How To Get Family To Help With Chores

How to get family to help with chores from At some point, every homemaker has asked how to get family to help with chores. That’s certainly the case with today’s Reader Question from Vivienne whose New Year’s Resolution to clean and organize her house is running into the reality of a less-than-helpful family. (Be sure to read the wonderful UPDATE below!)

Dear Katie,
Since buying our house 3 years ago, it’s grown increasingly cluttered and dirty. I try my best to keep up with housework, but as a SAHM with two kids (3 and 5), plus a messy husband who comes home and flops in front of the television, it’s hard to do! This year I made a New Year’s resolution to get the house clean and toss some of the clutter, and then KEEP it that way. But here we are barely a week into the New Year and I’m already struggling.

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How do I make my husband help out more? And is it unrealistic to expect children my kids’ age to pitch in, too?

More Cleaning, Less Screaming

Dear Screaming Mom,

Before I tell you the answer, I want you to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Better? Good, now sit down because you’re probably not going to like this.

The truth is, you can’t MAKE your husband help out more. (Take another deep breath, woman.) Remember, this was your New Year’s Resolution, not his. If you’d resolved to lose 10 lbs (and I’m not saying that you need to), you wouldn’t expect him to do that for you, would you? Of course not.

I say this from experience, having spent the first ten years of my marriage trying to nag my sloppy, pack rat, hygiene-challenged husband into performing various household chores. After they grew old enough to realize “playing house with Mommy” meant helping me clean, my kids weren’t any better at pitching in. Trying to change them darned near drove me crazy, too.

But over I did learn a couple of things: like, how to make an amazing martini to reward myself at the end of the day, and how pointless it is to expect my family to do chores simply because I think they need to be done.

That said, there are ways to get family to help with chores that will ultimately lighten the load you’ve chosen to carry–and remember, when you set standards for how clean you want your house to be you are choosing that burden.

Here’s what’s worked with my husband:

  1. Never ask for help when his favorite show is on or about to come on. I used to ask my husband to spend an hour or so on Sundays helping me before football started. Know what happened? He’d rush through whatever I’d asked him to do, usually doing only a part of it, then plant himself in front of the TV so his sofa cushion would be warm before kickoff. You can imagine my mood for the rest of the day.
  2. Don’t ask for help the instant he comes home from work. As a SAHM, I totally understand how you’ve probably spent the entire day keeping a mental list of things you’d like your husband’s help with. Given how distracting the dinner routine can be, it’s tempting to rattle that list off when he gets home so you don’t have to keep remembering it. Don’t waste your breath. He’s not going to mentally register what you’ve said until he’s had time to change, sit down, and transition to actually being home. Just write a brief list for your own reference, and give him that time.
  3. Time it right. If you want daily help, look for it after he’s had time to unwind but before you sit down for dinner. Assuming your kids have snacked recently enough that they’re not terribly grumpy, this is a fantastic time to do a ‘family chore time’ for 20-30 minutes. (See my note on getting the kids to help, below.) After dinner is always a bad time because, let’s face it, full tummies make people tired! As for weekend help, try scheduling family chore time after breakfast but before lunch if possible. Otherwise, go for pre-dinner chores then, too.
  4. Don’t overwhelm him. Whether we like it or not, as boys and girls grow up, it’s usually the girls who receive more instruction on how to clean properly. In other words, you’re already at an advantage when it comes to knowing what to do and how. Simply asking your husband to “clean the family room” may mean, in his mind, “go pick up the toys” while you’re thinking “and then dust the tables, fluff the pillows, take the empty dishes to the sink and give the floor a quick vacuum”.
  5. Spell it out for him… simply. Hand him one of my printable chore charts. Men love charts, and reading the steps for himself means you don’t have to nag him.
  6. Gush with gratitude when he does help. Ever notice how a wife can do all the laundry, clean the entire house, and fix a gourmet dinner from scratch without anyone so much as noticing, but if a husband polishes water spots off a mirror he expects a standing ovation? (Or maybe that’s just how it is in my house.) As unfair as it is, as silly as it is, it makes a man nervous to go out of his comfort zone to do a chore he wasn’t raised knowing how to do. Your praise lets him know that you realize he actually helped and that he did it right (even if he didn’t).
  7. Pay it forward. If you’re raising boys, do the next generation of wives an enormous favor: get your sons involved in housework! Not only will you be imparting important life skills that they’ll need when they’re on their own, you’ll be helping them cut down on future domestic friction when they’re married, too!

As for getting your kids to help, no, I don’t think your children are too young. Of course, you’re the only one who really knows how independent they are, and how much responsibility they can handle. But I do think it’s vital that kids learn, from a very young age, that as part of the family they’re expected to pitch in on things that benefit the entire family.

Certainly a clean, cozy house benefits everyone — especially when it means Mom has more time and energy to spend doing fun family things! So go ahead and take a peek at my list of chores kids can do and decide what your little ones are ready to handle.

Good luck, Screamer. And try to have a Happy New Year no matter how messy the house gets!

