.Love what you said about reading the room, I hope I can cultivate more awareness in my son, especially with a baby brother on the way!

    • Oh, it sounds like you’re doing a beautiful job instilling hard work and gratitude, Hannah! And congrats on a sweet little one your way soon enough! :)

  • I don’t think I have ever read the full poem. Thank you for the post- I haven’t heard it since I was a child. Item 3 really resonated with me. I hadn’t thought to teach my child to “read a room” but now it seems so obvious. Also, reframing my wording to “you” for item 4 has already worked wonders.
    Thank you for the amazing post!

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