Occupy Main Street—and the Kitchen

Dear Mr. Dad: A few months ago you answered a question from a reader whose teenager was refusing to do chores. My situation is similar, except that it’s my husband who won’t lift a finger. We both work full time, but when I come home, I usually start making dinner and getting the kids going on their homework. When my husband comes home, he plops himself down in the living room and reads the newspaper or watches TV. Fortunately, the kids set the table and clean up after meals, because my husband disappears right after dinner and goes off to check his email while I put in a load of laundry. I’m worried that my children—one boy, one girl—are going to get the wrong idea about gender roles and what a marriage is supposed to be like. How can I curb my DH’s laziness?

A: My initial thought is that a cattle prod would be an excellent investment. But that wouldn’t clear up your children’s confusion about marriage and division of labor issues.

You didn’t say anything about whether you and your husband have talked about this, but either way, that’s a critical second step. Your first step is to put together a comprehensive list of everything you, your husband, and your kids are doing for the family and how long each task takes. If he has a longer commute, puts in more hours, and spends the weekends fixing things around the house and paying bills, you might discover that he’s not quite as big a slacker as he seems to be.

Once you have your list in hand, it’s discussion time. Even assuming that the two of you put in exactly the same amount of time (including all chores), there’s still a problem: He apparently decided on his own that whatever he’s doing is enough and that you should do everything else. That may be fair in his mind—and if you count up the hours he may technically be right—but it’s obviously not working for you. The two of you need to discuss a better way to divvy up the workload. Suggest that you switch chores for a few weeks—you write the checks and take care of the leaky toilets and he does the shopping, meal prep, and laundry. This kind of role reversal tends to make people a lot more appreciative of what others are doing.

If, however, you’re doing a lot more than your husband is, you’ll need to have a different kind of discussion. Start by telling him that you’re just not able to do everything by yourself and that you really need his help. (show him the list, but stay far away from words like “lazy” and “slothful.”) If you’re lucky, he’ll say, “I had no idea, honey. I’m ashamed and I’ll change my ways right now.” Don’t hold your breath.

Unfortunately appealing to people’s sense of fairness doesn’t always produce the desired results—or it may produce them for a while until things start backsliding. If you find yourself in this spot, you’ll want to be a bit more aggressive. One thing you can do is start preparing meals that your husband really doesn’t like. If he complains, hand him a cookbook and print out a Google map of the nearest grocery store. But the most effective approach of all is a good old-fashioned strike. A few days of having to do his own laundry and eating nothing but canned tuna, and he’ll be a new man—or at least a skinnier, dirtier one.

A Date With Maturity

Dear Mr. Dad: A boy from my 15-year-old daughter’s class is interested in her. He seems nice enough but we think that, at her age, she’s too young to date. We hear so much about the dangers of giving teens too much freedom, and we want to protect our daughter for as long we can. We figure she’ll have many opportunities to date when she is older. Are we being (as she tells us) unreasonable?

A: As the father of three daughters (including a 17-year old) it sounds to me like you’re being caring and responsible parents, and that’s certainly commendable. I also understand why you’d be concerned about your daughter’s safety and well-being. After all, you can’t open a newspaper or check your email without hearing about some kind of horror story, so it’s perfectly normal to want to do everything we possibly can to keep our kids (boys as well as girls) out of harm’s way.

That raises an interesting problem. On one hand we want to protect our children. On the other, one of our main roles as parents is help our kids develop a sense of independence and responsibility. We also want them to develop the kind of judgment and self-confidence that will help them make wise choices as they grow.

In other words, we have to prepare our children to survive in a world where, eventually, they’ll have to make their own decisions and live with the consequences—without mom or dad standing over their shoulder. The time will come soon enough. Just not today.

