Motivating Reluctant Helpers

by | Sep 14, 2015 | Chores, Mailbag | 13 comments

Mailbag time! You’re not going to believe this, but some kids are NOT super excited about doing chores. Here’s what we do about it.

– question – 

Hi Kendra!

My question is this: I’ve recently begun having my four- and two-year old children set the table for dinner each night. At first, they thought it was great fun to help with a grown-up task, but my four-year-old son has begun showing some aversion. I have already put my foot down on him whining about it (or from running away to hide, which happened once or twice as well!). A few days ago, he simply said, “I don’t want to set the table.” My response was, “Well, you may not like it, but it’s your job. I don’t really want to cook dinner or wash the dishes, but I do it because it’s my job.”

I was reflecting on my response later, and I’m just not happy with it. I feel like instead of agreeing that doing chores are something to be dreaded, I should have spoken more positively – focusing on our duty to serve the family (and the joy that is possible to find there). But how can I explain this to young children?

Or perhaps I’m just over-thinking the whole thing, and what I should do is just start considering comments such as “I don’t want to _______” as complaining, and give out appropriate consequences for them!

Thanks for any advice you might be able to offer,

(Splendor in the Home)

– answer –

Hey Christine,

Well it’s certainly nothing new, just ask Moses. The whole book of Exodus is pretty much Moses listening to people grumble about stuff. And God has a little something special up his sleeve for complainers.

What you said is pretty much exactly how I respond in that situation. I do think we have a responsibility, like you mention, of trying to model joy in acts of service to our family. But our kids should also understand that I don’t cook them dinner because it’s the thing I’d most like to be doing at that moment, and Daddy doesn’t drive off to work each morning because it’s his favorite place to be. I want my kids to understand that we do those things as a result of a conscious decision to love God and the people around us by our actions, not just our words or our feelings.

I want my kids to understand that they are a burden, but one for which I am grateful. We are all made better by doing things for others even when we don’t feel like it. Especially when we don’t feel like it.

Sometimes I’ll respond just as you did. But sometimes I’ll add, “Well, when you do something you don’t feel like doing, out of love for God or our family, you get another jewel in your crown in heaven” or, depending on how that particular kid is best motivated, “Well, it’s better to do stuff you don’t like here rather than in purgatory. Setting the table in purgatory is probably much more unpleasant.” And then, of course, they want to know HOW it would be unpleasant, and I don’t know for sure, but we can come up with some good guesses.

Anyway, some push back on chores is TOTALLY normal. You just have to be a little more stubborn than he is.

And there’s a line somewhere. For younger kids, just learning to do chores, I’m okay with a little push back, with some feeling around to see if I really do mean it, and to understand why they have to. But at some point it does just become complaining and a waste of everyone’s time. I STILL have to have this conversation with my thirteen year old every so often. He labors under the belief that if only I truly understood how much he disliked doing chores, I wouldn’t make him do them.

But he’s wrong. I know he doesn’t like ’em. He still has to do ’em.

I changed my approach a bit after reading the book The Temperament God Gave You
. It helped me understand how best to motivate different kids. The oldest, for instance, really isn’t much motivated by the idea of being of service to his family, but he does like a challenge, and to be given responsibilities that other kids couldn’t handle. So, whenever possible, I’ll ask him to do unique chores that come up, like running an errand for me, or replacing batteries, or gluing something that’s been broken.

It’s not always possible, of course, the table DOES need setting, and even if it’s beneath him sometimes he’s the one who needs to do it.

Good luck!


Some other posts you might enjoy:

Chores for Enthusiastic Toddlers

Can’t Buy Me Love? Not For Chores Anyway.

Are Older Siblings Overburdened by Responsibilities? Or Are They Empowered by Them?


Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail .
com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use
your question on the blog.
p.s. Would you believe I’m talking about complaining over at Blessed is She today as well? Click on over, read all about it.


  1. priest's wife

    one thing I have been doing that helps- I do chores while the kids are doing theirs. A mom can work all day- but heaven help her if she puts her feet up while a child sets the table!

  2. Christine

    Heh – I came here to read this post, and was surprised to see that it was the question I'd sent you a while back! Thanks again for your response….I appreciate the Purgatory reminder (for myself, as much as for my kids). Things have been going better with the table-setting around here. I think mostly, I just wore them down, and they realized that resistance is futile 😉

    • Kendra

      Yep. That's key!

