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We’ve been considering the benefits of having kids do chores. But what about the process? Let’s frame chores with the notion:

Teaching kids to do chores is like teaching a chicken to play baseball

If you took Psychology 101 you may remember the experiments in B.F. Skinner’s theory in which research psychologists used planned systems of rewards (“reinforcements”) to teach animals to do unlikely skills…in this case (1946, University of Central Arkansas, Dr Keller Breland), to teach a chicken to play baseball.

The process, simplified immensely, was to decide on a do-able task for the animal, identify learning steps in accomplishing the end goal, determine a reward for the animal and proceed with shaping the animal’s behavior toward the defined end point. In this situation the end goal was defined as the chicken picking up the baseball bat, hitting a ball and then moving around the bases. The work began as the chicken entered the training space. At first, if he walked toward the tiny bat, he got a chicken treat. Next, he had to actually touch the bat to get his treat. Once he’d learned to do that, he had to touch the bat with his beak, then pick up the bat with his beak…then touch the bat to the ball….and so on until at last, to get his little chicken treat, he was able to perform the entire sequence…not a skill “natural” to him at all!

This training process is what psychologists call “successive approximations,” meaning that step by step, each step carries the
“learner” in the direction of the end-learning-goal. There is no expectation, no possibility, that any chicken would naturally enter the cage, strike the ball with a bat and run the bases. But he can learn to do it, slowly with rewards and practice, improving and becoming more demanding along the way. Likewise, no kid is going to spring to sink and naturally, flawlessly clean the dishes, load the dishwasher and wipe down counter tops on his first try!

Like the chicken researchers, with our little chickies and chores, we must identify the end performance, select a suitable “reinforcing reward,” and begin to implement a consistent training pattern. It’s important to be absolutely clear about one thing: in the beginning it is NOT easier, more efficient or even up to standards for kids to do the chores instead of parents doing them! But, like those early psychologists, we’re in it for the long game, for the higher benefits.

Again, to be clear, the benefits of doing chores are so numerous and not just because work gets done, which CAN actually be great for parents. Some of those benefits of doing chores include:

  • growing actual life knowledge and skills
  • coming to feel competent in adult stuff
  • having quiet, brain-down-time
  • feeling as if you’re a contributing, important member of the team/family
  • learning to have a pitch-in, job-well-done mentality
  • adopting mindsets and habits (above) which reap benefits for a lifetime
  • gaining competence and confidence that you can care for your own needs
  • learning to set standards you like for cleanliness and organization
  • coming to appreciate those folks you hire in the future who do drudgery for you
  • tamping down a sense of entitlement
  • learning how to do stuff which might end up with your getting paid
  • realizing that others count on you and that you are, in fact, reliable
  • developing problem-solving skills for when things don’t go according to plan
  • understanding how welcome helping can be, you’re always a welcome guest!

In all of human history until about the last fifty years…and even now in many places…by the time a kid was as big as the adult members of her family/community/tribe, she learned and was expected to DO adult tasks. Somehow in the re-shifting as “the most important thing in a kid’s life is school,” we’ve somehow lost sight of the fact that almost NO ADULT gets a pass card on caring for themselves in daily living…food still has to be bought, trash baskets have to get emptied, laundry has to be done…no matter how smart, how clever, how charming you are.

Why not give your kids the joy (no, I mean, for real!), the sense of accomplishment, the sense of competence and confidence which come with learning to do real stuff well?

Of course, it begins with your deciding what the tasks will be, what the end performance will look like, coming to view successive steps as the path toward the end…. and so on.

And don’t forget the chicken treats….