Raising Happiness


Motivated to do the Dishes

January 11, 2011 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Tips for turning housework into houseplay

Last week, I detailed the grave dangers that research has linked to bribing and rewarding children.  Fortunately, research also gives us ways to motivate our children to do those often boring but necessary tasks. 

My own children have a lot to accomplish from the time they get home from school to the time they head to bed, which is generally about three hours or less:

• Clean out and put away their backpacks
• 20-30 minutes of homework, plus another 20 minutes of reading
• Empty the dishwasher
• Help cook dinner
• Help clean up the kitchen
• Make lunches for the next day
• Feed and attend to their pets
• Put their clothes away and pick up their rooms
• Shower (not that often, truth be told)
• Pick out their clothes for the next day

When you consider that I give my kids some free-play time when they first arrive home, and that we eat dinner together for 30 minutes or more, this is a huge list for an eight and almost-10-year old to get through, one that requires focus. 

I know what most of you are thinking: Isn’t it so much easier to just do most of those things yourself?  For me, it is a matter of principle (I’m not my children’s servant, they are a part of the family and need to help out), practicality (I’m a single parent, and I actually need their help to get it all done), and happiness (research shows that kids are happier when they contribute to their own household).

So while it is true that at times it would be easier for me to do everything myself, I don’t think that’s a particularly good plan for my children’s well-being or sense of self.

Back to our school-night routine: To get through that list I need my children to be focused.  And for focus, we need motivation.  That said, my children, even when motivated, are easily distracted by just about anything.

Here is where the research helps.  The key is to activate their intrinsic motivation, their internal drive to get stuff done, rather than relying on external rewards (or threats and punishments).  As I mentioned last week, I love Dan Pink’s book Drive.  In it, Pink coins the term the “Sawyer Effect,” based on the passage in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where Tom hoodwinks several of his buddies into helping him white-wash his Aunt Polly’s 810-square-foot fence by convincing them that it’s a fantastic privilege.  The boys have a blast together painting the fence, and Tom arrives at the following conclusion: “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and the Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” 

This Sawyer Effect—work can become play under the right conditions, and play can become work when we make it obligatory—sums up the gist of what we know about motivation.  Here are the things that research suggests we can do to tap into kids’ intrinsic motivation:

1) Turn it into play. “Kitchen time” in our household, for example, is a continuous creative activity.  One child is lead cook, the other lead DJ.  Emptying the dishwasher is often part dance-party; cooking can produce more creative-kid-concoctions than recognizable foods (last night Molly “invented” honey-lemon-spiced cider); clean up often involves roughly one million times more soapsuds than necessary. 

It’s not fancy, or particularly efficient, but definitely fun.  I heard Molly say to a friend the other day, “Come to my house for dinner – my mom will let you cook AND do the dishes!”

2) Invent new challenges. Emptying the dish washer could be frustrating for my kids because they’re too short to reach most of the cabinets; this makes a boring task nearly impossible.  So I let them stand on the counter in acts of daring to put the wine glasses away, which they think is great fun. 

3) Make it different.  Each kid has to cook at least one dinner per week at our house, but they can’t cook the same meal twice in the same month (unless it is a birthday request, of course).  This forces them to plan their meals, which makes it a creative activity rather than a routine chore.

4) Tie it to a greater purpose. When kids are allowed to participate actively in something that is larger than themselves—their family and household—their sense of purpose in life grows.  I can often be heard emphasizing the kids’ important roles in our family: “As a part of this family, you get to help plan our meals.”  Or, “In our family, kids get to make their own lunches, because you know what is healthy.”  Or, “Thank you for helping out.  Our family makes a great team.”  A clean kitchen after a particularly messy dinner?  High fives all around.

5) Give them autonomy.  This is perhaps the most important one, and it is so very difficult for me.  (My brother often threatens to have a t-shirt made for me that reads, “I’m not bossy; people just need direction.”) Unfortunately, and ironically, my bossiness is very de-motivating to my kids.  Letting kids give input where they can is essential in preserving their autonomy, and the more independent they feel, the more motivated they will be.  The key, for me, is not to use controlling language; instead of just telling them what I want them to do, I need to say things like “It would be extremely helpful if you…”  This post is about how to talk to kids to give them more autonomy.

For all of those who posted comments last week, and all those who are working on this now:  Do these suggestions help? Where do you need clarification? If you have a specific example you’d like help with, please post quick video on youtube of yourself asking your question here.

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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