Santa's watching: Getting your kids to help at home

When I was very young, my mother would tell me that Santa was watching and that my "take" at Christmas would depend on my behavior before Christmas. Even children who don't believe in Santa would understand that this was not a good time to be on the wrong side of Mom or Dad.

The threat of coal in your stocking probably isn't acceptable by today's standards, but we still need to enforce rules and we still need the help our children can provide to get us smoothly through a busy holiday season. What's a mother or father to do?

  1. Include the children in holiday planning and preparation. Explaining why certain traditions are followed makes them more meaningful to the children and gets the children more interested in the holidays. Often, children will be more interested in helping with household chores if they know that they are making the house nice for a visit from Grandma -- or a visit from Santa.
  2. Admit you need help. Don't struggle to do everything yourself and then scream in frustration when things don't come out as you had hoped. Even fairly young children (two- or three-year-olds) can accept that if they want to do fun things as a family, they can't expect one person to do all the work. Let the children know that by doing the chores you assign them, they will free up time you can spend with them. Then follow through. Do not raise your standards so high that you never finish. Plan a fun family activity for when the work is done -- and do it.
  3. I firmly believe that routine chores should be done without question or reward, but at this time of year there are often extra chores that relate to holiday preparations AND children want to be able to buy gifts for their friends, teachers, parents and siblings. Offering a small cash reward for doing extra chores can work wonders. Of course, you must hold to the rule that no "paid" chores can be done until the routine chores are finished.
  4. Don't separate the "fun" chores from the "not fun" chores. You might be surprised to learn that the children have a whole different take on what is "fun." Each of us has our own feelings and interests. Just ask some friends which household chores they hate the most. It's likely that they will mention chores you don't mind doing at all. Let your children decide what they enjoy doing or they will learn to hate the same jobs you hate. Mary Poppins says that there is an element of fun in every job. It doesn't hurt to look for it.
  5. Allow everyone to make some choices about what they will do. Everyone must do a certain number of chores or put in a certain amount of time, but they can choose which chores they will do from a list. You might offer a point system so the easier chores can be weighted less than major projects. You can limit the choices as much as you like. You might even assign the chores and then let them choose which to do first.
  6. List step-by-step instructions for complicated tasks. Telling a child to clean a room or area leaves most children wondering where to start. They are much more likely to start -- and finish -- if they know exactly what is expected.
  7. Work in teams. A child left to work alone is easily distracted. If you are working side-by-side, it is clear that this is a team effort and you can redirect the child when needed -- keeping everyone on track.
  8. Plan a sleep-over during the holiday break. Most school-aged children don't want their friends to see their rooms when they are messy. If your child is at that stage, offering to allow a few friends to spend the night might motivate some serious help. Some children don't seem to mind the mess at all, so don't try this unless you are fairly confident it will work.
  9. Allow frequent breaks and have a snack or fun activity for those breaks. Young children don't like to work for rewards that are too far into the future, but they are happy to put in 15 minutes of helping before a cookie break.
  10. Play holiday music to get everyone into the spirit of the holidays. It helps to keep your mind off the work when the task is boring and time consuming.

Bonnie Rice is a ParentsPlace community leader for home organization and the mother of four boys. Join her for a chat about getting children to help at home on December 8 at 3 p.m. or 8 p.m. ET in ParentsPlace chat. We talk about home organization every Tuesday at those times. She also runs the GET-O-LIFE Home Organization web site at

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