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.

Hey, I Don’t Like Doing Chores Either

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old refuses to do any chores. Anytime we ask him to help around the house, he always finds an excuse not to. Sometimes he even says he doesn’t feel like cleaning up after himself. My husband says we should ground him. What’s your take on this?

A: I’ll confess right here that the phrase “I don’t feel like it” coming from a child absolutely infuriates me. My initial reaction has always been something like, “Okay, no problem. But I don’t feel like doing your laundry or driving you to your friend’s birthday party this weekend or preparing your meals or buying you that new game you want. ”

The harsh reality for your son (and every other child out there) is that very few people are passionate about housework: we do it because we like living in a clean, comfortable environment. Like it or not, your son is part of a family and family members all chip in to do what needs to be done to keep the household moving smoothly. The adults have their responsibilities and the kids have theirs (what, exactly, that means will depend on age and ability).

In addition to making good sense, chores, say the experts, are excellent for children because they help them develop some valuable skills and habits, including responsibility, helpfulness, appreciation for hard work, and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive impact on the lives of others.

At the very least, your 12-year-old should be expected to make his bed, keep his room tidy, and clean up after himself. If you have pets, he should take part in caring for them. And there’s no reason he can’t help you bring groceries in from the car, set the table for meals, and load/unload the dishwasher.

I’m sure your son isn’t refusing to help out just because he’s lazy or mean. Is it possible that he doesn’t actually know what his duties are? Are his chores fair and age-appropriate? Have you given him so many responsibilities that he no longer has time for a social life?

The first thing to do is have a talk with your son. Explain to him that everyone in your family pitches in and plays a role in creating a home that runs smoothly. That’s non-negotiable.

Next, have him help you put together a list of all the chores that need to be done on a daily/weekly/monthly basis and roughly how long each one should take. Then let him swap some of the chores he hates for ones that take the same amount of time but that he’ll hate a little less. He won’t admit it anytime soon, but he’ll really appreciate the confidence you’re showing in him by giving him some say in all this. Plus, having made the choices himself, it’ll be harder to gripe about them later on.

One more thing: avoid the urge to micro-manage his tasks or criticize his technique. For example, his dusting may not pass the white-glove inspection, but as long as he puts a genuine effort into it, don’t point out everything he missed. At least not in the moment. On the contrary, if he lives up to his responsibilities, praise him and thank him for his help. We all—adults and kids alike—want to feel needed and appreciated.

Finally, if he still refuses to do his fair share, go on strike. When he runs out of clean underwear or has to figure out how to take public transportation to meet up with his friends, he’ll have a sudden—and profound—change of heart.