Chores & Cleaning Up

The Reinvented Chore List That Actually Motivates My Child

My child’s to-do list was sparking anxiety and overwhelm. So we rebuilt her chore chart from the ground up — changing “Do it because I said so” to “Here’s how each of these tasks will help you.”

To-Do Tips for Children with Learning Disbilities
An illustration of a to do list with all of its items checked off

I have a learning-disabled daughter who has a problem with abstract concepts. She can’t connect the dots between doing chores fast and getting her reward fast. She resents working on The (Chores) List.

When I was a teen, I knew that there would be no TV unless I did all my chores and finished my homework. If I knew my favorite rerun was on at 5 p.m., I whirled around the house like a dirt devil whipping my way through homework and chores in a twirl of glory. Nothing got in the way of my TV time. My older daughters understood this concept, though they lacked the hyperactive fuel that lit my rocket. My youngest daughter, however, has been different. She sees The List and despairs.

Her chores are nothing compared to her sisters’. There’s physical therapy practice, reading practice, 10 minutes of this, five minutes of that. Each task is related to school or physical therapy, but there are so many demands on her time by experts wanting to help her that she’s overwhelmed. The irony is that The List isn’t long. She just dies while doing it, stretching it out for hours. The way I’ve structured things is that, if she does her chores, she earns two hours of screen time — for video games, movies, TV shows, and, now, her iPhone. But she can’t motivate herself to earn it.

Amending the Chore List to Make It Kid-Friendly

She’s seeing a new therapist now, and the subject of The List came up. The therapist had some suggestions to make the process less contentious. I took her advice and added a few changes of my own that made a difference.

1. Make the chores list with your child’s input. I didn’t do this with my older daughters, but I’ve always done it with my youngest. I wish I had been doing it all along. It makes a difference in the child’s feeling of empowerment. All therapists have suggested this. I’d recommend updating the list every few months, or even monthly, to keep it fresh.

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2. Laminate the list. I typically print out the list and slip it into a sheet protector. Then we use dry-erase markers to check off the items. All my girls responded well to this. They get to use different color markers each day, then wipe the list clean for the next day.

3 Combine some tasks to shorten the list. This is a visual sleight of hand. The same number of chores is on the list, but it seems like there are fewer things to do. This was the new therapist’s suggestion, and it has helped a lot.

4. Add the reward to the list. Why didn’t I think of this before? Putting screen time on the list made a big difference, because the reward became a concrete goal instead of an abstract one.

5. Show how each item on the list benefits your child. I broke down each item on the list and explained which expert was recommending which activity. Teachers, doctors, physical therapists, and occupational therapists all want a piece of her day. I had intended to do this for the therapist, but on a whim I showed the names to my daughter. It completely changed her perspective of the list. Understanding why each item was there helped her understand each item’s importance.

[Free Sample Schedule for Children with ADHD]

After making these changes, the list stopped being The Dreaded List. My daughter willingly worked on it. I took the list from “Do it because I said so” to “Each of these tasks will help you.”

In her mind, she became a partner instead of an indentured servant. On the days when she still wants the reward without the effort, I point out to her the importance of each item and gently remind her that she helped create the list. I can’t say that transforms her into a compliant and obedient child, but it usually helps her grudgingly recommit to completing her chores. On those days, it’s all I can ask for.

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