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How Do I Teach Responsibility to My Kids?

Is the idea of giving chores for my kids to earn money a good way to teach them responsibility? Should I require chores for an allowance?

I’ve required my kids to do things like help pick up their own toys since they were toddlers. But as they got older, we’ve attempted to teach them responsibility by giving them more chores – washing dishes, cleaning up their rooms and bathroom, helping with their laundry, more thoroughly cleaning up their play areas, etc. It’s not always easy to get them to fulfill their responsibilities, so we started asking ourselves, “Should we provide the incentive of an allowance, or possibly pay per chore?”

After putting some thought into it, I came to two realizations:

  • The word “chore” didn’t accurately describe some of the responsibilities that my kids had and would have as they grew into adulthood. When I think of chores, I think of routine unpleasantness to be shirked if possible. There’s a sense of the chore being easy but awful. But here’s the thing – what we think of as chores are sometimes hard work and deserve respect. And shirking those chores can create chaos, not just for the individual but for the entire family.
  • It’s not true that we get paid for every type of work that we do. We all do work or “chores” every single day for which we have no right to expect payment. In a sense, the contribution that our work makes to our families is the payment. And getting payment for doing basic work, like cleaning up our own messes and taking care of our things, reinforces a sense of entitlement.

Furthermore, reward systems are not long-term solutions for behavior modification. Alfie Kohn, who writes and lectures about parenting and education, says that

“extrinsic motivators do not alter the emotional or cognitive commitments that underlie behavior–at least not in a desirable direction. A child promised a treat for learning or acting responsibly has been given every reason to stop doing so when there is no longer a reward to be gained.”

Since using an allowance to motivate kids to do their “chores” is essentially a reward system, I determined that using an allowance in this way would not support my long-term goals as a parent.

One of my primary goals as a parent is to teach responsibility to my kids by training them up in such a way that the transition from childhood to adulthood is as painless as possible. Rather than a harsh line between the stages of life, like the time between childhood and teen years, or the teen years and adulthood, I believe that there should be an evolution in maturity, relationships, and responsibility.

An important aspect of that evolution is helping our kids live lives that are based on truth versus fiction. For example, not expecting our kids to clean up their own messes (to the best of their abilities) is allowing them to live in the fiction that other people will always clean up after them. So what happens when we suddenly tell them to put their clothes in the hamper, for example, when they’ve spent years throwing their clothes on the floor and leaving us to put them in the hamper? There’s pushback and drama. We are correct in training our kids to clean up after themselves, but allowing them to live in the fiction that other people will always clean up for them makes the transition to reality extremely difficult and gets in the way of us trying to teach them responsibility.

Another important aspect of the evolution from little child to adult is an acceptance that work is part of life. Work is what allows us to create happy, fulfilling, productive lives. This way of thinking is directly opposed to the idea that work is something that we grit our teeth and get through in order to get to the weekend or a vacation. Rather than inconvenience, work is the enabler for many of the good things in our lives.

Teach About Work to Teach Responsibility

As I considered these ideas of helping our kids live lives based on truth and of work as a good thing, I pondered whether or not we should pay our kids for the work that they do in our home. I concluded that the best way for me to teach responsibility to my kids is to teach them that there are several different types of work (with some overlap) that the average person may do during the course of a lifetime or even a day:

  • Work that is your Personal Responsibility.
  • Work that we do because we have a Family Responsibility.
  • Work that we do because we have a Community Responsibility.
  • Income-Producing work that we do to pay the bills.

Personal Responsibility

Work that is your Personal Responsibility includes activities like laundry, taking care of your things, and doing the work of learning. This is work that needs to be done by you or someone else (except for learning – at some point you have to do the work, even if you hire a teacher or tutor to help the process along). For example, no one is going to pay you to do your own laundry as an adult, but if you want someone else to do your laundry, you usually have to pay them. Whether you do the work yourself or outsource it, it is your responsibility to make sure that it’s done.

I’ve found that my kids thrive on systems that promote independence in work that is their personal responsibility. For example, we use a workbox system in our homeschool that allows my kids to know what schoolwork they are required to do each day and what they can do on their own without my help. Besides helping my kids feel a sense of independence in their education, this system has the added benefit of helping me as mom keep the crazy at bay by minimizing school-related questions.

Family Responsibility

Work that is your Family Responsibility includes caring for loved ones, taking care of your family’s home, and helping out other members of your family. We do these things because we have the privilege of being part of a family, not because we’re getting paid to do them. I cook meals, train and discipline my kids, and set up systems to create a comfortable home because I have the privilege of having a family. If I want someone else to do these things, I will need to pay them.

