Kids ‘n’ Cleaning, Chore Cards and Family Fun

We recently had our first ever family movie night and our first ever family campfire night, with bonus sparklers.

Picture this: three kids and their parents, sitting around a campfire  in the freezing cold back yard, cooking damper on sticks, toasting marshmallows, and later swirling sparklers.

Three kids swirling sparklers in the dark

That was us, and it was our family reward for filling a small jar with smaller stones.

a small pile of pebbles next to a jar

The previous weekend the house was a mess and I was tired, still emotionally and physically recovering from being in car-totalling car accident the week before,* and the kids were ratty, as kids often are.

My husband Chris was out in the rain with Liam (our eleven-year-old), who was playing footy, and I was home with the girls.

And just the day before, I’d read Jess’s post promising me (moreorless) that if I made the kids clean their rooms on Saturday mornings, they’d let me sleep in first, to put off the inevitable.

I hadn’t had a sleep in, but I did have a house in need of cleaning. So here’s what I did. After an hour or two of crabbiness (let’s be honest) I got myself together and got the girls to make help me make a bunch of chore cards. Some with pictures, some with words, and some with both.

A pile of small blue cards with chores hand written and drawn on them

The System

When Chris and Liam got home, I explained the plan.

“Here are three pots of chore cards,” I explained. “The first one is for hard or time consuming chores, like cleaning the toilet or vacuuming or doing the dishes. The second one is for easy chores, like picking up any five things and putting them away. And the third one is just for Eliane.”

Eliane’s chore cards had one, two or three shapes drawn on them, which represented one, two or three items that she should pick up. And I made it extra easy by leaving the scraps of paper on the floor after we made the cards, so all she had to do was pick up three bits of paper and put them in the recycling basket, and she’d done a chore.

And, she’d earned a stone for the jar.

And that was the crux of it. The deal was, if you do an easy chore, you can put a stone in the jar. Doesn’t matter if the card says to pick up one thing or ten, if you do it, you get a stone. If you do a “hard” chore, you can put in five.

The Reward

“And,” I told them, “If we can get the house reasonably clean, and fill up the jar with stones, we will have a family movie night tonight.”

We’d never had a family movie night before. We’re not a big television family, but more than that, the kids are so spread out in age (three, seven, and eleven), it’s hard to find a movie to suit them all, and if we wait until Eliane’s in bed, then we wouldn’t be starting the movie until after Mikaela’s bedtime, which is basically the same as Elli’s – 7pm – except with half an hour ‘reading’ time tacked on. So this was a pretty big deal.

I’m not the greatest at managing consistent chore routines for the kids, or for myself. The truth is my housewifery skills are sadly lacking in that department. And so are Chris’s. So we have not set a great example for the kids in terms of keeping a clean and – more especially – tidy house. I started trying to declutter our house over a year ago, which goes in fits and starts. I really do believe that having less stuff would be better, in so many ways, not to mention less messy. But we’re not there yet, and we probably won’t ever be anything approaching truly minimalist.

However, I’ve always maintained the idea that we need to all do our bit, in an age appropriate way, to keep the home together. This is not something you get paid for, this is just the stuff we all have to do because we’re all part of the family, part of the community. But while I won’t pay them pocket money to do regular chores, I figure we can reward ourselves for working together, with a group incentive. I do want my kids to grow up with a sense of community responsibility. I figure that starts at home.

I take heart too, in something I once heard positive discipline advocate, Jane Nelson say. Someone told her that they’d implemented a new chore routine, one they’d come up with together at a family meeting, but it had only worked for a month before it all fell apart again. Nelson’s response was that a month was great. That’s not a failure that’s a month of success! Now they could discuss it at another family meeting and decide what to do next.

The Outcome

We’re not that great at having regular family meetings either, but everyone got right on board with the idea of the stones.

Liam was keen to do the bigger jobs that earned more stones in one hit, and I reckon he worked pretty solidly for two hours. Mikaela started out with a few big jobs too – she loves cleaning things with the citrus vinegar spray I make, so she took on some bathroom tasks to begin with. Elli did a few jobs and then got bored.

