PDFs of the card sheets handed out at the conference.
Unschooling Chores Toolbox Cards
(Takes you to Google Docs)
On the Google Docs page are 4 file names. Click on a file name. Above, to the right of the trash can are 3 vertical dots. Click Download. Repeat for each file.
Use regular size (US 8.5x11) paper. You can print one file on one side of the paper and the "reverse" on the back side. The cards on the front will line up with the cards on the back. You can safely cut along the lines to make cards.
On other size paper, print one file per sheet of paper.
I read an article called A “hyper organised” mum of three shares the 7 tips that keep her house tidy.
She begins: “I have three kids. My husband and I both have jobs. Our house is always clean. Here’s how we do it:
Step one: “Every morning we make all of the beds, unload the dishwasher and clean up all of the breakfast dishes before leaving for school/work.”
That’s step one? I want to know where’s the step where she purchased robot kids who do what Mom commands?
Parents hope there’s some magic formula for getting kids to do chores. I’m going to get the disappointment out of the way. Unschooling parents do not have a magic formula to get their kids to do chores. There are no magic words. There is no magic tone.
What unschooling parents do have is this one bit of knowledge. We know children learn from what they experience.
If children experience chores mixed with anger, resentment and bullying, they’ll learn two things. To dread chores. And that it’s okay to bully people into doing what you want.
If helping others is pleasant for kids, they’ll learn that helping is something they enjoy doing.
All that kids need to become helpful is an environment where they’ll naturally draw the conclusion, “I like to help people.”
Pretty simple, isn’t it?
In a second you’ll say, “Wait. How does that get kids to do chores?”
I’ll sow a little seed to get you thinking about what the answer might be. “How do you get a busy friend to help you?”
More than two options
Think of some task that your spouse normally does. Something you’re glad they do. It might be mowing the lawn. Cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Doing taxes. Cleaning the litter box.
First, picture your spouse saying, “Hey, just in case I’m not available, let me show you how to do this when you have the chance.”
Then picture them saying, “I’m sick and tired of doing this all by myself. From now on you’ll be helping. Come here so I can show you how to do it.”
Which is better for learning? A friendly open invitation? Or an angry order?
Which of those was your parent when you were a kid?
If you’re certain you would never have done chores as a child if not made to, you’re right! Doing it all yourself doesn’t inspire volunteers. No matter how many times my husband mowed the lawn or has done the taxes it didn’t fill me with the desire to do either. But making someone do a chore is a really good way to make them not want to.
Which means most parents are stuck between getting no help because they never ask and getting surly help because they make kids work.
But what if those weren’t the only two options?
I’ve already hinted at one other option but I’ll let you ponder that question for a bit.
Why children (supposedly) must do chores
I took a poll. I asked parents why they believed children needed to do chores. There were maybe twenty different reasons but they basically boiled down to four.
Parents need help.
Children need to learn the skills.
Children need to learn discipline. Otherwise, they won’t do things they don’t like.
Children need to learn they are not entitled. Otherwise, they’ll expect others to do the work for them.
I want to bring those up because it’s going to sound like I’m saying being nice to kids is more important than kids becoming thoughtful, helpful people. But I have zero interest in encouraging parents to raise kids that I don’t want to be around.
Unschoolers know that kids learn in a pleasant, interest-driven environment. It works for reading. And it works for becoming helpful people.
Mammals are unschoolers
How many believe they wouldn’t have the discipline to do chores today if they hadn’t been made to do chores as kids?
You might look back to your childhood-self and be embarrassed by how rude, irresponsible and demanding you were.
But you weren’t being rude. You were doing exactly what young mammals are meant to do. You trusted your parents to take care of all the boring life stuff — like food, cleaning and keeping you safe — so you could focus on the important stuff: learning how life works. Instinctively you knew it felt right to do what interested you. It felt wrong to do what didn’t.
You were right. Your kids are right. That’s how mammals learn.
You’ve probably seen a wildlife video or two. The first thing a momma-to-be mountain lion does is find a safe place for her babies. It’s not just safe from predators. It’s a safe place to play. She instinctively knows that to grow into competent adults, her cubs must devote their childhoods to playing and that they have a built in drive to explore what interests them. When they’re ready, she can toss in a mouse. She can take them on a field trip to watch her hunt. As they get more skilled, they can join in.
Mom provides the environment and lets curiosity do its magic.
Think about that for a moment. For 80 million years mammals have thrived because all parents needed to do is give their young a safe, stimulating environment then allow interest to drive them to explore. By the end of their childhoods they have figured out all they need to know to be adults.
Play is as vital to growth as food and safety are.
