The Bucket System


Chore charts make me want to punch someone in the face.

I know that is so not the peace and love juju you are accustomed to vibing on here. But it’s true.

They are the epitome of top-down power. “I’m telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. You do not care about it and you have no say in it.”

I remember being mandated to dust the furniture and vacuum the carpet in the living room that I was not even allowed to go in (adults only).

Help, I’m suffocating under the stifling repression!

Of course, I want to be conscious in my parenting choices and not act on the parenting script I inherited, which looks like mindlessly emulating or avoiding what my parents did. So on this issue, like all issues, I did my research, got to know each of my individual children, and set my parenting compass to connection and respect.

Some thoughts:

  • Children are not slave labor.
  • Living together means we have shared goals for our quality of living.
  • It is in my children’s best interest to be responsible for themselves in age-appropriate ways.
  • Contributing to a successful household in meaningful ways breeds confidence and competence.
  • Children are invested in their learning when it is relevant to them.
  • My husband and I are not capable of solely keeping a house with 5 people (4 males) and 1 dog clean while maintaining the other valuable contributions we make to our family and the world.
  • Working together as a family is a priority.
  • Without some form of accountability, I end up verbally managing menial tasks, which makes everyone unhappy.
  • When it comes to daily tasks, choices, flexibility, and input feel respectful.
  • Rewards and punishments pull motivation out from intrinsic to extrinsic and train children to avoid contributing.

Where I landed is on something I call Soft Structure, which:

  • is child-friendly (playful and age-appropriate)
  • has routine, not schedule
  • includes choices
  • is flexible
  • values children’s input
  • shares work
  • is based on children’s and family’s needs, not parent’s wants
  • invites independence and responsibility
  • prioritizes a positive experience
  • contributes to the long term goal of raising happy, healthy human beings.

Individual Buckets

We sat down together and brainstormed everyday goals and tasks that would serve to nourish our bodies, minds, and souls and keep us growing toward meeting our potential and wrote them on clothespins along with each child’s initial. They look a little different for each child. There is no time requirement or marker of acceptable progress or success but what this does do is set the intention, carve out the space in our day, and foster family harmony and growth. Everyday they do all of these things, but a tremendous amount of freedom is a part of each task. You can do these things in any order, at any time, together or on your own, and in any form. Pick a clothespin, decide what that will look like for you today, then toss it into your bucket once complete (which is such a satisfying physical and sensory experience – very important for children). Also worth noting, one play, project, or experience can help you to grow in several areas and satisfy multiple clothespins (I actually don’t like conceptualizing learning in those schooly categories because that’s not how real life learning unfolds but it does serve us well in growing a broad scope of knowledge). Write a song about Galileo – music, writing, science, and history. One afternoon running through the woods can leave you feeling stretched into your potential in all the best ways – your best you today.

I want to emphasize that they often spend a great deal of time diving deep  in topics that spark an interest. For example, while watching an episode of The Librarians as a family in which the Shakespearian character Prospero was the villain, Sky spent weeks diving deep into that world, listening to Shakespeare’s plays on CD, reading books, scouring his history, writing his own fiction with Shakespeare’s characters, and even learning about renaissance music to accompany his stop motion Lego creation movie. None of this was a clothespin on the educational bucket. We strive to have enough to continually expose them to new concepts across disciplines but not so much that their time for the real self driven learning through play and exploration is not bogged down with busy work or menial tasks.

Sky – 11 years old

  • Meditation (Stop, Breathe, and Think app)
  • Journal: In the morning he journals an intention for the day and at bedtime he journals a gratitude from the day.
  • Brush teeth
  • Tidy Bedroom: Spend a little time cultivating your sanctuary (to your standards, not mine).
  • Read: Sky typically likes to read in bed at night.
  • Chore: Choose any available clothespin from the chore bucket.
  • Physical: Exercise your body in some way.
  • Creative: Being creative can look like anything from pretend play to Lego master building to song writing to problem solving in innovative ways.
  • Writing: This can be anything from sending an email to writing a story. It’s just the space and intention to focus on the craft, even if it’s a means to another end.
  • Trash: He takes the kitchen trash out to the barrel and puts in a new bag.
  • Music: Sky is especially passionate and expressive through music so he uses this time to practice music in some way. One day that might be learning a new song on the ukulele, another day it might be playing in a new music editing software, still another day maybe diving into the piano, and then pouring his heart and sense of humor into some new lyrics.
  • Science: He loves a good science show or museum trip but really, science is all around us. We do have curricula, books, and activities at their disposal but they need only go outside into nature or ponder the forces at play around them to stimulate their scientific minds.
  • History: Story of the World audio books and Who Is/Was books are a staple around here but so much just pops out of their curiosity from life experiences and pop culture.
  • Math: iPad apps are usually the avenue of choice here with Khan Academy at the top of the list, followed by numerous other fun apps that practice particular concepts from multiplication facts to algebraic logic. Sometimes they like to help with my business accounting or do some budgeting with their money.
  • Dog Water
  • Kindness: Here is one of my favorites. Right now they do one random act of kindness each day but we regularly swap this around with things like bravery (be brave one time today), failure (fail boldly one time today), perseverance (forge on when you feel like quitting), helpfulness, forgiveness, generosity, etc. that we brainstormed together.

Bay – 8 years old

  • Science
  • Tidy Bedroom
  • Creative
  • Writing
  • Chore
  • Book
  • Math
  • Brush Teeth
  • Recycle: He takes the recycle trash out to the barrel and puts in a new bag.
  • Dog Food
  • Physical
  • Kindness (swapped on a regular basis)
  • History

West – 5 years old

  • App: He has a whole folder on his iPad of educational apps that he enjoys playing in.
  • Bathroom Trash: He takes the bathroom trashes out to the barrel when a brother takes their trash out. Since these are just lined with grocery bags, they are easy and light enough for him to manage.
  • Brush Teeth
  • Kindness (swapped on a regular basis)
  • Book: He brings me or a brother a book to read to him (and if a brother reads it out loud to him, that satisfies their book clothespin as well).
  • Tidy Bedroom

Chore Bucket

We then brainstormed all the chores that will keep our home clean, organized, and running so that we can enjoy the lifestyle that helps us to be our best selves.

  • Clean Kitchen Counter
  • Sweep Upstairs
  • Sweep Downstairs
  • Tidy Shelves
  • Clean Toilets
  • Dishes
  • Clean Car
  • Tidy Yard
  • Clean Dining Table
  • Clean Bathroom Counters & Sinks
  • Clean Bathroom Mirrors
  • Tidy Bathrooms
  • Tidy Shoes
  • Dust
  • Tidy Laundry Room
  • Dog Poop
  • Tidy Linens
  • Wash Linens

Pick a clothespin, complete the chore, then toss the clothespin in the bucket. Once all of the clothespins have been completed, we then reset them.


Once your personal bucket is full, you are free to spend your time doing whatever you want (so long as you are respecting yourself, others, and your environment), even partake in what I refer to as Brain Candy – basically, things that I see as treading water as opposed to leading to some kind of growth. Brain candy might look like a mindless iPad app or a junky TV show.

A note on brain candy: Like with food, I choose what I bring into their environment but granting them freedom of autonomy fosters self-regulation. Over control and forbidding only leads to fixation and binging. They do not spend hours mindlessly hypnotized by a screen – they just don’t. They aren’t overworked and overstimulated so they don’t need to shut down and escape. They’re natural kids, so they play! Read more about this here: Screen Time: Let Go of the Limits.

I’ll guide you through making your own in the
The Bucket System Workshop


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *