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Archive for Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Double take: Chores should teach lifelong lessons

December 28, 2004

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Wes: I've gotten a lot of questions lately from parents about how to get teenagers motivated to do things around the home. This week, I thought Jenny and I would take some time to give our perspectives on teen responsibilities.

Jenny: If parents want teens to get things done, they need to provide motivation and consistency. My parents battle with my sister and me to do our chores, and frankly they are trying to motivate us in the wrong way. There is always an excuse as to why we can't do our chores or a way to get out of cleaning the house. They tried giving us money for our work, but they never set out what exact chores we had to do. Parents need to set specific guidelines in order for chores do get done properly, so we know what they expect.

The same is true for the reward for each chore and the quality of work they are expecting. If they are more specific, we will be more responsive. Instead of giving money every week for a whole week's worth of chores, I suggest giving positive reinforcement (i.e. money or special privileges) at the time the chore is done.

Another thing to consider is consistency. If my parents go back on their word, then I'm not going to want to do chores for a while. As the saying goes, "Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me." Likewise, if a teenager hasn't done their chore for a while, their parent shouldn't pick up the slack just to get it done. In real life, others will depend on us to do our jobs, and someone won't necessarily be there to do it for us. As for bedrooms, I know that if it gets dirty I will eventually clean it, so there is no need to nag at me to clean it. Frankly I find that sometimes the floor is my biggest shelf, and if my parents want me to clean my room and speed up the process, I need motivation.

Wes: Those cute kids who were such good little helpers when they were 9, at 13 become increasingly resentful of household chores. Parents differ in how they see children's roles. Some see kids as having little duty to the family and instead encourage outside involvements, while others see their kids as an essential labor force in the home for cleaning, baby-sitting, mowing, etc. I've found the best policy falls somewhere in between. However, the key must be for parents to view teen responsibilities as a teaching tool, not a parental convenience.

Thus, the best chores for teenagers are the ones that directly impact them now and teach them how to manage their lives in the future: laundry, light cleaning in their room and bathroom, putting their own dishes in the dishwasher, perhaps cooking a meal a week. And the consequences for not doing these chores should be a dirty room and dirty clothes, just as Jenny notes -- not nagging.

Baby-sitting can be a part of this also, as most young people will need these skills in their own future parenting, but I don't recommend having a reluctant teen baby-sit. The job is too important. One of the underused or misused resources in this struggle is money. I think paying kids a salary each week for specific tasks can be a great way to teach a real-world work ethic. Some parents see this as bribing their kids to do things they should do anyway. However, most of these same families spend quite a bit on their child's upkeep and then complain that they get nothing in return.

Moreover I have yet to meet a parent who is willing to go to their job for free, and thus they should not expect their child to do so. To figure out what is fair, I suggest calculating what it costs to support a teenager in a given month -- minus food, shelter and utilities -- and then providing a fourth of that amount every week if the teen has met age-appropriate chore requirements.

Jenny is right that those chores have to be spelled out clearly and up front, and some teens may need to be paid more often than every week, especially younger ones. If they do half the chores, then pay them half the salary or nothing if they don't perform. But never retract the payment just because you are upset with them. The teen has to understand that this money is all they will get for that week, and they must use it to buy everything -- clothes, shampoo, phone, tickets, CDs, gas, etc.

However you motivate them, remember the bottom line: Teens are not sent by God to make our lives easier. They are here to be students of life. Teach them what you really want them to learn. The dishes will find a way to get done.

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