April 3, 2023

Ep. 85a – Dr. Christine Koh – Getting Kids To Help – Without Making It A Chore

In this episode, we’re talking about chores.

Why do kids need them? What are fair expectations?

Do we pay our kids for help around the house?

We’re back with our keynote guest, Dr. Christine Koh. She’s describing how chores build our child’s life skills, and how to work together as partners and parents without making chores a chore!

Join us for this practical episode!

Episode Guest

Christine Koh

Dr. Christine Koh is a Harvard-trained brain scientist turned multimedia creative and entrepreneur on a mission to help people edit the unnecessary from their life.

She’s the director of Women Online (a communications firm that specializes in using social media for good), founder and editor of lifestyle blog Boston Mamas, host of the Edit Your Life Show podcast, co-author of Minimalist Parenting (a book to help parents enjoy family life more by doing less), and designer for Brave New World Designs (a stylish, advocacy-oriented design collection).

Her writing is featured in The New York Times, Redbook, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Woman’s Day, and more. She creates content and models with her own life and practices the art of living healthier, happier, and with elevated purpose and intention.

And she is the proud parent of two lovely daughters.

Additional Resources:


Ep. 85a – Dr. Christine Koh – Getting Kids To Help – Without Making It A Chore

Rachel Cram – Dr. Christine, thank you so much for being back with me again this week. I have so many questions that have come in and I have what I think is a really interesting one for you this morning.

Dr. Christine Koh – Well, thank you for having me again. I love answering questions, so this will be great.

RC – Yeah, well, for listeners, over the last week I have been forwarding questions to Christine and she keeps being such a great spot. Like, “Sure, I can answer that one. I can answer that one. You choose which one you want.”

“Oh, I can’t choose. There’s so many good ones.”

But I’m going to jump into the question that we have chosen for this morning because I want to give you all the time to answer. So I’m going to read it.

This parent writes, “I’m wondering what Christine thinks about kids having chores and getting an allowance. When it comes to chores my husband and I have very different perspectives. We are both children of immigrants and we both grew up with a lot of responsibilities in our homes. I feel like it was too much and I don’t want that for my kids. My husband feels like our kids need to pull their own weight around the house. If Christine has a perspective on this, I would love to hear it. Does she have any life edits for chores?”

Music #1

CK – Well, first, I want to thank your listener for trusting me with this question. I always feel when people share of themselves, it means a lot. And second, I do have thoughts because I have a similar of course, I don’t know all of their circumstances, but because in broad strokes they mentioned being a child of immigrants. I share that experience and I don’t know about her partner, but my husband does not share that experience. So we work together with different lived experiences, different backgrounds, all that said.

So this is such a great question. And I want to say that values, they’re so foundational to everything we do and how we show up in the world and how we make decisions about chores and whatever.

So relating that to the immigrant experience, having also walked that path, some of the core values at that time were hard work. Family, no matter what, everybody’s in. And I would agree with this person. I had the same perception that we did a lot. I was one of seven kids. My parents owned a classic Korean convenience store. So there was a lot of manual menial labor, probably more than was appropriate for like a third grader. So I totally understand that lens. And the good news is, there is a balance. that one can strike, but let me give you some practicalities because I think that’s what your listener and other listeners are looking for.

Our general values around chores in our household is that anything that is a basic life skill and something that contributes to the basic family system and will help your child become a functional adult, that is a non-negotiable and something they just need to learn to do and goes without payment.

RC – What would be examples?

CK – Things like setting the table, emptying the dishwasher, making your bed, running the laundry up and down, distributing laundry, all of those things that they’re going to need to learn and you want them to learn. That’s going to be a great gift to them.

So here’s the framing on it, or the reframe, depending on where you’re coming from, is that if you equip your children with the gift of chores and teaching them how to run the laundry and how to empty the dishwasher, you are both eventually lightning your load when they figure out how to do it, and also equipping them with life skills that they will need to learn in order to be functional human beings. You do not want your kid to be 40 years old, and not knowing how to run the laundry machine. I mean, it’s a disservice to them, honestly.

And then the second thing I want to say about this is that I do think there are unusual tasks that you may want to like, pay them for and incorporate some money into it. I’m trying to think of a recent one, but things that might be, well.

RC – Maybe looking after the younger siblings when you go out or.

CK – Oh yeah. Babysitting could be one, again that’s like good training for them. And really honestly, sometimes these things are just for fun and it’s like a really token type of payment. But I remember one summer my husband and I looked at each other and our car was, you know how the car gets. It’s dusty, it’s filled with Cheerios in the back, all this stuff. And so we said, “Okay, for two bucks, who wants to wipe down all the dashboards, get a trash bag, load everything into the trash bag. And we had volunteers. So you can make it a little game, too. And that’s really fun.