Because we use mostly non-toxic cleaning products like vinegar and bicarb soda (baking soda), or the essential oil disinfectant given on my free printables, the kids can help out with most of the cleaning jobs, as well as the tidying – which is always more of an issue. Their skill levels are varied, and I have to admit our family room window doesn’t look a whole lot better for Elli having emptied half a spray bottle of vinegar & water onto it – but I figure they won’t hurt anything, and they will gradually get more skilled, with a little instruction and practice.

Once Mikaela lost interest too, I offered to ‘pay’ her in stones, to read to Eliane. For every book they read together they could each put a stone in the jar. That kept them busy for a while which was great. (Mikaela can’t actually read, by the way, she goes to a Steiner school where they only start learning their letters in class one – which she is in now – but she can look at the pictures and tell Elli the stories of books we’ve read together a bunch of times.)

What’s Next?

After we’d filled our jar and had our movie night, I emptied the little jar into a much bigger one. When we fill up the big jar we’re going to have a Big Day Out as a family. We’ll vote on what to do, and it will also depend on our finances at the time. Some options floated are to go down the coast for a day, although it’s too cold to swim at the moment, or go to the snow for the day, which we’ve never yet done. Liam suggested a day at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. A less costly option than any of those would be to go on a short bushwalk in Namadgi National Park, walking in to a camp ground where we could have a campfire & picnic lunch, then come home and perhaps have another movie night or afternoon.

We have to fill the smaller jar a bunch more times before the big one is full though. We haven’t filled it every weekend, some attempts have been an almost complete fail, with grumpy kids and grumpy parents and errands to fit in as well. But whenever we do a few chores together – and when the big kids have occasionally been inspired to do them on their own – we add some stones. I also add stones if I ‘catch’ them being particularly helpful or cooperative (with me or each other) in other ways.

Our best family rewards so far was our campfire dinner of damper and marshmallows followed by swirling sparklers to celebrate the Queen’s birthday weekend. Liam is old enough to remember that until a few years back we could still buy fireworks in Canberra, once a year, to set off over the Queen’s birthday weekend. But he reckoned our campfire was more fun. And so did I, actually.

Over to You

What is your approach to chores for your kids? Do they have regular duties? Chores by request? Some chores they must do and others they get paid for? Do you stick with one system or mix it up? I’d love to know – it’s an area we are always revising!


*Not wanting this to be the focus of this post let me just say this: It was not my fault. No seriously, the other guy took complete responsibility, no arguments. And okay, more to the point, no one was seriously hurt – even my eleven year old still sits on a booster seat, for which I have never been more glad, so the seatbelts did their jobs. But the car – it was done for.
This post was entered in IBOT, over at Essentially Jess, and in Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, along with lots of other gems.

  15 comments for “Kids ‘n’ Cleaning, Chore Cards and Family Fun

  1. July 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    My little man is only three so my approach to getting him to help around the house is haphazard at best but he does respond well to what I call the “Dora method” – basically a set of deals that outline the way to a treat: “first we put our toys away, then we clean off the table and then we can do some painting”. I call it the Dora method because of how she seems to break everything into three parts with the final part being the destination. I love the pebble idea, totally keeping that in mind for later on.

    • Kirsten
      July 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm

      That sounds like as good a method as any to me – and actually, I often still use that method too, with all three kids – you want to paint? Well, get this and that chore done, and then we can do that. But now with the pebble jar, I’d put pebbles in too, so they see it as contributing to “something greater” 🙂 – though I’m sure my three year old doesn’t really get that concept yet.

  2. July 16, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    My four each have their own set tasks (keep room clean, help feed/clean animals) which they are not paid for, although occasionally I will allow them to choose a reward – credit on their phone, a magazine, etc. They also have the choice to do extra jobs in return for a set cash amount if they want to, $5 for washing and vacuuming the car, or $2 for washing dishes, that kind of thing.

