A simple—and efficient—way to make cleaning more fun is to do some of it together. It never hurts a kid’s morale to see a parent getting into the trenches with him. Play his favorite tunes, then turn your Saturday cleaning into a big ol’ dance party. Bonus: You’re there to demonstrate, so the job is more likely to get done right.
Older kids who know what an infomercial looks like will get a kick out of making one of their own—for their favorite cleaning product, of course! Siblings can take turns playing videographer, or you can do it on your phone. Be sure to film plenty of action shots that show off the cleaning power of “World’s Best Glass Cleaner.”
For kids who like an element of surprise, write chores on ice cream sticks and have each kid pick one. Siblings can swap their picks, but only if both agree. If you want, you can paint the sticks different colors by room or type of task (green = kitchen, or pink = something with a spray bottle) so kids feel they’re making a choice.
The best way to inspire kids is to work with their natural, intrinsic drive to be productive—even creative—contributors to the household. Kids will feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. "Here's why household chores are good for kids," writes Dan Pink, author of Drive. "Chores show kids that families are built on mutual obligations and that family members need to help each other." Here are five ways to activate your kid's natural drive to get chores and other boring tasks done.
Turn "kitchen time" into a dance party. Appoint one child to be a chef and another to be a DJ. The chef chooses what she would like to help make for dinner, such as a simple salad or mashed potatoes. The DJ chooses what appropriate dance tunes he'd like to include on a playlist. Everyone can then dance around the kitchen while preparing dinner or while emptying the dishwasher later. Other ways to promote play: Do the laundry while pretending to be robots or characters from a favorite movie, or have a room-to-room singing contest where each child takes turns singing one song (loudly!) from the room he is cleaning up.
A friend was trying to get her kids to help out around the house, and a counselor advised her to give stickers as rewards. The sticker plan worked like magic...until it stopped working a few days later. In the long run, rewards systems usually don't work. Instead, give kids chores that are challenging; taking away difficult tasks makes chores even more boring. If they're already used to helping clean the hamster cage, make it harder by having them clean it entirely by themselves. Then, challenge them to clean it faster. Or, instead of having them pull weeds in the yard, give your budding gardeners a shovel or a wheelbarrow and let them do the harder work of planting flowers or hauling dirt. It's okay if your kids break a sweat!
Let your kids take turns planning meals and cooking dinner at least once a week, but inspire them not to cook the same meal twice in the same month (unless it's a birthday request). This allows them to be clever about planning and organizing meals, which makes it a fun activity rather than a dull chore. Also, allow your kids to produce unusual but edible concoctions from recognizable foods (my 8-year-old recently invented something she calls "nacho pie"). Or, ask them to clean a sibling's room instead of their own for a change.
When kids are allowed to participate in something that is larger than their own selves, a sense of life purpose grows. "Even though children may say and act as if they don't want to contribute to the running of the household," writes Susan Tordella in Raising Able, "everyone craves the feeling of feeling important, needed by, and connected to others." Encourage and praise with, "Thank you for helping out. Our family makes a great team." Give high fives all around when your kids help walk the dog or help fold and put away a mountain of laundry.
Bossiness is not motivating to kids. Letting them give input is essential in preserving their sense of self-reliance and self-assurance. The key is not to use controlling language. Instead of dictating to your kids what they should do, use gentle suggestions such as, "It would be extremely helpful if you..." or "Hey, look, it's 5:00. Time to feed Snowball." Give your kids confidence by also saying, "In our family, kids make their own beds because they look so pretty." The more independent kids feel, the more motivated they will be to take on tasks and accomplish them from start to finish.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, and she teaches an online parenting class at www.raisinghappiness.com.