RC – Man, two bucks! I think inflations driven that right out of the running. But you could also offer a slurpie or something. Kids will do a lot for a slurpie I find.

CK – Yeah. I think the tricky thing about money and I think this is a separate conversation probably, is that I do think it is super important to eventually, assuming you have the privilege and resources, to eventually give your kids allowance that’s separate from chores in order for them to experiment with how to handle money. And that involves how to make mistakes with money. How to accidentally spend $20 on some crappy toy that ends up breaking in a day. That’s okay. That’s for them to learn and that’s a good thing.

RC – Can I just stop you for a moment here? Because my brain is overflowing with questions. What I’ve been hearing you saying is, with chores, if it’s things that are going to build their life skills, things that are going to help them know how to function as a human being on this planet, then it’s not even so much that it’s chores, it’s just part of being a person.

So with the life skills, I want to first of all look at the difference of opinions she’s saying between herself and her partner, because I think this is a pretty common situation. So say, a child comes home from school and one parent could be thinking, “Wow, you’ve had a tough day at school. You’ve had a lot on the go for being a kid at school. You’re probably exhausted. Come home, have some downtime. And in a couple of hours when it’s supper, I’m going to call you to set the table.”

The other parent might feel like, “Okay, you’re home from school, you’ve got soccer tonight. So before you sit down, I want you to empty the dishwasher and I want you to get the table set because you got soccer later on tonight. And I want you to do these things before you relax. I think there can be a real tension between what your expectations are of your children. So can you address that first? And then I want to talk more about the life skills too, and the allowance.

CK – Sure. So as for the push and pull in relationship, and let’s just say to begin with that it is a blessing to have two leading parents or caregivers for your household. That’s a great thing. It’s also a challenging thing when you have different opinions. So what I encourage people in that moment is to think and remember that there’s more than one way to get from point A to point B, and if you have two parents or caregivers who are really far apart in how they perceive chores, I think it’s worth having a conversation like, ‘Why is this so important to you?’ And really listening because again, you’re probably going to circle back to values. And in the example of thinking about a kid coming home from school, they’ve had a really long day and one parent wants to give them downtime before their evening soccer, whereas the other parent feels like they need to do three chores before soccer and stay to that routine because they’re worried about something falling off the tracks. Just remember that if you set this general groundwork for chores or what I like to call life skills; if you set that groundwork and they’re doing it and it’s a regular routine thing, it’s perfectly fine and a sign of compassion if they’ve had a really rough day to say, “You know what Bud, it looks like you had a rough day,”

I just did this this week, actually. Usually my daughter comes home, empties her lunchbox, does all these things. She comes in the door, she’s had a rough day. And I said, “It looks like you’ve had a rough day. Let me let me grab your backpack and I’ll plug in your laptop or your Chromebook or whatever, and I’ll empty your lunchbox and I’ll do some of the things that she always does. Give them a pass. It’s a sign of compassion. And then you just go back to the routine when things are in a more steady state.

RC – We can do that! And forcing someone to do a chore or a life skill when their life energy is low is always challenging. And kids are just like us as adults! How do we feel if we walk in the door from work and our partner meets us with a list of things they want us to do. We’d go into some kind of combative state as well. Recognizing timing and when to push and when to hold – that’s an important life skill as well. And something that sometimes needs discussion between partners and parents.

CK – Yeah, absolutely! Both for adults and for kids, not much productive happens when people are not calm and if people are in a combative state. So it’s sort of like a pick your battles thing.

RC – Yeah.

Music #2

RC – Okay, I have a lot more questions, but I want to jump in, first of all, with talking about an episode that you put out called 100 Life Skills for Kids, because we mentioned things already like setting the table and emptying the dishwasher, plugging in their Chromebook, taking out their lunchbox. Those are pretty obvious skills we want our kids to have. But you had this list of 100 life skills, 99, which I would never have thought of, and I was reading the list going, “Oh my goodness, I have launched children into the world unprepared.”

CK – Oh, no, no, no. And I think of it as a menu of options.

RC – It’s a menu of options, but there are some great options. And what I really liked about it is some of them are pretty fun. You talk about fixing a toilet and I feel like that’s not even a chore. For a young child, that’s like a family adventure. And you had 100 of these. Change a light bulb, open/close and lock windows, crack an egg, refill a stapler, fix loose toilet chain, put air in a bike tire. And I know you wanted these to be skills you could teach a child in 5 minutes or less. Can you talk to me about that?

CK – Yeah, well, this was really fun. I wanted to make it really simple in terms of durability, and we did.

Again, I have the immigrant situation. You dive in on whatever is needed, but I also have this parent value lens that kids need to learn this stuff. If you can clog the toilet, you can learn to unclog the toilet. If you use the toilet, you can learn to clean the toilet. Whatever you are using in the family system, you have a responsibility to maintain. That was my general thinking.

