Getting Chores Better Distributed through the Family

It’s awful to feel as if you are the only one who is doing chores around your household – not to mention exhausting.  It can also literally destroy a marriage.  The resentment that builds up around household chore distribution easily seeps into all areas of the relationship.  Many report here that they try to get their spouse to help out, but to no avail.  I think that this area is too important to give up on, so would propose a couple of ideas for attacking this issue.

It’s important to get your spouse’s buy-in to the idea that running a household is a job that takes more than one person.  I tried a lot of approaches over the years, what didn’t work for me was nagging or calls for “fairness” (too easy to write off and too likely to put your spouse on the defensive).  What did finally work for me was a straightforward “I’ve tried to do all of this for years but simply can’t any more.  I don’t care how we get some of this load off of my shoulders, only that we do.  We’re no longer talking convenience, we’re talking survival.”  And, since it really was survival for me, he listened.  I also have to admit that since it was survival, I wasn't willing to take "no" for an answer.  My husband didn't just jump up and suddenly start doing chores.  I simply insisted that he MUST.  It was then up to him to figure out HOW he would lighten my load.

In the next few posts I’ll talk about different approaches to getting others to help out.  Here’s the first one:

Idea #1 – Businesslike, for the Entire Family
Chances are good that if you are feeling overburdened by chores, it’s not just your husband who isn’t helping out – it’s everyone.  This approach can work for families with kids who are kindergarten age and older.  It involves tracking what everyone is contributing to the success of the household, and redistributing chores as a result of your “fact finding”.

Have a family meeting to talk with your family calmly about how a household is a joint undertaking, and while you don’t expect everything to be even, you do expect that each person will contribute in a way that reflects their age and capabilities.  Tell them that over the next couple of weeks you will all be working together to figure out who can do what in a way that distributes work that each person likes to do to them.  To do this, you will all work together, including tracking, officially, for one to two weeks what each person is already contributing.  As you set this idea up, talk about good ways to remember what each person is doing so that they get full "credit" for what they already do.  Do they need to carry a small notebook?  Write down notes at each meal?  Talk into a Blackberry each time they do a chore to track it? 

It’s a good idea to keep your language positive.  For example, when setting up the idea, you might say “It takes a lot of energy to successfully run a household, and every person in that house needs to contribute to make things run smoothly.  So I am asking everyone to assess what they are currently doing, and what else they could be doing to help out.” Agree to sit down at the end of every day (or perhaps right after dinner – some regular time) and make a list of what you each did during that day, and how long it took.  The purpose of this exercise is to open the eyes of each member of the family.  At the end of a few days they are all likely to see that one member of the household is doing 95% of the chores of making that household work.  At that point, you can start to talk about items that other family members could take on.  Ask for their input…what would they like to do?  What would fit into their schedules the best?  For example, your younger kids might agree to make their beds, pick up their laundry, hang up their towels, etc.  Teens might do yard chores or laundry.  Your husband might agree to empty the trash, cook, mow the lawn, whatever.  You might decide that certain chores would be more fun, and less onerous, if multiple people did it together.  This can include yard work, folding laundry, cooking...(In our house I run the laundry, but we all fold together - usually with some good music on.  My teenage son also helps with the cooking some days.)

By involving each person in picking chores you have the highest chance of creating a "good fit".  It probably doesn’t make sense to ask someone who needs to leave the house at 7am to take on a chore that takes 30 minutes first thing in the day, such as walking the dog.

As family members begin to take on more responsibility celebrate this in a general way – perhaps with a cake, etc. to make it “fun”.  Kids sometimes like sticker charts to show their progress.  If people aren’t following through on what they say they will do, decide with the group about what they think should be the ramifications.  Kids who don’t do their chores might have to do them before going out to play, or lose sleep over privileges, for example.

The goal is to set each person up for success in the chore arena – a good matching of chore to skills, interests, and timetable plus reasonable support.  So if you have a child who doesn’t know how to do laundry but wants to take it on, consider making a list of the steps and taping it up over the washer after you teach him.  If your husband has trouble initiating chores that he’s agreed to, talk with him about potential reminder systems (alarms, buzzers, notes, etc).  There is nothing wrong with these reminders – they should be considered “neutral” emotionally (not representative of a fault or problem).  They are simply one tool in an arsenal of tools to “get things done”.  Yes, one person will still be in the role of “organizer”, at least for a while, but that’s okay…because chores will get better distributed.

Tip #1.  Make sure that the “ramification” for not doing a chore is that mom does it for you (“because it’s easier” or “because I couldn’t stand it any more”)  That’s the wrong type of reinforcement!  Pick something else that is immediate - just make sure you don't "cover" for your family.

Tip #2.  If you are already in a battle with a spouse over chore completion, break down longer chores into shorter "sub" chores.  This will help you (and him) see some positive progress.  And, yes, ramifications for adults are okay, too.  Make this part of the family discussion...then stick to what you all decide.  If kids lose their rights to go out and play if they don't do their chores by a certain time, would it not be okay to suggest that dad can't go play that round of golf until his are done?  (Hint:  He can wake up earlier or stay up later to complete the chore on time...and if he stays up until 2:00am to get the chore done, don't give him a hard time for coming to bed late!  He won't do everything the way you expect, or even the way you like...but the chore will get done.)

Tip #3.  Expect that your feelings about this will get tested for a while.  Since it's much easier if "mom just does it", expect that others will see if you're willing to fall back into that pattern.  Resist that temptation, even if it does seem easier.  Reconvene the "family court" (if you will) and talk through the issues in a business-like way.  What got in the way of the chore getting done?  Would there be a better time of day?  Is there a skill missing?  Are you overscheduled?  Is this a long-term issue or a one-time issue?  Do you have the wrong chore for some reason?  Pretty soon, "I didn't feel like it" will sound pretty lame to everyone, not just to you.

This approach can work for families because:

  • It distributes responsibility for chores, and for crafting solutions, across the entire family, taking it away from just warring spouses (where one is likely "dictating" to the other what the solution should be)
  • It illuminates the dimensions of the problem through measurement and tracking
  • Kids can help define what's "fair", which can go a long way towards diffusing some of the arguments over this topic

A completely different approach would be to get at least some of the chores out of the family completely, by hiring various types of help.  More on that in a later post.