"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 29, 2012
How to Get Your Children to Clean without Resorting to Violence
by Emily S. Jorgensen

I grew up as the oldest of six children. As such, it occasionally fell to me to get my younger siblings to do their chores, or at least to keep them busy so I could get mine done.

I discovered two very important principles early on that not only helped me manage my four-year-old ADHD brother, but also my own children.

I found that if you ask a child to do something that is obviously work and not fun, the answer is inevitably, "No." However, do a Mary-Poppins things and make it fun, and the answer is, "When can I do that again?"

And just how does a chore become fun?

Rarely, if you are lucky enough to have a really sweet child like my second daughter, it can be through imagination. She went through a phase when she was three when she wanted to be Cinderella so badly that she asked me to be her evil stepmother and give her chores. She would then happily do them for about twenty to thirty minutes until she declared it was time for the Ball. Of course, then I had to pay my dues by dancing with her at the Ball, but it was worth it, I tell you.

But, this is not the universal answer. And no, the answer is not in bribery or cajoling. Rather, the first principle I have learned lies in something that appeals to nearly all children — novelty. The same reason why your next-door-neighbor's toys are so much more interesting than the boring old same ones in your playroom is the reason children will jump to help you in a chore.

If they have never mopped the floor, or do so rarely, they will love it. If they have never wiped down walls, they will do it with glee. If they are finally deemed old enough to operate the Windex spray bottle themselves, this will be thrilling.

Of course many of our daily chores are monotonous and boring — and they still have to get done. For these, in our home we have a designated "10-minute tidy time." Even my three-year-old son realizes this won't take long, and picks up his room so he can play again. There are no real arguments when it is a regular part of the routine.

But those special, big jobs can be really fun if they are new and novel — and (and this is a big “and”) if we parents will let them do it imperfectly. It can be hard to see them taking five years to do a job that would take us five minutes, but then they learn they can do it, and that you trust them to do it, and that it is part of being in a family that we do this type of work together. I have to have faith this will pay off later.

Indeed, I have seen it start to pay off already, as my 7- and 9-year-olds can now be set on a chore and I can leave the room and know it will get done — maybe not as efficiently or perfectly as I would do it, but it gets done.

The second principle I have learned works well when the child cannot be fooled into thinking that doing chores is fun. I have learned that when a child thinks the choice is between doing a chore and not doing a chore, of course, the answer is "not." But, when the choice is between doing one chore or another chore, then there is a paradigm shift and you can usually count on getting one of those choices done.

I attribute this phenomenon to the child's innate insatiable desire to make as many choices for himself as possible. Children love knowing they have control in their lives, and we Mormons have a fantastic explanation for this. It is called the Plan of Salvation.

Somewhere, deep inside their little consciousness, is this knowledge that the whole reason they came to this planet was to learn to use their agency wisely. Then why wouldn't they grasp at any chance we give them to practice that?

So, if a child really doesn't want to help sweep the kitchen floor, I give him a choice. It is not a punishment, but a real choice. He can sweep the floor or fold the load of towels that are in the dryer. Given a choice that is A or B instead of A or not A works almost every time.

Oh ho, you say. My kid is too smart for that. He knows choice C is "none of the above." Well, if I come across this attitude, I smile sweetly and list three other, progressively worse chores they could do instead — clean out the toilets or scrub mildew out of the shower stall, or whatever I can think of that I know is the least pleasant work that needs to get done in the house at the time. As their available choices become less and less appealing, this usually does the trick, even if they throw in an eye roll as they accept responsibility for the least icky job.

There are, of course, times when a battle is inevitable. However, I have found that appealing to their sense of novelty and their sense of autonomy avoids many more such battles than if I just took the attitude, "because I said so."

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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