Got chore wars? Try this simple phrase with your kids

Do you find yourself begging, pleading or threatening to get your 4 year old to clean up her toys?
Some kids are born with a knack for ignoring, whining, and explaining their way out of chores. (Like someone at my house just yesterday).

If you’re experiencing chore wars with your kids,  you might try using a bit of psychology to help get the job done. It’s all in your choice of words.

Got chore wars? Try this simple phrase with your kids

“Helping” vs. “being a helper”

In a recent study, researchers Christopher Bryan and Allison Master and their team compared two groups of 3- to 6- year old kids who were encouraged to help out adults with some simple tasks like fetching an item or closing a box. One group heard phrases like “being a helper” and the other group heard about “helping.” The “helper” group was significantly more willing to do what was asked of them.

The simple phrase that points them to a positive identity

The researchers theorized that this technique works well with children because they are motivated to pursue a positive identity. When they are exposed to the idea of “being a helper,” kids readily identify with this image and want to fit the picture. However, when they are encouraged to “help,” it sounds a lot more like work and it doesn’t give them anything to live up to.

How can you use this technique to sidestep chore wars?

You can do just what the researchers did: encourage your kids using nouns instead of verbs. Use nouns that help kids identify with a particular self-image like “helper” instead of verbs like “helping.” Talk about how important it is to be a helper or a hard worker and how everyone in the family needs to be a part of the team to get the chores done.

This type of language works best with younger kids. Your 12 year old isn’t going to jump at the chance to be mom or dad’s “helper.” But that 12 year old might rise to the prospect of being referred to as a diligent worker. Obviously kids don’t want to be patronized so make sure your comments are genuine.

My youngest is an enthusiastic vacuumer.  No chore wars here!

My youngest is an enthusiastic vacuumer.

Is this the magic solution to getting the chores done?

There are no magic bullets. Chores are still work and no one is going to relish washing the dishes or take out the trash. Still, doing chores with a good attitude goes a long way toward making chores seem less like drudgery.

If you or your kids can feel good about a job well done, it’ll make the work go that much quicker. And that is something everyone can appreciate.

P.S. If you have a second, you’d be a great help if you shared this article on Facebook. (See what I did there?)

Want to read the study? It’s called “Helping” Versus “Being a Helper”: Invoking the Self to Increase Helping in Young Children

This post was linked up at Thrifty Thursday and Family Fun Friday.



  1. Erin says

    I have been really emphasizing with my 5 year old what a great helper she is and I have seen it do wonders for her. She struggles at times with behavior. We’ve gotten more than one email from her teacher about her behavior in school. So, I really tried to emphasize positive things about her behavior and she has blossomed into a wonderful helper. She thrives on hearing me tell people what a great helper she is and it encourages her to want to do more. I’ve never thought of the psychology behind helping vs. helper, but I can tell you my 5 year old loves being a helper!

    • Sarah Mueller says

      How sweet! She’s fulfilling your vision for her! I love this. I have heard this over and over again – when you show kids you believe in them, they will prove you right (and also vice versa). Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mason Leskowitz says

    I need some specific phrases. My 7 and 10 year old have just about won the war. “You would be a great help if you would . . . ” ? Could you be a helper to me and . .. ”
    Phrases like this? Please list some more specific suggestions please – I really need the help!

    • Sarah Mueller says

      Mason, Great question. Ok – here’s more info on what the study found. They first had a chat with the kids about what it means to be a helper. I’m guessing they talked about why it’s important, what kinds of things helpers do, etc. Then during the course of some interaction, they asked the kids to “be a helper” and do ___ (pick up a toy, close a container, etc.). So again, it was 2 steps – 1. setting the stage with the key phrases and 2. using the phrases during the request.

      Now, since your kids are a little older than those in the study, I’d suggest phrasing it a bit differently. “Helper” sounds a little too babylike for 7 and 10 year olds. I might sit them down and have a talk about how grown up they’re becoming and how everyone in the family is on the same team and has to be a team player (something like that). Or maybe you talk to them about how you are all diligent workers. Then, when you need them to do something, say “It’s time to be a team player (or diligent worker) and (take out the trash | empty the dishwasher | etc.)”

      This one technique isn’t going to completely reform your kids. Have you read the other articles in my series on teaching your kids to do chores?

      • Mason Leskowitz says

        Thanks so much! For some it comes naturally – but I really need and appreciate the step – by – step approach and the script. Thanks again!

      • Sarah Mueller says

        You’re most welcome! I’m sure you’re doing fine. Let me know how it goes.

  3. Mason Leskowitz says

    Could you please give me some of the phrases I could use? I have a 7 and 10 year old who have just about won the war – I’m not sure what expressions I should use . . .”You’d be a great help, if you could please . . . ” ? What else?

  4. Kay Mangan says

    Good morning, Sarah, you were the moderator of the hello mornings (?) group last summer, at least I think that’s how I met you. I love this post, and it reminds me of the verse I quoted to my kids a lot when they were young and I wanted to thank them for helping: “When you help me around the house, I like to call you helper mouse.” It’s from a poem in a Babybug magazine, which I have long since passed along to another family. My oldest is 13, so it was 12 years or so ago that I read it to her. Thank you for zeroing in on this key concept about chores!

    • Sarah Mueller says

      Hi Kay,

      Yes, you are right! We did meet through Hello Mornings. I love your poem – that is so sweet. My 3 year old will love it. Thanks for your comment :)

  5. says

    I’m coming to the conclusion that “chore wars” is just part of life. All of my kids have chores (except the 13 month old). By now my 5, 7, 9, and 11 yr olds KNOW they have set chores to do every morning after breakfast. But I have to remind them to work, inspect their work, and have consequences for not completed in a timely and accurate fashion. It’s not a fun job being chore inspector but I think the result will be responsible adults, at least that’s my hope!

    • Sarah Mueller says

      Yes, I think inspecting is probably the most important thing after training, but it’s when I as a parent tend to get lazy. In fact, that’s what I need to do right now!

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