      And you're welcome. (I try to answer questions people email as soon as possible, then I just put it on the blog when I need a post and have time to format a bunch of them!)

  3. mel

    hehe…setting the table in purgatory…
    at our house, any time I slack off on "routine", this flares up big time. They might get in a routine of doing certain chores without too much complaint, but heaven forbid I get lazy over a few weeks in the summer and let them run off without helping to clean up after meals. I will pay for that well into fall I think, lol

    • Kendra

      Yes, that's true. And then I hear a bunch of, "But we didn't have to do it LAST week!" That'll teach me to do you a favor, kid. 😉

  4. Kati

    I have found myself saying quite often lately, "I understand. But you don't have to like it. You just have to [do/eat] it." I feel like I'm telling the truth, but also being firm. I DO get it – and I don't like many things I have to do all day long – but I have to do them anyway, and so do my kids. I also find this response fits well with conversations we have about courage/bravery, and how that virtue really comes down to doing what need to be done, or doing what is right, even if you're scared. Theme: how we FEEL about something doesn't always dictate what we DO about it. (and then I say this to myself over and over all day to try to embrace the lessons I'm trying to teach them!)

  5. Gazella

    Dear Kendra, I'm super beginner at parenting with a 15-month-old son and you help me a lot with your wise parenting tips. Thank you!

  6. Amanda

    Oh Jack's belief is echoed here. Last week my 7yo informed me it must not have occurred to me that not doing work myself means HE has to do it! It has, and I like it that way.

    Also, how do you introduce the idea of purgatory? And explain it to littles?

    • Kendra

      The way I explain purgatory is this: I die. My angel brings me to Jesus, for my particular judgement. I'll get sent to Heaven or to Hell. I've been trying pretty hard, and I really do love God and most of my neighbors, so I get sent to Heaven.


      As I stand before God, the weight of my transgressions against him is more than I can bear. I am deeply aware of how often I have chosen myself over God. Of how often I have sinned against God and against my neighbor. I know that I am unworthy to be in the presence of the Lord.

      What then?

      God, in his great mercy, allows me to go to purgatory. He allows me to willing choose to undergo a purification of suffering where I can finally rid myself of my attachment to sin. However long it takes for me to scrape off all of those barnacles, that's how long I'll be there. It will hurt, but having seen the face of God, I will want nothing more than to undergo that suffering.

      When it's finished, finally, I will be able to enter the beatific vision. I will be able to be in the presence of God.

  7. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    Kendra!! You've hopped on the temperament train! Can you do a giveaway of a one hour phone conversation with you and then rig it so I win and we can talk temperaments?? Jack must be a choleric (hi! choleric here too.) and Frankie is probably either melancholic or choleric. But are ALL the rest phlegmatic or sanguine? They just seem so easy going. And I'm dying to know what you are. I bet you are unique combination like phlegmatic choleric?

    You should probably just write an entire post about it. Or run that giveaway 😉

    • Kendra

      We should totally talk temperaments. But you've got it down already. You nailed all of us. Even weirdo me. Bobby is full on phlegmatic, and Betty, Gus, Anita, and I'm guessing Lulu are all sanguine. Frankie is melancholic and choleric somehow. Kid loves being sent to his room.

  8. Anna

    This is great advice.

    Also, I thought this was interesting:

    "The oldest, for instance, really isn't much motivated by the idea of being of service to his family, but he does like a challenge, and to be given responsibilities that other kids couldn't handle."

    It reminds me of the book about love languages and other personality tests I've come across. Some people are motivated by acts of service, whether by them and/or toward them. Others are motivated by challenge, which in a more round about way, still helps others. My temperament is geared toward problem-solving, even creative problem-solving, envisioning solutions and bringing them about, etc. But the shear people interaction part is not what gets me. This is all very useful as I think about how to relate to others, especially kids. It's helpful in terms of figuring out employment, too. What motivates one person is not what will motivate someone else and it is most beneficial to work with that and get the best out of everyone. I want to remember this when guiding my kids who are just starting out — 19 month old girl and another girl due in a week!


  1. Chores for Enthusiastic Toddlers - Catholic All Year - […] Motivating Reluctant Helpers […]

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

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