    • Me
      July 16, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Hey – sorry for hi-jacking your comment – any chance I can bring my car around for a $5 wash and vacuum ? LOL

      • Kirsten
        July 18, 2013 at 10:49 am

        haha – and me too?

    • Kirsten
      July 18, 2013 at 10:53 am

      That sounds like a system that works.

      I have this fantasy that when we move Mikaela out of Liam’s room and into Eliane’s (any day now, supposedly), we will get them all set up beautifully and they will keep them tidy. Something I never achieved through my whole childhood!

  3. Penny
    July 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    I put 5 dollars into the bank each week for both my children (6&7yrs). For that they have to do jobs each day. I explain to them that we all live in ‘our community’ and we all have to pull our weight. They have no trouble understanding that. One child is more helpful than the other ie she often does jobs without being asked or volunteers when I ask for assistant. But even the less helpful of the two knows she has to help out. I must admit my kids think that they ‘must’ do as I say or I will be upset and mostly they just don’t want to do that (upset me). They are pretty obedient, even if I have to ask more than once. I have been getting them to help me with chores since they were about 2.5 or 3 years old. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a model parent but fortunately my kids do contribute to jobs around the house. … Great post by the way.

    • Kirsten
      July 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Your kids are awesome. Seriously. And I love that they understand and accept that community idea. I think mine do too, sort of, but there’re a lot of things (like that) I wish I’d started saying when they were younger. Oh well, just as well I’ve got Ms three I guess. I Will Do Better This Time! LOL.

      On a completely, totally different subject, I have dreamed twice in the last week that I had just given birth to another baby. What do you think that means?

  4. Me
    July 16, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    I think that is a great idea. When K was little she started doing chores like opening and closing the garage door (with the help of a piece of rope and broom handle), as she got older, she got more chores until she was folding the washing, emptying the bins and the dishwasher and feeding the dogs. Her and A split picking up dog poo. When we cleaned the house she would dust all the blinds and shutters ( we have wooden blinds and shutters throughout the house) and the windowsills. A would vacuum and clean the toilets and I did the bathrooms, dusting and the kitchen.
    We used to do it first thing on a Saturday morning before anything else – then it was out the way and we could enjoy the weekend.
    Have the best day and good luck with keeping this going !

    • Kirsten
      July 18, 2013 at 10:42 am


      I do like the idea of getting it all out of the way on Saturday morning. At the moment Liam has footy at about 10:30, and while I know we *could* spend two hours on chores before that, I just don’t have it in me! But maybe once the footy season ends. It would be a lot more fun than Saturday arvo, which is what we mostly do now (either that or just bits and pieces through the week – which has been my school holiday approach).

  5. July 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Oh how I have tried over the years to get my kids interested… but nothing works except telling them “NOW!”. It drives me crazy, money doesn’t even work!

    My sister on the other hand uses the same kind of method as you do I think, and all her kids get into it!

    MC x

    • Kirsten
      July 18, 2013 at 10:45 am

      It just goes to show, all kids are different, and motivated by different things. And, all parent-child relationships are different too.

      I know, for instance, that star charts and rewards are not “meant” to be a good form of motivation, but I also know, *they work for me*. I am just a sucker for external motivation I guess. And also for ticking things off. Interestingly, they also work well for my son. But for Ms 7? Not at all. Her motivations are completely different to mine I think, which makes it harder for me to work her out – even though in lots of other ways, I think she and I are very similar.

    • Kirsten
      July 18, 2013 at 10:46 am

      PS – Buffy the Squishy Slayer? I’m going to have to click on that link!

  6. July 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Love that you tried my idea, even if it didn’t work for you 🙂
    We have a similar system that we use from time to time here, which involves marbles in a jar, and it’s always a great incentive to keep attitudes in check I think. Slightly jealous of your family night around the fire; would love to do that with our kids

    • Kirsten
      July 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      I guess my kids have to believe that I will get my arse into gear that quickly and really make them clean their rooms, Jess, if I want it to work. 🙂

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