UPDATE (8/12/2013): The harried mom who wrote to ask me how to get family to help with chores sent a follow-up email last week:

Dear Katie,

I wish I could give you a big hug! When I first wrote to ask for your help I wasn’t very fond of your answer. It seemed like you were telling me to either be okay with my house being messier or shut up and do it myself. I just want to apologize for all the names I called you that day and for days after that. But even though I didn’t like your advice I followed it at least with respects to my husband. I wrote on the family calendar what I’d be cleaning each day and after he watched a show or two on TV after work he started helping me with anything I hadn’t finished.

You told me to gush with praise whenever he helped and I did. He liked that so he started helping even more. The kids saw Daddy helping Mommy clean and getting treats for it (I started baking cookies and things) and they began helping me too. Now we all spend a half hour or so cleaning together every evening after dinner and before our bath and book time. My house looks better than it ever has.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write back and let you know how we turned out. It’s just that we had such a great spring and summer together, including vacations and visits from family that didn’t send me into a tantrum because my house was clean already! Thank you SO MUCH Katie! You are my hero.

Home is now Heavenly

Folks, things like this are why I’m here!


  1. says

    I must be one of the lucky ones!! My hubby has always ‘helped out’. Sometimes not in ways I really wanted him to, but I still had to appreciate it so he would eventually do the things that were really helpful!! *L* Since I’ve gotten sick he has really stepped forward and I can’t say enough good about that! I agree with your hints, though, especially timing it right. Most men will do most anything if they think it was their idea in the first place!

    • says

      LOL Yes, if we put the notion in their heads they’ll run with it. I had to chuckle at your husband’s initial efforts to be helpful. Mine was the same way, and for years I wondered if he’d intentionally messed things up so I wouldn’t ask for his help anymore. Then I realized he just had no idea how to clean!

  2. says

    Dearest Katie,
    What a humorous but very well written post! Your approach is excellent and especially the last segment I loved: “If you’re raising boys, do the next generation of wives an enormous favor: get your sons involved in housework!”
    Good luck with your men.
    Hugs to you,

    • says

      Hello Mariette!
      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished my mother-in-law had spent a bit more time teaching my husband things like “We don’t use the kitchen towel to wipe up spills from the floor and then rehang it!” or “It’s better to make your sandwich on your plate than directly on the counter, because you have no idea what was sitting there previously and, besides, wiping your mess up with your hand STILL leaves a mess!”

      Needless to say, I’m making a point to teach my son to clean well. I figure his future wife will have plenty of other reasons to dislike me, but this topic doesn’t need to be one.


  3. Mummy Pig says

    Just wanted to say that I totally got where screaming mom was coming from! I have the same situation almost exactly, except I may have less time at home.

    I do kinder runs every day with my kids on foot due to only having one car which my husband needs for work (roll on getting a 2nd car sometime in the next month!). This takes around 2 hours per day due to where we live. I volunteer at the kinder and in the local community doing environmental education and I’m studying part-time evenings, so I’m squeezing school work in where possible.

    Before I started school I was given assurances that he would do what he could to support me and help out, but recently there was a huge fight over the bathroom (I got fed up cleaning it and decided to pretend I couldn’t see the mess to see how long it took before anyone noticed… almost a year!!!) and I was told that he expected me to do everything as he was “at work all day”. When I pointed out that I wasn’t exactly sitting on my backside I got the “well you’ve obviously taken on too much” response… yep. I made the mistake of taking on a husband!!

    Thing is, he’s a wonderful man and a fantastic father. I couldn’t ask for better and I love him with all my heart, but he seems oblivious to what is involved in our daily lives.

    So, thanks to this website I’m putting everything I do down in writing as daily tasks, weekly tasks etc and putting them up on the wall where he can’t fail to see them. I’ve also allocated some to him to deal with in the evenings, nothing major but stuff that either I can’t do as I’ll be at school or studying.

    Plus I’m booking in some regular ME time at the weekends!!!

    Thanks for your inspiration and for your response to screaming mum. Helped me to de-stress a little and think of a more positive way to get some help rather than bottling it all up until there’s a monumental outpouring of rage when I’ve had enough! 😀

    • Katie Berry says

      I think once you started school yourself it was only fair for the family to revisit the division of household tasks. It’s one thing when a woman has left the workforce to work at home, as I have, with the knowledge that the vast majority of household chores will fall to her. It’s an entirely different thing when a woman is in school or working. I can only imagine how frustrated you must have felt, putting in time in class and time on homework, and feeling like those commitments weren’t being taken into consideration. After all, YOU were “at work all day” just like him!

      I’m very pleased that my cleaning checklists and other tips are helping you. Please do make a point of budgeting in time for YOU when you can. You deserve it!

  4. Ronna Jones says

    I loved all the advice but, that’s all it was. I wish you could have seen my husband’s face when I asked for help. His response “I work at a job all week”! My husband and teenage sons spend every free minute on their computer’s.

    • Katie Berry says

      I remember what that look looks like! My teen now knows that I’ll change the wifi password and take the HDMI cords from his gaming systems if he doesn’t get his chores done. As I explained to him, “This is your current job. Some day you’ll have a real one. You don’t get to blow off your employer’s requests because you’d rather game.”

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