Unschooling is not just a pretty theory. It’s how nature has honed mammals to work.
Obviously our lives are more complex than a mountain lion’s. But our childhoods are hugely longer. Mountain lion young leave their home at eighteen months. Humans have eighteen or more years for curiosity and interest to work its magic.
My mother didn't make us do chores
My mother didn’t make my sister and I do chores. She had to do chores as a kid and she hated it. She swore she wouldn’t do that to her kids. And she didn’t. She did it all. Her job was to do the housework. Ours was to play. Cool, right?
Except, by the time we were teens, when she felt we were old enough, she assumed we’d just start helping. But, bad surprise, we didn’t.
An adult would call our lack of help rude and ungrateful. But from a child’s view it made sense.
One, from our view, she’d always done it herself. Why did she suddenly need help?
Two, she’d created two separate worlds. Unlike the mamma mountain lion she didn’t invite us into her world. The housework was her world. Keeping ourselves entertained was our world. My sister and I knew how to run the washing machine and push the lawn mower. That was fun because we could play with grown up tasks when we chose to. When they interested us. But doing tasks when they needed done felt like alien territory.
My mother’s reaction to her childhood is common. Parents either repeat what their parents did. Or they deliberately do the opposite.
Neither is good. Both are merely following rules. Do this. Do the opposite of that. It avoids thought and choice.
There’s a better choice. It’s learning why something works. What helps. What hinders. Then make a thoughtful choice each time.
I’ll get to some practical tips, but the main point I hope you’ll take away is why radical unschoolers take this approach to chores. It’s not to be “nice”. It’s because it taps into how children learn.
Why not to worry about what kids must supposedly do
Making kids do chores is a schoolish approach to learning. And it has the same pitfalls. Kids do half-assed work. They figure out how to do as little as possible.
And it damages relationships too. Manipulation. Coercion. Yelling. Telling kids to shut up about their feelings. Your choices are your values in action. How you treat your kids says to them, “It’s okay to treat people this way.”
Parents need help.
You might picture that one day you’ll have a happy family team all happily working together. But in reality kid help isn’t all that helpful. Sometimes it creates more work. And when help is unwilling, it comes at a steep price.
Basically what most parents begin with is conscripted labor. And that’s a poor beginning to building a partnership.
I’ll talk about how to simplify and let go of expectations.
Children need to learn the skills.
Chores aren’t rocket science. It doesn’t take 18 years of training to learn how to take out the garbage. What kids don’t pick up, can be shown in few minutes.
I’ll talk about ways to invite kids to join in.
Children need to learn discipline. Otherwise, they won’t do things they don’t like.
Do you do things you dislike because you have to? Or to avoid the consequences of not doing them?
The consequences of not having clean clothes isn’t high on kids’ priority lists. They can’t care the same way adults do. Not yet.
While they’re growing up into people who can care, don’t turn tasks into something dreadful. I’ll talk about ways to create positive experiences.
Besides, your kids already have discipline. They’re already doing tedious things to get to something better. It might be in a video game or shooting baskets. Watch them. Ask them about times they’ve done things they didn’t like to get to do something better.
Children need to learn they aren’t entitled. Otherwise, they’ll expect others to do the work for them.
Mammal young are internally driven to be more competent at life and independent. On their own schedule. When interest kicks in. Kids are no different.
Kids eventually feed themselves. Dress themselves. Wipe their own butts.
Parents can screw up that natural desire with negativity. Yelling. Pressure.
Criticism. I have some ideas on how to turn away from negativity.
You won’t get the garbage taken out today. But by the time they’re teens you will be able to say, “Hey, could you take out the trash when you get the chance?” And they’ll say, “Sure, just let me finish this.”
Create an environment of helpfulness
What I hope you’ve gathered by now is that the unschooling parent’s role is to create the environment. The children’s role is to follow their interest.
If you’ve been unschooling all along, you didn’t create an environment where they had to read. You created an environment where reading was a pleasant experience.
For chores, don’t create an environment where they have to help. Create an environment where helping is a pleasant experience.
Create an environment where it makes sense for kids to conclude,
“I enjoy helping others.”
“I am capable.”
“My help is appreciated.”
“What I do is valuable.”
Three parts to the environment
There are three parts to that environment.
The physical environment. — Change the environment to create less work.
Your attitude. — Our thoughts don’t come from our feelings. Our feelings come from our thoughts. To shift away from anger and resentment, change your view about chores.
