How She Motivates Kids to Work
Maria Kemp is living the dream. No, she’s not living in a beach house in Costa Rica or backpacking around Europe. She lives on a ranch in beautiful Bishop, CA, my hometown. The dream she’s living is the one every mom evokes when our kids refuse to take out the trash, whining, “But it’s too haaaard.” That’s when we say, “If only we lived on a farm—then they’d know what hard work is.”
Turns out, that’s pretty true, actually. Ria’s three children, ages 11, 9, and 6, are the sixth generation that have worked on this ranch, raising cattle, sheep, and other animals. I talked to Ria about what kind of work her kids do.
“The kids have been riding with us since they were babies, at least on the easier days. Then they transition to riding in front of me on a very safe, gentle horse. Then they’re finally riding their own horse by the age of about 6, the age our daughter Kate is now. By that age, you can count on them to be decent help to turn the cows if you need it. Our boys are 9 and 11 and are a great help.
“Teaching the kids to work really happens organically, over the course of time, because it has to. The kids don’t really have any other option. We just say, ‘Here's what we're doing today and we're doing it as a family because it's a family ranch.’
The kids help herd the cattle in the summer, feed the animals morning and night in the winter, brand the calves in the spring, and take care of baby lambs as soon as they’re born. They also raise their own lambs for 4-H, and you don’t get higher stakes than that. If you don’t feed them, they’re going to die!
I’m guessing that most of you don’t live on a ranch or a farm. Is it even possible to motivate our kids to work hard if we don’t? That’s what we’re going to explore in this post, part three of a three-part series about teaching kids to work. (Part one was How She Teaches Kids to Clean, and part two was How She Teaches Kids to Be Tidy. In this episode we’ll talk about motivating our kids to work once they have the necessary skills--because teaching kids to do something does not mean they will actually do it. We’re not just talking about housework here. This applies to developing talents, getting an education, and anything else that requires work and perseverance.
I inherited a beautiful set of books from my grandmother, called the Encyclopedia of Motherhood, published in 1951. The content is about what you would expect. Some of it is a bit terrifying—some terrible medical and psychological advice—some of it is charming and quaint, and some is really smart.
One entry that fits into the “really smart” category is entitled, “Work Children Can Do.” The author, Margaret Ilsley DeMar, a mother of five, gave a really good overview of what motivates children. She says, “Children like to work when they can see some useful or interesting result; when there is congenial companionship; when their ego is allowed to grow through learning new skills, taking responsibility, or helping to make the plans; when their efforts are appreciated even though they make mistakes; when they are really needed; and when their parent's’ attitudes toward work are constructive.”
I’ve taken some of Margaret’s ideas as well as ideas from other moms and other books and organized them into ten tactics to help motivate our kids to work hard.
1. Assign Jobs with Tangible Results
Part of the reason farm living is such a great way to teach kids to work is that kids can see a tangible, real-life correlation between the work they do and the well-being and even survival of their families and animals.
This is why Maria loves 4-H. Her son Will feeds his animal twice a day and reports back to her, makes it gentle, takes care of any of its needs, and keeps records of expenses. Ria recently helped judge the kids’ record books for 4-H and she was impressed that “at least half a dozen of them talked about how 4-H is making them a more responsible person because they’re not indoors playing video games, but they’re out taking care of their animals, because they rely on them.”
The kids track the physical growth of their animals, and they can see how the work they do, feeding and caring for those animals contributes to that growth. Then the big, fat check at the end is pretty tangible too. Maria used her 4-H profits for the down payment of her first house. You can read more about Maria’s story at How Maria Teaches Kids to Work.
For mundane household chores, it can be harder to demonstrate such tangible results, especially for cyclical maintenance jobs like laundry and kitchen cleaning that seem to start over as soon as you finish. With jobs like these, including cleaning bedrooms, which can also be pretty cyclical, we can make a point to relish the results: “Look at all the space you have to play now.” “Doesn’t your room look so beautiful?” “Isn’t it so nice to have all your laundry done and put away?”