That said, I think you’ve got a little negotiating room here. With two and a half adults (your daughter would do the math differently) sitting at the same table, I’m confident that you’ll be able to find a way to reconcile your daughter’s desire to spend time with her young man and your need to protect her.
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Date Nights and Choreplay

Dear Mr. Dad: My son turned one a few weeks ago and it’s been months since my wife and I have had even an hour to ourselves. She makes abstract plans (“We’ll do something this weekend”) but they never happen—she always comes up with some kind of excuse. I’ve complained, but that just upsets her. I’m trying to be understanding but I’m getting more and more frustrated. Help!

A. When you have a baby, going out for even a few hours can take a serious amount of planning. Theoretically, as your baby gets older, it should get easier and easier to get away, not harder, so I understand your frustration. That said, let’s try to figure out what’s really upsetting you. The big question is: what is it that you miss—simply going out or spending time alone with your wife? There’s a subtle but very important distinction.
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Setting Limits

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have been talking a lot about the importance of setting limits for our two children, ages 5 and 7. We know we must do this but we aren’t sure how to go about it, especially since the kids continually challenge us on every new rule. But it’s so exhausting. Any suggestions?

A: You’re absolutely right to be talking about setting limits. Boundaries are essential for raising well-behaved kids, especially in this age of “anything goes.” I wish you would have started your discussions a few years ago (and you probably do too), but it’s never too late.
Why is it so important for parents to set boundaries–and for the children to respect them? Well, start by thinking of your family in a larger context. Every civilized society has rules and regulations. Some may be reasonable and others less so, but just imagine what the world would be like if everyone made and followed their own rules, while ignoring and breaking everyone else’s. (To a child, that might sound like paradise, but as adults, we can hopefully see the larger picture.)

Unfortunately, children aren’t born with a pre-loaded set of rules. So if we don’t teach them the difference between good and bad behavior, healthy and dangerous habits, kind and hurtful actions, how will they ever know what’s positive and acceptable and what isn’t?

Okay, now that we’ve got the philosophy of limit-setting down, let’s talk about how to start establishing rules and how to make sure they’re the right ones for your family. Here are some guidelines I think you’ll find helpful:

  • Boundaries should be reasonable and clear to a child. It’s sometimes a delicate balancing act, but you’ve got to find the middle ground between being too lenient and too strict.
  • Limits should be age-appropriate. What works now for your 5 and 7-year-old, won’t work for a teen. And in fact, what works for your 5 year old probably won’t work for the 7 year old.
  • Be flexible. As your children get older, you’ll need to modify your house rules accordingly.
  • Make sure the kids understand why each rule is necessary. You may say, for example, that they’re not allowed to go to a friend’s house alone because they’re too young to cross the street by themselves. Explaining the reason behind each boundary will show them that you don’t make the rules arbitrarily just to curtail their freedom, but, rather, to protect them in a potentially unsafe environment. That said, make sure your children understand that while you’re happy to discuss certain rules, there are some—health and safety issues, for example—that are non-negotiable.
  • Establish clear consequences for breaking rules. Kids have to be held accountable for their actions so they grow into responsible and trustworthy adults. When—not if—they test the boundaries or break the rules, be prepared to enforce the consequences right away. If you don’t, the kids will learn that breaking rules is okay or that there’s always one more “last warning.” That’s not a lesson that will serve them well in adulthood, when the consequences for bending or breaking the rules will be harsher.

All in all, setting boundaries isn’t going to be easy—we want our children to love us and don’t want them to be mad at us, which is exactly what will happen when they inevitably bang up against the rules. But it’s our job to stand firm. The result will be more respectful, better-mannered kids who will grow into responsible, likeable adults.

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Allowance for household chores? Hmmm….

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old daughter says all her friends get paid for helping around the house, and she wants an allowance for doing chores too. This sounds crazy to my wife and me. Is it really a good idea?

A: I can see why you might scoff at the idea of paying your daughter for doing household chores. After all, when we were growing up, chores were a given, and our parents never would have paid us for doing simple things that contributed to the smooth running of the household. But that was also the era when we walked 12 miles to school every day, uphill both ways. In the snow. Barefoot. Without a cell phone.
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