Much of the work that comes with Family Responsiblity often comes as a shock to young couples. Even without children, newlyweds discover that the decision to live with even just one other person requires an acceptance of new work, often involving a great deal of compromise, so that we are loving and considerate spouses. But even if we get through that life change successfully and then embark on the adventure of becoming parents, the work in having a new child (between snuggles and Instagram-worthy snapshots) is shocking!

It shouldn’t be so shocking to realize that, in order to experience joy in our families, we need to put some work into it. But our culture has made it socially acceptable to shield our kids from this truth in a misguided effort to give our kids “magical” childhoods.  In our home, I’m trying to place an emphasis on the work involved due to Family Responsibility. I believe that the confidence that kids gain from developing competence in household tasks is part of a “magical” childhood. I’m hoping this will ease my kids into the realities of adult responsibility as they get older.

Curious about what Family Responsibility-friendly chores might be appropriate for your child? I’ve created a handy-dandy chore list for you…hope it helps!

Community Responsiblity

“Community” could include a neighborhood, church, or organization. We volunteer our time – pick up litter, teach a Sunday School class, help at a fundraising event, become a den leader for Scouts – because we are part of that community and somebody has to do those things. We usually are not paid when we volunteer our time in this way, but that doesn’t mean that the work we volunteer for is unimportant or “optional.”

I have been shocked by the lack of responsibility willing volunteers feel about the work that they have signed up to do. When I hear someone say, “I’m just a volunteer…,” I want to say, “Yes, you’re a volunteer – you volunteered to do a job for free. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do the job you volunteered for when it’s inconvenient.” Leadership roles in volunteer organizations are tricky because too many people are irresponsible with their community obligations. I’m hoping to raise my kids to take volunteer roles seriously.


This is work that we do to make money so that we can take care of ourselves and our families (Family Responsibility). We often invest considerable time and money into learning and training to become skilled enough in an area that someone else will pay us to do or make something for them. This is not unpaid volunteer work. Our primary goal here is to support ourselves and our families in an honest way.

We also want to teach our kids that it is absolutely fair that they get paid a fair wage for income-producing work, This may seem like a no-brainer, but there’s often someone that tries to get us to give our knowledge and skills for free. While we are certainly free to choose to volunteer our skills and knowledge in specific instances, it should be our choice and not lead to us endangering our families with a lack of resources.

teach responsibility

Notice that after just a little bit of thought, I was able to define four different types of work. And only one of those types receives payment. So it is not true that we get paid for all of the work that we do. A truer statement is that we may not get paid for most of the work that we do. Any stay-at-home mom can tell you that she works a lot, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, but nobody is paying her for (or sometimes even noticing) her efforts.

Do I pay my kids for chores?

After thinking it through, I realized that responsiblities our kids have fall into the Personal Responsiblity and Family Responsibility categories. Washing dishes? Family responsibility. Their own laundry? Personal Responsiblity. Making their own beds? Personal Responsibility. Cleaning up their messes? Personal and Family Responsibility.

Since we are not usually paid for the work that we do that is part of our Personal Responsibility or Family Responsiblity, I decided that we would not be doing our kids, or our family, a favor by paying for this work. Besides the negative training that would take place if my kids believed that they should get paid for washing their own dirty underwear, I didn’t want to leave us open to the “I don’t really want to make my bed/do my laundry/wash those dishes, so you don’t have to pay me” argument. The bottom line is: those things need to be done, whether or not you get paid. It is their responsibility

On the other hand, we do pay our kids for work that we would pay someone else to do. We’ve paid them to pull weeds, rake leaves, move landscaping rocks…I even paid my oldest to fold his brother’s laundry when I was dealing with a sick child and needed some help. That last one could have been seen as a  Family Responsibility since he was helping me out, but I went ahead and paid him.

I’m not against paying a straight up allowance when they’re older, but at this point we provide all of their needs and a lot of their wants. Our greater focus is to teach responsibility by raising them to be do-ers – to become men that don’t shirk their responsibilities or resist helping out, even when there’s not a paycheck attached.

And as they get older and are capable of doing more Income-Producing work, I’m hoping that they realize that they can and should work, and not look for the easy way out. That they have the confidence to apply themselves to do work at all skill levels.

Conclusion – Teach Responsiblity By Giving Them Work

The journey to teach responsibility to our kids is a marathon and not a sprint. It requires us to involve our kids in the day-to-day activities involved in managing our households rather than keeping them busy playing and out of our way. And it requires that we allow them to participate in ever-increasing ways as our kids grow older and more capable of greater responsibility. My hope is that my kids transition into true adulthood – taking on both the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood – with eagerness rather than despair.

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