The Summer Camp Secret to Getting Kids to Do Their Chores: Fairness, Accountability

To get kids to do their chores, make a work wheel that builds a sense of collaboration and fairness into each task.

As a kid, I had to unload the dishwasher every day, and my little sister was tasked with carrying the garbage out to the garage—but only when it was full. I remember spending more than enough time agonizing over our relative burdens.

You can’t take away kids’ tendency to analyze and argue the comparative scope of their responsibilities—they have an innate sense of fairness. Outside of doing their chores, this quality is incredibly admirable and inspired, and I wouldn’t want to take it away! But at home, or at camp, it distracts from some real opportunities: to contribute to a team, to learn to take care of shared space, and to build character at a young age through measured, appropriate responsibilities that kids can take ownership of and be proud of. It’s also, according to one researcher, an essential part of becoming a well-adjusted young adult, so it’s a good idea to make space for conversations about chores as soon as your kids are old enough to understand them.

Take Advantage of Your Kids’ Attachment to Equity

Here at Kennolyn, we’ve landed on a secret system for chores: we make a “work wheel” for each cabin. It’s just a round, colorful chart posted on the wall with a large cardboard circle that shows everyone’s names around the edge, and then a smaller cardboard circle that shows an equal number of chores. We fix the smaller circle on top so that it can spin, alternating the assignments each day.

It serves a practical purpose, but it serves a philosophical one, too: that of opening up a dialogue about the importance of each individual contribution to the camp community. The same dialogue applies at home: kids will believe that parents can handle everything on their own until you have a conversation with them that changes their minds. It also helps kids understand that equity isn’t about everyone doing the same amount of work—it’s about everyone making a meaningful contribution to their community in the best, most meaningful way that they can.

We’re All the Same Around the Circle of Responsibility

Chores keep a shared space clean and functioning well, but they also teach responsibility, as well as how to work as a team toward a common goal. When you make your chore list, it’s easy enough to assign one or two to each child in the family on an ongoing basis. But it’s just as easy to put a system in place where those tasks rotate daily, so the responsibilities are truly shared and equitable. In the long run, this extra systematic step will mean better participation and fewer distractions provoked by concerns of unfairness. In our cabin families at camp, there are some chores that are tougher than others—like sweeping the cabin and all of its nooks and crannies—and there are some that are less desirable than others—like scraping food from the plates after meals. But another camper had this chore yesterday, and someone else will have to do it tomorrow.

All members of the cabin family have a place on the chore wheel—even the counselors! We’re not asking the campers to do any jobs that we aren’t willing to do ourselves. At home, a kid knows that the chore she has to do today is the one Dad will have to do two days from now, as the wheel turns. The chore wheel’s complete circle is the perfect symbol of teamwork that’s tangible every day, especially if kids take turns spinning the chore wheel themselves.

Honor Your Kids’ Efforts

Even though chores become a consistent daily routine, kids still need to be recognized for their hard work. They want to know that what they do is valuable—that it’s making a difference. Their contribution becomes more than “a chore”; all the tasks on the wheel add up to a cared-for home and a cooperative family spirit, and it’s important that they know how their efforts make all of that possible. Here are some ways to hold your kids accountable and also commend and encourage their hard work.

  1. Trace a grid onto a paper or posterboard with rows for each child and columns for each day. Take the time to notice their accomplishment, and then let them pick a sticker to put in their space for that day.
  2. Reward them with a little extra screen time for the week when they take the initiative to do their chores every day. Or, better yet, reward them with a trip to the park or to the library where they can pick out some new books for the week.
  3. Write your kids little notes to leave in their rooms when you notice their hard work. “Thanks for taking out the trash without even being asked!” “Great job sweeping the kitchen. Don’t forget to get under the table tomorrow.” Even including a reminder to help your kids do better next time shows them that you’re noticing and valuing their work.
  4. All of these ideas will help your kids feel appreciated and motivated, but nothing can replace telling them, face-to-face, how much you appreciate them and value their efforts.

At the end of each camp session, we award the Golden Sponge Award to two groups that excelled at keeping their cabins clean and their belongings neat and organized every day. The kids build up wonderful team spirit around winning—it’s something they really get excited about, believe it or not. And we’re excited about it, too, because it helps them develop accountability to each other, to their cabin families, and to the wider community as they come to really feel the value of their own contribution.

At Kennolyn, kids learn responsibility, but also how important their contributions are to the community at large. Camp is the perfect example of how a family is built on collective efforts and care. We’re excited to talk to you about how your child can join in on the learning that happens here.


Lead Image Source: Flickr user GoonSquadSarah

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