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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Mary Poppins Mojo

By Bethany Cook

We all remember the iconic image of Mary Poppins floating from the sky under her umbrella. The cinematic nanny used a spoonful of sugar and lots of magic to gets her charges to behave. But, as a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that it doesn’t take mythical powers to motivate your child to do chores. Here are three simple ways to help your kids succeed at everyday tasks. 

Bedazzle the boring. Just like the famed nanny, find a way to make basic life skills fun. If your kids are young, you don’t have to try very hard. Just give them your undivided attention for 5–15 minutes and teach them a task. If they are teenagers, you might have to get a little creative to get them excited about household chores. For example, you can buy different/funny sponges and maybe dishwashing gloves for them, and let them choose the scent of the soap. If you have wood floors, strap some rags to their feet and have a “dance cleaning” party as you scrub and polish. 

KISS (Keep It Simple Smartie). A task should be broken down into parts and presented in its most basic form. When my children were around two years old, one of their daily jobs was to help me feed the dogs. I broke down the task into three steps:

1. Lift the lid of the food bin.

2. Measure out the food with a measuring cup.  

3. Dump the food into the dog bowl. (It helps if the dogs are trained to sit and wait until released. Otherwise, they could hurt small children during the mealtime excitement.)

Now, at ages five and six, my kids easily feed the dogs. I don’t need to monitor them or take time out of my day to do it. It’s been checked off my to-do list and no longer part of my “mental load.” 

I will give you a non-dog example: matching socks. Let’s face it, unless you buy just one color and style of socks, or you have a housekeeper or partner who likes to match socks, you will be sorting socks for the rest of your mortal life. So here’s how to get your kids to help you do it. The key is to make a game of it.

1. Gather the single socks and spread them out on a bed or dining room table. 

2. Ask your kids to “find the match.” 

3. Whoever finds the most matches wins. (If you’d rather not encourage competition, then say something like, “We are all going to work together to find matches, and once we find as many as we can, we all get something special.”)

4. Put the matched socks in the drawer.

In terms of rewards, try to avoid always using the same reward and keep food or extra screen time to a minimum. Instead of using food rewards, create a “success chart” and add stickers for each task completed. Once your kids have reached a certain number of completed tasks, they can invite a friend over for a playdate, request their favorite family meal, get an extra half-hour added to their curfew, or get some extra cash. 

Mean what you say, and say what you mean. Following in Mary Poppins’ footsteps, I’ve learned to be kind but firm and consistent when expressing my expectations and offering privileges. 

As a clinical psychologist, much of my professional work with parents involves helping them to understand they are not doing their kids any favors by letting them get away with bad behavior, even if it’s “just once.” Often parents reluctantly admit that letting things slide often happens when it is too inconvenient for them to stop what they are doing and kindly help their child complete a required task. Some have even admitted they didn’t realize the long-term impact of not enforcing rules. They are now “paying for it” as they struggle to manage teenagers who don’t treat self and others with respect.

Everyday, we as primary caregivers pick what battles we want to fight with our kids. By the end of the day we are exhausted. I get it. Nevertheless, fatigue shouldn’t override the call to get up one more time to show your kids how to complete a required task. Mary Poppins knew that kids don’t need constant handholding forever if, as young children, they are empowered to confidently complete tasks that benefit themselves and the family. 

A full-time parent of two and licensed clinical psychologist, Bethany Cook, PhD, is the author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0–2. Find her on her blog; in her Facebook group, A Perspective on Parenting; and on TikTok (@DrBCook).