But it’s also useful to assign your kids finite projects with a finish line. This can be anything from organizing a drawer or closet to helping with a landscaping project to perfecting a piece of music for a recital. There’s a clear goal at the end and a clear result. Planting and tending a garden is a great way to teach this.
An extreme example of this is the Searle family, who decided they wanted to finish their basement so the teenagers could have a place to hang out. They didn’t have the budget to pay someone to finish it for them, so they decided to tackle the project as a family. They learned how to move the plumbing and gas lines, hang the drywall, mud and tape it, every step. Although the big goal of a finished basement took more than a year, there were tangible checkpoints along the way, such as inspections at the different stages that helped keep them engaged in the project and working hard together in the evenings.
When they finally did finish the basement, they were so proud to show their friends what they had created, and it was usually full of teenagers as planned.
2. Find Their Currency
Sometimes the satisfaction of a job well done, a clean bedroom, or the promise of a finished basement a year from now just isn’t enough to motivate kids to work. This does not mean you have lazy, spoiled children. It means you have human children.
In fact, at this moment I am unmotivated to clean my kitchen, even though I know how good it feels when it’s clean. Sometimes intrinsic motivation is not enough to get me up and cleaning. So I often plan little rewards along the way, for example, once the dishes are all loaded in the dishwasher, I get to read a chapter in my book or play a song on the piano. Or I’ll save a favorite podcast for dishes time, so I look forward to it.
The same principle works with kids, of course, just maybe with different rewards. Like so much of parenting, the actual currency that motivates kids will vary from kid to kid. I have one sweet-toothed kid who would do just about anything for a tic tac. One loves to check boxes on a chart. One wakes up early and does his chores faithfully every day so he can have a little screen time before school. Another likes cold, hard cash. Still another lives to play with friends. And some kids sincerely just want to help out. I have a sweet nephew like this.
This summer, Molly discovered her daughter’s currency, in perhaps the best deal a mom could make. Her oldest daughter, Olivia, really wanted a pair of Birkenstock sandals this summer, but Molly thought they were too expensive for a 13-year-old. So Olivia got creative. She said, “I’ll potty train Charlotte if you buy them for me.”
As you can imagine, Molly jumped at that offer. She made sure Livvy knew what she was getting into—all the cleanup, everything. Molly bought the sandals and a toy for Charlotte and put them both up on the refrigerator as a visible incentive. One week later, Charlotte was trained, those Birks were beginning the process of molding to Olivia’s feet, and Molly, well, I think we all know who came out ahead in that deal.
Rewarding kids with money is a controversial topic. In fact the next episode of this podcast is going to be about the allowance debate. But money can sure be a big motivation for some kids, and, as a bonus, it’s how the real world works too. You work, you make money. Emily Widdison, who we’ve heard from several times on this podcast, pays her kids to do their chores, but since she has nine children of her own as well as foster kids, it’s hard to keep enough cash on hand. So instead, Emily pays in fake gold coins ($.50 per coin). The kids can trade these in for cash, or pay them to us when they want to buy things on Amazon. They can also redeem these at the “Mom Store,” which is a drawer in Emily’s closet full of little toys and prizes. The little kids love the Mom Store because it’s instant gratification.
Last summer, Philip encouraged his daughters to earn some money by detailing their neighbors’ car. It was the first time they worked for someone outside of their family. They negotiated a price of $20, and worked until they got the job done, even though dinner was a little late that day. You can follow Philip on intstagram @thebuildingdad.
3. Let them Experience Natural Consequences
A corollary to the idea of rewarding kids for working is letting them see the natural consequences if they don’t do a job. These consequences don’t have to be as extreme as letting their lamb die if they don’t feed it. It can just mean letting them live in a messy bedroom until they can’t find anything, let alone the floor, and they finally cave.
It’s tempting to bail our kids out when they don’t do their chores, and just do it ourselves. We don’t want to live in squalor. But for one thing, that sets a bad precedent. Good luck getting them to do it the next time. It also sends the message that their contribution isn’t really necessary. And as our friend Margaret from the 50s says, “I suppose the need to be needed is one of the deepest aspects of human nature. Children certainly find great satisfaction in being really needed.” Nothing says I don’t really need your help like doing our kids’ jobs for them.