A pleasant atmosphere and positive experiences. Give children ways to play with and join in grown up tasks and they’ll learn that they enjoy helping and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
As a little exercise, picture this. What if you were the monkey keeper at the zoo? What if the monkeys were making a mess of their enclosure? Banana peels everywhere. Poop in their drinking water. What are your options? Would you demand the monkeys clean up after themselves? Would you resentfully clean up behind them?
Or would you accept that monkeys will be monkeys and your role is to change the environment to minimize the mess?
Make it easier to clean. Make it easier to be less messy.
As unschooling parents, our number one priority — the one thing we must do if nothing else gets done — is to create an environment for kids to happily engage in the kid business of exploring and discovery.
We keep it clean, peaceful, safe so kids can explore. Just like the monkey keeper’s job is to create a rich environment that’s clean, not a clean environment where the monkeys aren’t bored.
Exploring is the centerpiece. Everything fits around that. If we sacrifice exploration for tidiness, we’re making clean a higher priority than learning.
Tool: "How can I change the environment?"
Now I’ll get to some tools. Finally! But keep in mind these aren’t rules. They’re tools unschoolers have found helpful to create an environment for exploring.
The first tool is, make the first question you ask be,
“How can I change the environment?”
So less mess is created?
So the mess is easier to clean up?
So that what needs done is simpler?
So there is less to do?
To get you started, when you get home, for four days, when there’s a problem, make your first thought, “How can I change the environment?” Obviously first stop the kids from dumping paint into the Lego bin. But rather than making your first thought that the kids need to change. Ask how you can change the environment so this doesn’t happen again.
To help, the first card on your sheet is “How can you change the environment?” It has a star on it.
The second tool is a mental exercise to keep exploration as the centerpiece. It’s the word AND.
How can I create a rich environment?
AND easier to clean?
AND not more than I can handle?
You know how to do this too. You do this all the time.
If you want to get somewhere you don’t throw out safety. Nor do you make safety so important it prevents you from getting where you want to go.
The goal is to get there. And then you figure out how to do it safely.
Do the same with learning. The goal is learning. Then make it easier to clean.
Tool: Prevention, Get out of reactive mode
The third tool is a toughie. Get out of reactive mode. Become proactive.
I remember as a parent just wanting to shut my brain down in between uses. But life is ever so much smoother when you take the time to figure out ways to avoid a problem next time.
If you need extra incentive, remember your kids are watching you. They see how you tackle problems. If you let the same problems happen over and over, they’ll assume the same sense of helplessness. If you react with “How can this be done differently?” they’ll be empowered.
Tool: Question convention
Next tool, question convention.
Ask yourself, “Why not?”
Make thoughtful choices about what you do. Why do kids need to get dressed before getting in the car? Why does laundry need to be returned to bedrooms and neatly hung or folded in dressers? Why can’t you use paper plates sometimes?
Tune into your inner dialog. Notice when you’re saying, “I have to,” and “I can’t.”
Don’t project the worst future scenario on a choice. You won’t destroy the rainforest or wipe out the children’s college fund if you use paper plates tonight.
Ask yourself, “Who’s going to die?”
One practical tool is, put a rug, drop cloth, sheet down for kids to play on. This work especially well for things with small pieces like Legos. When the kids are done, just pick up the sheet and pour the pieces into a bin.
Put bins in rooms where kids play. Just toss stuff in.
Make it a game. As with games, the goal isn’t to finish the game. It’s to enjoy the time spent together.
A playful attitude will make a huge difference.
One mom had 30-second tornado clean ups. Another bet her kids they couldn’t clean up their part before she cleaned up hers. Ask kids to pick up all the blue toys. Turn on a lively song and clean until it’s done. Get to know your kids. Some kids find timers stressful. Some find play acting irritating. Your kids aren’t defective if they don’t like some idea that works for another family. Find what your kids like.
Tool: Relocate, Alternatives
Move projects to a place that’s easy to clean up. We did some messy things on the door of the dishwasher. Danny painted in the bathtub. Move activities outside. The garage. Set aside a corner to do messy things in.
Change your expectations
The second change you can make is your view point and attitude.
Everyone here with kids already knows how tackle unpleasant tasks without pretending AND without expressing your so-called “true” feelings.
Thousands and thousands of diapers. Wiping poop off butts is way down anyone’s list of favorite activities. So how did you do it?
Did you pretend you loved changing diapers? Did you wallow in your misery as you forced yourself through every single diaper?
Or did you smile at your baby knowing that dirty diapers are just part of life with a baby?
When you expect life to be different than it is, resentment builds. What if you had expected the diapers to end at 6 months? What if you had expected your baby to help with the diapers? Your baby might not have made it to toddlerhood.
Life can feel miserable when it doesn’t live up to our expectations.
