Increasing Responsibility through Smart Motivation

Dear Mr. Dad: Our teenage son doesn’t want to do any chores around the house. He never actually refuses to do anything, but he always seems to “forget” what we asked him to do unless we stand over him and make sure it gets done. Is he actively rebelling or is there something wrong with him—or us?

A: Most teens don’t have any trouble remembering things they want to do—texting, playing Xbox, getting on Facebook, or calling their friends. But as you’ve noticed, when it comes to doing things they don’t want to do (chores, for example) their attention spans are suspiciously short.

Chances are he’s not rebelling: Not playing by society’s (or your) seemingly irrational rules is a natural part of adolescence. And chances are there’s nothing wrong with him or you. The problem, or at least part of it, may have more to do with the way you’re asking.

For example, kids who are nagged are generally less likely to do chores than kids who are correctly motivated (we’ll talk about what that means below). If you stand over your teen to make sure he does his chores correctly, you’re setting up a situation where he’ll never do his chores any other way. After all, in his mind, if you have nothing better to do than to lecture and criticize, why couldn’t you just do it yourself?

The real issue here is motivation. And the challenge is to transform your son’s chores from something he has to do (but doesn’t want to) into something he wants to do (or at least will do without being nagged). There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Pay him. This one’s a bit controversial. A lot of parents believe that kids shouldn’t be paid for doing basic chores. You don’t get paid for making dinner or shopping or doing laundry, right? But there’s no question that money can be a motivating force. If it fits within your family values, consider paying him for the work he does around the house.
  • Don’t expect perfect. If the first thing out of your mouth after your son finishes doing the dishes or cutting the grass is a criticism about how he should have done it or that he didn’t do it fast enough, you’re contributing to the problem. Expecting perfection is the fastest way to de-motivate your teen. If you can’t restrain yourself from saying something about the job, at least make it constructive and positive, not negative.
  • Don’t expect smiles. Give him a list of chores he’s supposed to do and a time frame to get them done and leave him alone. The dishes will be just as clean and the grass just as short whether he smiled while he did them or not.
  • Say “Thanks.” The easiest way to motivate your teen is a simple, heartfelt thank you. This tells him not only that you acknowledge that he’s helping, but also that you appreciate his effort, even if the job wasn’t done exactly perfectly.
  • Pull your own weight. Your goal is to get your son do his chores, but teens in families where everyone helps out are far more likely to pitch in (sometimes even smiling). If you come home from work and flop on the couch, but you expect your son do his work, good luck. That’ll definitely feed his view that you treat him like a slave. Of course he’s conveniently overlooking that you’ve out earning money all day, but that’s exactly what it feels like from his perspective.
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