For a while, my kids were terrible about doing their kitchen jobs, not even clearing their own plates. So I told them that I only cook in clean kitchens, and that it was their job to clean it. If the dishes were not done from a previous meal, I would make beans and rice, but nothing more. We ate several meals of rice and beans before they got the picture.
Linda and Richard Eyre, authors of the book Teaching Your Children Responsibility, have a great suggestion for showing kids how important household jobs are—take the day off. They suggest that you pick a day that the family will be home most of the day and see what happens if nobody lifts a finger. No fixing official meals (except for small children), no picking up clutter, no sweeping, no doing laundry or emptying the garbage. Nada. They say, “By evening, you’ll have a good deal of distemper, some hungry children, a messy house, and a high level of chaos and confusion.” Your kids will also have a new appreciation for why chores matter.
4. Harness the Power of Toddlers
This might be my favorite tactic, because it’s so amazing and so true. You might think that kids’ motivation to help would increase with age and maturity. However, evidence would suggest—at least in my experience--that the opposite is true. Toddlers hold the prize.
As moms, we know this. A toddler successfully tosses a wad of paper into the trash and walks back just beaming. He wants to “help” with everything mom does around the house, from laundry to dishes to sweeping the floor.
NPR did a remarkable story about this in an anthropological context. The article is entitled, How to Get Your Kids to Do Chores Without Resenting It. The article talks about an anthropologist named Suzanne Gaskin who interviewed children in a Mayan Village in Mexico. The kids went on and on about how much they helped around the house—but they weren’t complaining. They were enthusiastic about their skills. They even volunteered to do much of the work. Researchers discovered that one of the big reasons these older kids were so helpful is that moms in their culture cultivated their natural inclination to help when they were toddlers. The article quotes Rebeca Mejia-Arauz, a psychologist at ITESO University in Guadalajara, who says, "Doing things with other people makes them happy and is important for their emotional development. They see what their mom or siblings are doing, and they want to do it."
The article goes on to hypothesize that traditional American culture does not see the same results because we often shoo toddlers away when they offer to help, instead of inviting them in. It suggests that we change our mindsets and invite toddlers in to work alongside us, cultivating that desire to help while they’re so enthusiastic—even if you know it will take longer to complete the task. The whole article is just fantastic.
Another thing that might keep us from inviting young children to work with us is the idea that they should be off playing. In the book The Anthropology of Childhood, David S. Lancy says, “While we hamstring our children to keep them from working, fearing their loss of innocence and studiousness, the norm elsewhere is to open the pathway to adulthood.”
The idea that play is the work of childhood is a very new idea. While there’s a lot of truth to it, sometimes work is the work of childhood too. And anyone who’s seen a child play with a toy kitchen or a play vacuum knows that work can also be the play of childhood. It’s all interwoven—kids really love to pretend they’re adults.
There’s a whole chapter in The Anthropology of Childhood that goes into great depth about the sophisticated chore curriculum in indigenous cultures around the world, and “the almost idyllic process whereby bright-eyed, eager children take up the tasks of their elders and persist until mastery.” These kids are learning, at a really young age, to do chores like gardening, herding, gathering, hunting, fishing, cooking, caring for other children, and making various handicrafts.
This is as good a time as any to talk about something I probably should have said up front. If you, like me, are struggling with motivating kids to work, we are lucky moms with lucky kids. First world problem, all the way. For many families in all countries, kids work hard because they have to. It’s a matter of survival.
This doesn’t mean that motivating our kids to work hard is an insignificant problem. It’s one we should absolutely address. Just thought we should take a minute to count our blessings, and then maybe take a page from some of these cultures that have such helpful children, pull a chair up to the sink, and hand your toddler a sponge.
5. Work with Them
Working together is not just for toddlers. Time spent working alongside your kids can also be time spent working on your relationships. My friend Jana especially likes weeding with her kids because they’re working side by side, outside, and it’s mindless so there’s ample opportunity to talk.
