This is the eighth part of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. To read Part 1 — which provides a look at secure attachment at the start of life — click here. Part 2 explores the core concepts of child development. Part 3 examines the importance of trust and reciprocity in the formation of secure attachment. Part 4 provides an overview of the developing brain. Part 5 explains the importance of parenting with a mindset focused on opportunity, not crisis. Part 6 explains why it’s important to be a calm parent. Part 7 provides parents guidance about how much structure and freedom to give their children. 

We have written extensively about all of the great ways chores help children build responsibility, cooperation and consideration and self-esteem. But let’s face it: Giving your child chores is one thing, and getting her to do them is another. Your attitude and response are very important when your child “forgets” to do chores.

Children grow by making choices and facing the consequences. This is how self-examination, responsibility and cause-and-effect thinking are learned. This also leads to the establishment of an inner voice of accountability and self-control: “I better think about my choices because I’m responsible for the outcome.”

Telling your child what to do usually results in control battles. Giving choices reduces the likelihood of power struggles and enhances connections. What motivates us all is the desire to be in charge of our own lives. Because children desire control, why not provide it in a positive way? Sharing in the decision-making process helps children feel important and increases motivation. It also displays respect for your child’s right to make decisions. By providing choices, you allow your child to do most of the thinking, increase the probability that he will be cooperative, and give him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

Tips for giving choices

Give choices that acceptable to you. Do not give choices you are not comfortable with. For example, you would not say, “You can have dinner with us, or I’ll cook another meal for you later.” A better choice is, “You can eat with the family now or fix your own meal later.”

Strive for a win-win. Your goal is to maintain the integrity of the relationship — to avoid control battles and destructive conflicts. You win because you are in charge in a firm and loving way. Your child wins because she has the power to make a decision and learn from the consequences.

Stay calm. Even though this is difficult, it is always best to remain emotionally calm and composed. Don’t escalate with your child. Present the choices in a steady, determined and calm manner.

Examples of constructive and nonconstructive responses during chore time

Situation 1: A child is asked to pick up his toys and ignores you. 

Nonconstructive response: Parent becomes angry and shouts a command, such as “Pick up your toys now!” After 10 minutes, the parent again shouts, “How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your toys? I am going to count to 10; if you don’t pick up your toys, you are going to your room!” The child responds: “So what?” or “You can’t make me!”

Results: Parent feels frustrated and helpless, and the child is firmly in control. The child learns he has extra time to play with his toys if he ignores his mother or father.

Constructive response: Parent gives the ciild notice and some transition time: “Honey, I need you to pick up your toys in the next five minutes.” Child ignores parent. After five minutes, the parent says, “Honey, you have a choice. You can pick up your toys now, or I will pick them up. If I pick them up, they will be put away, and you will have to earn them back. Which would you like to do?” The child continues to ignore. Parent calmly speaks up again and begins putting the toys in a box. “I see you have made your choice,” the parent says. “You can earn the toys back at a later time by doing chores.” (Note: If your child is likely to have a meltdown when you put the toys away, remove them later when he or she is not present. If you do remove the toys in your child’s presence, and he has a temper tantrum, give another choice: “Honey, you can have a tantrum, and it will just take longer for you to earn your toys back, or you can handle this better and earn them back sooner.”

Results: The parent is proactive rather than reactive, remaining calm and in charge. The child learns there are consequences to his choices, and he cannot maintain control through noncompliance. By having the opportunity to earn his toys back, he has another chance to succeed and feels good about himself.

How parents can respond to chores done poorly

Situation 2: A child is taking much too long to do the dishes. 

Nonconstructive response: “I’m sick and tired of you taking so long to do these dishes. What is wrong with you? Get  them done now! (Ten minutes later) It’s easier to do the dishes myself. Go to your room.”

Results: Parent is angry, frustrated and feeling helpless. The child is criticized, alienated and getting negative attention. The parent-child relationship is hostile and distant.

Constructive response: Parent enters the kitchen smiling, places a hand on the child’s shoulder and says, “Honey, you know the great thing about taking so long to do the dishes is that I always know where you are.” Parent hugs the child and says, “Take your time,” before leaving the room.

Results: The parent remains calm, loving and in charge. The message sent to the child is this: “I believe in you, and you are worth every effort it takes to help you get it right. You are capable, and you can do it.” The child’s strategy for manipulating the parent fails — and if the parent consistently responds in this calm manner, the child eventually will give up her negative behavior. The integrity of the parent-child relationship is maintained.