When Is a Chore Not a Chore?

Dear Mr. Dad: What is the deal with chores? I did them, my parents did them, and so did my grandparents. I don’t have children of my own, but I’ve noticed that very few of my friends’ kids seem to have any chores or responsibilities at all. What is going on?

A: When I was young, chores were something that contributed to the good of the family, and every kid I knew did them (according to a recent poll done by Whirlpool earlier this year, 82% of American adults did chores when they were growing up). But today, the word “chore” has taken on a completely different—and completely absurd—meaning. In a lot of cases, it has no meaning at all. According to that same Whirlpool poll, only 28% of parents say they assign to their children the same chores they did when they were young.
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Did You Say Something, Mom?

Dear Mr. Dad: I hate to admit it, but my children won’t listen to me—especially when I ask them to help around the house. As a result I end up doing everything myself. The other day, I asked them to help me wash the car, which was filthy. I waited, asked again, and nothing. So I went outside and did it myself. A few weeks before, I told them to take the dog for a walk, they ignored me and the dog ended up pooping on the carpet (you gave this as an example a few months ago—I can’t believe it actually happened), so I had to clean it up. I’ve tried giving them more warnings and have even threated to take away some of their privileges, but they just say things like, “Why should we wash the car? It’s not ours” or “He’s your dog—you’re the one who adopted him.” I’m getting angrier and angrier at them. Something has to change, but what?

A: You have every right to be angry, but you should direct that anger toward yourself. In a word, what needs to change is you. Or, more accurately, the way you allow your kids to treat you. By giving them endless warnings, making empty threats, and then doing yourself what you asked them to do, you’ve taught them several important lessons: (a) They don’t need to respect you, (b) If they ignore you long enough, you’ll eventually give up, (c) it’s okay to not be a team player.
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You Forgot to Do Your Chores? Again? Really?

Dear Mr. Dad, My wife and I are extremely frustrated that we are always seem to be reminding our children, ages 10 and 14, to do their chores. They know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, but they’re constantly “forgetting”—even if it’s something they’ve done three times a week for the last six months. We’ve discussed this with some of our friends who have kids about the same age, and they all have the same problem. Is there some way to get kids to do their chores without having to nag them over and over?

A: Kids have been “forgetting” to do their chores since the beginning of time—and parents have been nagging just as long. I’m sure Ma and Pa Cro-Magnon got sick and tired of reminding their cubs to put their spears away or take the sabertooth out for a walk. No question, kids sometimes “forget” their chores as a way of getting out of doing them (an approach that’s often successful). But sometimes they really do forget—even after being reminded 174 times. Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire cure for this kind of selective memory loss, but there are a few strategies that may help.
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Could Giving Your Kids an Allowance Lead to Financial Ruin?

giving allowance makes kids irresponsible

Dear Mr. Dad: In today’s tough economy, I think it’s important to teach kids about the importance of saving money. The problem is that my husband and I don’t agree on how to do that. I think we should give the kids (10 and 13) an allowance, but he’s taking a harder line and says it’s important for them to earn their money. What’s your opinion?

A: Ah, allowances. Always a thorny subject. Before I jump in and start taking sides, you’re both absolutely right about one thing: People who develop good financial management habits as kids (including learning to become regular savers), are more likely to bring those habits with them into adulthood. And knowing how to manage one’s money—especially in uncertain times—is incredibly important. The big question, though, is how people get their money. Here’s where I agree with your husband. In my view, when you work hard for your money, you’re going to be careful how you spend it. When cash just shows up, it’s a lot easier to fritter away.
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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.

Kids Won’t Do Chores

Q: My kids never help around the house unless I berate them into doing so. I know this is my fault as much as theirs, and it’s not a particularly effective parenting technique, but I want to turn it around. How can I get my kids to carry their weight without me having to hound them into doing their chores?

A: Parents have been complaining that their kids don’t pull their weight around the house for as long as there have been kids. I heard it from my parents who heard it from theirs, and so on all the way back to some Cro-Magnon relative of mine who complained that his children spent all their time drawing on the cave walls and refused to clean up their mastodon bones. And, as in previous generations, today’s parents find themselves saying things like, “Kids these days..” or “When I was a kid.”

Recent research, however, seems to indicate that kids these days actually are qualitatively different than their parents and do fewer chores than we did. But why? Is it that we’re pampering our children because we felt overworked ourselves and don’t want to subject them to the same horrors we experienced? Have children somehow developed an exaggerated sense of self worth and entitlement? Or is it that by the time the kids get home from swimming and soccer and karate and piano lessons, eat, and do their homework, there’s no time or energy left for chores?

Doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that we as parents require our kids to hold up their end of the household responsibilities. It’s good for the household and it’s essential for their own developing sense of responsibility and self-confidence.

Here are a few tips to get the process started.

  1. Start as soon as possible. As with any family habit, starting them young is the easiest way to establish and maintain the practice of helping around the house.
  2. Make your expectations reasonable-then insist that they be met. A short list of daily chores and a separate list of once-a-week jobs is reasonable. Make sure the tasks are age-appropriate and otherwise manageable, then make sure they get done before any privileges are enjoyed. Early and careful monitoring is crucial.
  3. Praise a job well done. Let them know when the expectations have been met-and when they haven’t.
  4. Make your own “chores” visible. Sure, the kids see us doing laundry, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, etc. But do they understand that those are your chores? It’s easy for our everyday household work to become invisible to our kids. So write your chores down and put them on the fridge right next to theirs. A cursory comparison will quickly silence most complaints and make it clear that everyone really is contributing.
  5. Put systems in place. Designate a specific chore time-the half hour before dinner. Post lists and regularly verify that results are up to snuff..
  6. Don’t tie allowances to chores. Everyone in the family has to pull his or her weight. Paying children for doing basic chores can make them feel entitled to compensation for anything they’re asked to do.
  7. Create rewards and consequences. That said, there are many perfectly appropriate reward systems-a pizza on Saturday night if the week’s chores were done well, a family movie night, or something similar. It’s even more important to have consequences if expectations are not met in a given week or chores will quickly fall into the category of “things I do if Mom and Dad nag me enough.” Creating natural consequences, such as a loss of privileges, prepares the child for the natural consequences and responsibilities of adult life.

So start as soon as possible, be consistent, and make it a priority. By learning to give back to the family, your kids will learn countless skills for the long run.