Nichole Searle learned this principle long ago from her grandfather. He lived next door, and she’d cross a little bridge to help him gather eggs, feed cows, and work in his garden. She loved working with him and thought of him as her best friend. He used to tell her that it didn’t matter what the job was—you could be shoveling manure in a ditch—but if you’re with the right person it’s enjoyable.
One of Nichole’s college professors told her, “The purpose of the task is to strengthen the relationship.” Since then, she’s decided that it doesn’t matter what the task is—you could be emptying the dishwasher or painting a room, but if you can do it with the purpose of strengthening a relationship, it will mean so much more.
6. Think of Yourself as an HR Manager
The sixth tactic is less touchy-feely. I often compare running a family to running a company, but when it comes to kids and work, it seems a little crass or uncaring to characterize them as employees. Be that as it may, the analogy works surprisingly well. We assign them tasks, we usually reward them in some way when they do them (whether it’s with money like a typical employee or not), and we have to deal with it when they don’t follow through. One obvious way this analogy breaks down is that we can’t fire them when they do a terrible job. But it’s possible that thinking of your children as employees might actually improve the way you interact with them. Think: would I talk to an employee this way?
If these kids are our employees and we’re their managers (despite the number of times they shout, “You’re not the boss of me!”), it makes sense to have some kind of HR strategy within your family.
Last year, my husband and I listened to an audiobook called, “Three Signs of a Miserable Job.” If you have trouble finding this book, that’s because somewhere between the audiobook recording and the publication of the hard-copy book, that title changed to a much more boring one: “The Truth About Employee Engagement.”
Here’s how Lencioni describes a miserable job: “It’s the one you dread going to and can’t wait to leave. It’s the one that saps your energy even when you’re not busy. It’s the one that makes you go home at the end of the day with less enthusiasm and more cynicism than you had when you left in the morning.”
Could there be a better explanation of how kids feel about doing chores around the house? My kids definitely dread cleaning time. They grumble and complain and drag their feet. They immediately act like they’re exhausted--as if they’ve never had a speck of energy in their lives, as if they weren’t just running around like maniacs in the basement.
Lencioni then identifies three specific reasons that people hate their jobs. The first is Anonymity. He says, “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known. All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority.”
Obviously we know our kids better than anyone does. But do the jobs we assign them reflect this. Do we rotate them through a bunch of generic chores that have nothing to do with their individual strengths and abilities?
Some chores just have to be done regularly, and by each child. Rooms have to get clean, laundry has to get done, the kitchen has to get clean. Those chores remain consistent in my house.
But when you run a company, you don’t usually ask the accountant to take photos for your Website, and you don’t ask the marketing director to write the code for a new app.
One way to motivate our kids to work is to match assignments to strengths. For example, my third son has an incredible imagination and is a baby whisperer. Even though he’s not old enough to babysit, I often give him the chore of entertaining the younger kids while I make dinner, help the older kids with homework or piano practice, or whenever I need to focus on something. He does a much better job than his two older brothers, who quickly lose interest.
Another of my sons is good at figuring out electronics. I often assign him to figure out how some new gadget works (from clock radios to a new app). He also really enjoys cooking, so he often gets that job. My Lego-whiz is also my go-to IKEA assembler. My seven-year-old daughter is great at reading bedtime stories to her little brother and she cooks a mean scrambled egg.
This kind of specialization definitely emerged as the Searle family was finishing their basement. Their oldest son, Kemron was all in. He’s always been interested in construction and is studying construction management now as a 21-year-old. But this was not the case for all of the kids. Their daughter Faith was not very interested in the construction process at all. But she loved to cook. So she decided it would be her job to make meals for the rest of the family while they worked.
7. Offer Praise and Recognition
You’re probably wondering what the other two signs of a miserable job are. The second one is irrelevance. Lencioni says, “Everyone needs to know that their job matters, to someone. Anyone.” The third sign of a miserable job is lack of measurement. He says, “Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves… Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates…”
Charts and reward systems are one way to measure a kid’s progress—to measure their success and contribution. This podcast would last forever if I talked about different methods for marking their progress. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just noticing when your kids work hard and telling them how much you appreciate it goes a long way—good old-fashioned positive reinforcement. Better yet, let them overhear you telling someone else how hard that child worked.