I have a very design kind of mind. Once we thought of these 100 things, I was like, “Oh, we should make this a printable so people can print it out one summer and put it on their fridge and make it a game and see how many they can roll through in a summer.”

And I think it’s the one piece of content like that that has ever gone viral like hundreds of thousands of people saw it and liked it. It really said to me, parents need this, they want this, and so let’s do it.

RC – And we’ll put a link to that from your episode page with your permission,

CK- Of course. Yes,

RC – Because here is the reality. If we are going to pay to put our kids into activities to keep them busy and learning, what could be better than life skill lessons with us?

CK – Yeah, absolutely.

RC – So with these life skills, with these chores, often as parents, we can feel like, “Oh, man, it would just be so much easier to do this myself.”

So here’s some questions I think mosts parents would want to know, even though their not it this parent who wrote ins question. Christine, how do you get your child to do chores without nagging them? And then, how do you get the chores done well enough that you can tolerate it? I’ll start with those two.

CK – Okay. So I’ll be honest and say that it takes persistence and you just have to stick with it. Because again, with the example of the kid coming in at the end of the day, especially now that we’ve tech, the last thing they’re going to want to do is empty their lunchbox, clean out their backpack, toss any papers that don’t need to be addressed into the recycling. There are so many little micro chores they could have after they come home. So you just have to remind them and possibly for a long time. And I’ll say that with my older daughter, who is now a super life charged 18 year old who is so competent and self sufficient, when she was little, I remember I felt like every day I’d say, “Hey, welcome home, honey. Okay, go. Go into that backpack.”

And it’s not that’s all I said. It wasn’t a big deal, but I had to keep reminding it. I’d see her wander off and I’d be like, “Oh, before you go do that, just empty your backpack and toss whatever,” here and there.

RC – And sometimes they’re going to be like, “Mom!”

CK – Of course, of course. And that’s fine. And just say, Oh, it’ll just take a minute, just be easy, calm. You’re helping them to like program their brain, which of course isn’t even going to fully develop until they’re like 25. So it takes a lot of repetition and that’s okay.

The other question?

RC – Yeah, my other question was around personally standards.

CK – Yes. Ok.

RC – So if their job is to clean the toilet and you come in and there’s still quite a bit of yellow down there, stuck to the edges, how do you navigate that?

CK – Yes. Well, first, I would say in general in life, my mantra is done is better than perfect. And second, I would say that this is just a great time for maybe ten seconds of feedback. So you say to them, “Oh, Bud, you did a great job and I still see some yellow rings and stuff. And what you want to do is really scrub it like this. Let me show you.”

And now you show me and now you’re doing it together. And then you finish and you move on. So it can be really quick and simple and just keep it positive.

RC – Okay. Can we go over to the allowance part now then? We don’t pay our children for things that are just part of being a human being.

CK – Um Hum

RC – If that’s the case, would a parent ever say, “If you don’t clean the bathroom, I’m not giving you your money this week?”

CK – I would avoid that kind of punishment or consequence because I think it makes things confusing for them. Well, it’s not confusing if you tether money to chores. But if you don’t have that, if you keep your chores separate, it’s a life skill. It’s a family thing. You’re helping them become a better, more functional human. And that’s separate from allowance, whose purpose is to teach them about budgeting and saving and spending, maybe even donating, helping them build a philanthropic lens. Then if you all of a sudden changed the game on them, it’s kind of unfair to them, honestly. So I would avoid doing that if you have those two structures already set up separately.

RC – Okay. And one last question. With chores, when do you start for kids? At what age?

CK – Oh, as soon as they are verbal, you can have them do stuff. I think I referenced in our earlier conversation how I wasn’t a mom who liked to play on the floor with my kids, so I had my kids in the kitchen cooking and baking with me very early on. Same thing. You could have a 2 or 3 year old who can follow simple commands. You can give them a stack of napkins and say, “Hey bud, can you put one of these at each place on the table?”

And they can do it. They may not be folded. It doesn’t matter. The thing is that they helped.

RC – Yeah. And they’ll love to help. But you’ve got to strike while the iron is still very hot, which is when your child is still very little.

CK – They love it. Oh, yeah. I mean, at that age, they love helping. It’s so great. It’s so cute.

RC – And enjoy that! It will fuel you for the less cute times.

CK – Um hum

RC – Oh, Christine, thank you so much for addressing this question and to the parent who wrote in, I hope this gives you and your partner a chance to look at your values behind chores and I hope redefining chores as life skills offers some orientation as well. I feel like it does for me. And we’ll put the link to Christine’s post on 100 LifeSkills You Can Teach Your Kids In 5 Minutes Or Less, on her episode page on our family360podcast webpage and you might have a summers worth of activities right there!

And Christine, we will look forward to being back with you again next week for another question.

CK – Thanks for having me.

Episode 74