Change your expectations, your feelings will change. When your feelings change, your actions will change.
If your goal is to get your children to clean up, you’ll look for different ways to change your kids.
If your goal is to create a peaceful, pleasant atmosphere, you’ll look for ways to change the environment and yourself.
Let your kids see how to tackle tasks that aren’t inherently fun.
Children as volunteers
The expectation that I let go of was that the family was a team.
Instead, I saw the tasks as my responsibility. The family was a pool of volunteers busy with their own important things.
That’s not as loopy as it sounds. In the real world, having responsibility doesn’t mean no one can help you. It means no one is obligated to help.
If you were project leader at a charity or a church, you’d have a pool of potential volunteers to draw from. They could choose to help you. Or they could remember some really important business and flee. So how do you get people to help?
You be someone others enjoy helping. You make their time with you pleasant.
If you make that your goal, you’ll get more willing help. You’ll create a more peaceful atmosphere. As a bonus, your kids get see how to respect another’s time.
Let your kids see how to respect that others are busy people. AND how to confidently ask busy people for help. AND how to graciously accept a no.
Let them see how to trust when someone says they’re busy. It doesn’t matter if your child is playing a video game or reading a book. If your child says they can’t help, let them see how you want to be treated when you say you can’t help.
If you really need help — like twelve bags of groceries and the ice cream is melting help — tell them. Don’t make it a question. The same as you would with a friend. If you stop demanding help routinely, kids will help when you’re in a bind.
If you’re in a bind often, look at what’s going on. These are your tasks. Why have you taken on more than you can handle to the point you need to farm it out to get it all done? If your child asked for help with a project, you’d probably be happy to help them. If your child took on a big project because they expected you to help without asking you, wouldn’t you think that’s rude? If you don’t want your kids to do that to you, don’t do it to them. Don’t show kids that it’s okay to treat others’ time as if you owned it.
In practice, what I did
I could see a big shift in Danny’s attitude between when I invited him to help and when I demanded help. If I was cleaning for guests at the last minute, Danny’s help was half hearted. His priority wasn’t to help. It was to escape this crazy stressed-out person. He acted exactly like what he was: conscripted labor. Conscripted labor balks, complains and does as little as possible.
When I asked and he knew he could say no, the help was night and day different. Volunteers who feel valued will give as much as they’re able to. And they’ll willingly help next time if they can.
A new goal and priorities
When you shift from making kids help to inviting their help, at first you’ll get a lot of refusals. In a way, you’ve been building a debt. Your kids will feel owed a few hundred, No’s. Fortunately it won’t take them 6 or 9 or 15 years’ worth of No’s to say Yes.
Drop expectations of them saying yes. Accept that these tasks are yours. Then when they say yes, it’s because your child enjoys helping you. If you nurture their volunteer help, by the time they’re teens, the help will be freely given and genuinely helpful.
Let go of your baggage about tasks
Even if you’ve accepted the idea that tasks are part of life like diapers, your feelings about chores may be loaded with baggage.
If you’re crabby about chores, kids will see chores as something to be crabby about. Then you’ll be a bunch of crabby people crabbing about having to do crabby chores.
So how do you let go of that baggage?
This will sound weird, but sometimes we hold onto anger because letting go feels like losing. The toilet may make us clean it, but, darn it, as long as we do it resentfully, then the toilet doesn’t win.
Of course, the toilet doesn’t care if it’s never cleaned. You and the toilet are not at war. You’re at war with yourself. When you’re at war with yourself you’ve already lost. Win at being more peaceful!
Tool: What if (replace resentful thoughts)
One tip to break that resentment cycle is to picture what life would be like without this thing.
What would life be like without toilets? Imagine having to schlep to the outhouse. In the middle of the night. Through three feet of snow. Because your child refuses to use the chamber pot.
Isn’t cleaning a toilet a small price to pay?
Tool: Something positive (replace resentful thoughts)
Another tip is to associate the thing with good feelings. One mom said, as she washes the first dish, she feels the love for her first born, then love for her second born with the second dish. With each dish, another loving memory. A first step. A child’s giggle.
This works with anger and resentment towards kids and spouses too. When negative feelings pop up, think of something you love about that person.
You aren’t stuck with your feelings. Feelings come from thoughts. Change your thoughts, your feelings shift over time to match them.
The point is to connect good feelings with the task. Interrupt the negative cycle.
How to involve children
For kids to learn that helping feels good, they need positive experiences.
That’s the final piece of the chores puzzle.
If you’ve dropped the idea of getting kids to do chores, positive experiences will flow naturally.