Juliana is really good at this. In the mornings before school she checks the rooms really quickly. Then, rather than focusing on the three beds that were not made, she calls up the one kid whose bed was made, gives her a big hug and says, “I am so proud of you for taking care of your room and making your bed. That really helps our mornings go smoothly. I’m so glad you are showing responsibility and taking care of your room. Great job kiddo!”
This is a great reminder to the others of how much she appreciates this simple thing, and chances are, they will remember it the next morning when they’re tempted to leave their beds unmade. And it’s so much more effective than nagging the others to make their beds.
One day, Richard Eyre brought a few of his kids in to watch while he tidied his den. While he cleaned he talked about how good he feels when it’s clean. Then after he finished, he put a brightly colored sign on the door that said, “Pride.” They all wanted one, and he told them they could, once they felt proud of the way their own rooms looked. They continued to bring the signs out now and again whenever they needed a refresher on tidiness.
Candi Kidd likes to celebrate her kids’ cleaning successes in real-time, while they’re cleaning. Her five-year-old’s job was to sort laundry. One day when he was dragging his feet, she said, “Let’s do a celebration blitz. I’ll show you how.” Each time she threw an article of clothing into the right pile, she’d say “woo-hoo!” or “Boo-ya!” It didn’t take him long to join in. They were high-fiving, fist pumping, hollering, and he even threw in some karate kicks.
After they were done, he threw his arms around her and said, “Thanks mom, I’ve never felt that way before.” Now, when he’s having a rough day, he’ll actually request to sort laundry with her. Candi talked about this on the very first episode of the 3 in 30 podcast, entitled,Getting Unmotivated Kids to Help
8. Give them Ownership
After I read the book about miserable jobs, I realized that in the real world, people get to apply for jobs—they don’t just get assignments. So I printed up a page full of job listings and posted it on the wall. I advertised positions for garbage manager, lawn mower, vacuum manager, menu assistant, and sous chef, with job descriptions and compensation amounts for each position.
I let the kids know I had some jobs available, and a couple of them took me up on it. Their interest has waxed and waned, and some of them end up changing from week to week or going undone. But my 7-year-old daughter surprised me by snatching up the garbage manager position. She cheerfully takes out the kitchen garbage each day and makes weekly rounds emptying garbage and replacing garbage liners. She’s motivated by the 8 dollars she makes each week, but also by being my dependable go-to garbage girl. We scoot the cans outside up to an old piece of furniture that she stands on so she can reach to put the bags in the cans. Those kitchen bags are almost as big as she is!
When we give kids ownership of a chore and let them take charge of it, without micromanaging, they’re often more motivated to do a good job.
In another great episode of the 3 in 30 Podcast, entitled 3 Battles You Can Let Your Child Win, Rachel Nielson interviewed Lisa Anderson of Thriving Motherhood. One of the battles Lisa lets her kids win is deciding when they do their chores or homework. Instead of saying, “Come do your homework right now,” she’ll say, “What’s your plan for homework today.” Giving the child some control really helps motivate them to actually get the homework done.
I totally remember this phenomenon as a kid. I actually liked doing my chores, but only if no one asked me to do them. It was exciting to me to show that I could handle the responsibility on my own, but when someone asked me to do my chores, I suddenly lost interest.
Another aspect to giving kids ownership is to let them make decisions. Part of my daughter’s garbage manager job is to create the system of how she’s going to manage this garbage project each week. My kids are all bathroom managers, which means they decide whether to clean them daily or weekly, and who’s in charge of what responsibilities. I inspect them based on the cleaning schedule they create.
Part of the reason Nichole’s kids were so motivated to help with the basement project was that they got to help make some of the big decisions, from layout to paint color.
9. Make it Fun
The next tactic is something I used to be really good at, though I’ve kind of run out of steam as I’ve added more children. Number nine is to make cleaning fun. I used to be super creative at cleaning time, making up all sorts of games. When my oldest son was obsessed with watching YouTube reruns of Inspector Gadget, I’d write down missions on slips of paper, and hand them to him. He’d read them, crumple them up, throw them back at me and I’d pretend to explode like Chief Quimby. Moms of a certain age will know what I’m talking about here.
