Untidy teen

Dear Mr. Dad. I have repeatedly asked my 17-year old son for help keeping our home neat. He says he will, but I don’t see any change. My wife and I work full time and we simply can’t do everything on our own (and, given that he’s 17, we think he should be pitching in a lot more.) How can I convince him to help?

A: Must be something in the water… My own teenagers (14 and 17) have very much the same problem, and I’ve heard similar complaints from just about every other parent I know who has teens. Across the board, it seems to be a matter of perception: To the parents, the house is a mess. But to the teens, everthing looks just fine. In the words of my kids, “lighten up, Dad, it’s no big deal.”

But to us parents, it is a big deal. After putting in a full day at work, it’s no fun to have to step through a virtual mindfield of backpacks, books, clothes, and food wrappers. And it’s annoying when the floors don’t get swept, the dishwasher doesn’t get unloaded, and the garbage and recycling never manage to make it out to the curb—unless you do it yourself.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, no magic words you can say that will motivate your teen to get up off the couch and pick up a broom. That said, here are a few strategies that can improve your odds.

  • Don’t threaten or nag. Think about it from your teen’s perspective: he (along with almost every other adolescent) has essentially no real power in our culture. He lives where you want him to live, he does to the school you picked, has to go along with all sorts of unreasonable curfews, and so on. The only way he can assert some authority and estalblish his independence is to refuse to do what you tell him.
  • Make him a collaborator. Put together a list of tasks that need to be done and explain why–whether it’s hygiene or aesthetics or something in between. Make it very clear that there’s no way in the world that you can handle everyting on the list yourself, and that you need help. Then—and this is key—let your teen choose a reasonable number of tasks that he will “own.”
  • Broaden your horizons. Chances are your list of chores includes making dinner, setting the table, doing laundry, taking out the garbage, and other hopelessly boring things. Why not add more adult-like tasks to the list, things like helping put together a family budget, meal planning, and so on. If you want your child to behave like an adult you can’t keep treating him like a child.
  • Find opportunitie to praise. As my grandmother used to say, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Complementing your child on a job well done (or at least medium well) will get a lot more mileage than punishing him for whatever was left undone.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Expecting your teen to do his chores is one thing. Expecting him to do them with a smile on his face and without being reminded is a complete fantasy.
  • Don’t cave. All of us reach a point where it seems easier to just do the job ourselves rather than endure another knock-down-drag-out fight. Don’t. That only teaches your child that if he waits long enough, someone will always come around and take care of things.
  • Don’t be afraid to go on strike. Nothing teaches the importance of doing laundry better than waking up one morning and not having any clean clothes to wear.