In fact you probably already know how to do this. What if a friend drops by while you’re cleaning up for guests? You want to catch up but you’ve got a cleaning deadline. How do you do both? How do you chat with your friend and clean?
Tool: Join them and invite them to join you
You’d probably be okay if your friend just kept you company. There’s no reason to expect them to help. The tasks are yours.
You can do that with your kids, too.
Bring your work to where they are. Laundry, dinner prep, toy sorting. Do your thing while they’re busy learning.
Or invite them where you are.
Invite them to spend time with you while you work. For many kids your attention will be drawing enough. Catch up with what’s going on in their games or with friends. Ask their opinion about the last Star Wars movie. Tell them stories about when they were babies or you were a kid. Play a word game. Or put on an audio book or movie.
If you’ve been negative about tasks, make enjoying your company your new priority.
Tool: Ask as you would a friend
You might feel comfortable enough to invite your friend to join you. For thousands of years chatting and working together has been a natural part of life.
Invite your child to join in. Ask the same way you’d invite them to make cookies. Don’t assume they’ll hate the task! If chores haven’t been negative, you can just offer them a towel to fold. They can open drawers while you put clothes away. Treat tasks like an organic part of life, not something to dread.
How many feel uncomfortable asking for help, especially when you fear they’ll say no?
That’s a handicap in life, isn’t it? Sometimes you really should ask for help, but fear gets in the way.
It’s likely you learned to feel awkward from your parents. Usually when a parent “asks” for help, they aren’t really asking. They’re telling in a (supposedly) “polite” way. But it isn’t polite. It’s rude to suggest there’s a choice when there isn’t.
That created the expectation that when you ask for help the other must say yes. So you avoid asking because you don’t want to obligate them. It also means you feel awkward when they say no.
Wouldn’t it be nice not to pass that legacy onto your kids?
When you ask, really ask. Give them opportunities to make a thoughtful choice to help or not. Allow them to say no. Let them see how to graciously accept being turned down.
Kids want to become more competent at grown up tasks. It just may not be today.
Tool: Make clean up an organic part of playing
Make clean up an organic part of play the way dessert naturally flows from dinner. Create that expectation. “Let’s get this stuff back in the cupboard.”
Also be specific.
“Could you put the scissors in the box for me, please?”
“Can you put the paper in the recycling for me, please?”
Maybe you’ve been where people are setting up. You’d like to help but you have no idea how. Don’t you appreciate being given a very specific task like, “Can you set up the chairs on the other side of that table?”
Get to know what tasks your kids enjoy. Get to know their limits. Work with who they are. Let them leave on a positive note. You can always come back and finish later.
Remember, you’re not trying to get them to clean up. You’re offering to share grown up work. You’re inviting them into your world.
Stay aware that your emotions are part of the atmosphere. You can create a tone of hair-pulling frustration or radiate calm and acceptance. Just as you did with the diapers.
Also rethink. If you’re often left cleaning up in one area while they play in another part of the house, how can you move the two closer?
Tool: Don't criticize
Let’s say you volunteered to help. What if you were struggling with a task? Or couldn’t do it the way the leader expected? Or it was something you found especially tedious?
Would it help if the leader criticized you?
Or would it help if they assumed you were doing the best you could?
If they wanted you to volunteer again, they’d make a positive experience a priority.
You can do this with your kids too.
You might apologize and say you hadn’t realized the task was as hard as it is.
You can ask. Get to know them better. Is it too hard? Too boring? Is it taking too long? Would they rather do something else? Are they done?
Trust that your kids are doing the best they can.
If a child is doing something awkwardly you might ask, “Would you like me to show you a different way?” If they say no, let it go. Trying out their ideas and learning from what happens is how natural learning works.
Tool: Thank them
As with a helpful friend or volunteer, thank them. Thank them as you would someone who didn’t have to help but chose to anyway. Show them you appreciated that they took time out from their lives to do something for you.
To approach chores in an unschooling way, shift your goal from getting kids to do chores to experiencing helpfulness as something they enjoy.
If you do that, when your children help, their help will be sincerely given. They’ll help because they enjoy helping you. And because they feel a sense of accomplishment in contributing.
By treating them the way you hope they’ll treat others, they’ll naturally learn how to:
Respectfully and confidently ask another for help. Even a busy person.
Graciously accept a no.
Accept another’s own judgment that they’re too busy to help.
Show sincere appreciation for another’s time and willingness to help.
The unschooling question isn’t, How can I get my kids to do chores? It’s, How do I create an environment where kids will naturally grow into helpful, thoughtful, competent people?
Shift from getting kids to do chores to creating an environment of helpfulness where children enjoy being in your company.