Sometimes I’d even write different jobs and different fun activities on pieces of paper, slip them inside balloons, and have the kids pop the balloons to see what job or activity we got to do next. My younger kids have no idea any of this ever happened, so I should probably keep this episode on the downlow.
But you don’t have to be overly ambitious (like I used to be) to motivate your kids with a bit of fun now and then. One of the best ways is a simple game of pretend. My sister, Cassie Gadd, often encourages her kids to role play. This works especially well for her daughter who has a dramatic flair. One time they pretended that they were maids, cleaning the house for a very rich and very evil homeowner.
When Nanieve French’s kids were little, she and a friend would swap houses at the end of cleaning day, and pretend to be cleaning fairies, complete with white gloves, come to inspect the children’s work.
Another way to integrate a bit of fun is to add in some friendly competition, racing against the clock or each other. My friend Amber Addams would take a time-lapse video of her kids cleaning up the play room and then play it back for the kids so they could see how fast they looked.
Of course a cleaning game is even more fun if there are built-in rewards. One of the only games I still bring out once in a while is one we call Jackpot. I pick three objects in the room and when a kid puts one of them away, I say “ding-ding-ding” and give them a small prize like a quarter or a gummy worm. Sometimes we rotate and let the kids take turns picking the jackpot items as well. Nothing gets them scurrying around to pick things up quite like this game.
Sometimes we also play “whipped clean,” where I give the kids a squirt of whipped cream right into their mouths when they finish mini cleaning missions.
Another reward-based game my sister invented arose from a moment of desperation. It had been one of those days. By late afternoon, Cassie’s house was a mess and she started shouting orders at her kids. She was mad; they were wailing. So she regrouped and came up with a new cleaning game on the spot: Level Up. She had her son make a chart with escalating levels of treats, starting with a creamy popsicle all the way up to a cone with sherbet, sprinkles, whipped cream, and marshmallows. She gave the kids bite-sized jobs. Every additional job they completed allowed them to “level up” to the next treat. They whipped the house into shape in no time and shared a treat.
For more ideas for cleaning games, go to Good, Clean Fun for the Whole Family!
6. Set a Finish Line—or Several Finish Lines.
The final tactic is to set a finish line. If we just say, “OK kids, we’re going to clean the house today,” they’re bound to go boneless and weep and wail. To avoid this, Jana Frei starts their working Saturdays with a finite list that the family completes together. They cross jobs off the list as they go, so they can see their progress.
Several moms I talked to use timers as their finish line. They set a specific amount of time for a task and they work until the timer goes off.
Sometimes you need to chunk up a task so you have several finish lines. The best thing that happened for bedroom cleaning in our house is when I printed off step-by-step instructions and taped them up in my kids’ closets as a reference. They know to pick up the trash first, then books, then clothes, etc.
This idea of dividing tasks into bite-sized chunks is what Lindsay Nielson, the genius behind the Instagram account The Lindsay Report, refers to as “the stick trick,” based on a poem she read years ago. A boy was overwhelmed by the prospect of weeding a whole garden, so his dad told him to just throw his stick as far as he could and weed to the stick. Now when Lindsay or her children get overwhelmed by a task, her mantra is, “Just throw the stick.” You can hear more of Lindsay’s great mantras on episode 97 of the Family Looking Up podcast, How to Keep Your Head Above Water.
I love the idea of the stick trick, because it’s actually so applicable to this whole process of teaching kids how to work. All we can do is keep throwing our sticks, giving our kids more and more responsibility.
Maria Kemp says, “It’s a lot of work on a parent to instill a work ethic at a young age, but I’m hoping down the road it will pay off and make their road easier for them. Adulting is a lot of work!”
Whether you live on a ranch or in a townhouse, I’m guessing there’s enough work at your house to go around. Hopefully some of the moms from this episode will inspire you with new ways to motivate your own kids to git ‘er done.