When it came time for Fall break during his first year at a top-tier college, my neighbour’s son stuffed two months’ worth of laundry—every piece of clothing he’d worn since arriving at school at the end of August—into three oversized suitcases, paid an excess baggage fee of $150 to check them at the airport, and flew home to his parents’ house.
“What were you thinking?” asked his astonished mother, as Josh deposited a mountain of smelly jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts and socks in the utility room and made his way to the kitchen.
“Mom,” he said, opening the refrigerator, “how was I supposed to have time for laundry? I was studying…plus, I had all my work at the Jewish students’ centre.”
Josh is a good-hearted, generally responsible young man, not typically in the habit of taking advantage of his mother. But in high school, his parents had sheltered him from chores in exchange for his total devotion to school work and extracurriculars. Now, in college, Josh was positive that this bargain was still in place—that academics and religious involvement gave him a free pass out of laundry duty. In Josh’s mind, he was too gifted to sort his own socks.
It’s tempting to protect our teens from the drudgery of chores and other work. They are up half the night writing papers about the role of the free market in medieval guilds; then they wake up at 6 a.m. for swim team practice; then they are at school for a long day. Plus, they are grouchy. Reminding them to clean the windows is asking for a fight when you are so, so tired of fighting.
But if you absolve your teen from routine responsibilities like laundry, you will teach him that there are two types of work: exalted and menial. When parents let their teens believe they are too special to do ordinary work, they raise “handicapped royalty”—young people who study brilliantly and are full of conviction, but don’t know how clothes get clean or how to read a credit card bill.
Yes, your teen has to do a lot of studying, rehearsing and practising. Certainly, your teen deserves a social life. And, yes, we’re all busy, and often it’s easier to do everything yourself than wait for a slow-paced, sloppy, preoccupied teen to do it. But chores are the curriculum of life. And the tuition is free!
In my experience, chores lead to better school performance because they teach teens how to organize their time and their actions. Chores form a foundation for the rest of life as well. Young adults with household skills know how to carry their own weight. They’re conscious of ways to help without being told or asked. They aren’t crippled by the depressing belief that only the less talented or unexceptional perform the necessary chores of daily life. And because of their skills and willingness to pitch in, they’re considered kind, respectful and appealing.
If your teen doesn’t already have a set of chores to do, write out a list of jobs that need to be done around the house on a weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Then hold a family meeting to divvy them up. Although your family is not a democracy, your teen’s buy-in will be greater if he has some say in which chores will be his responsibility. Let him pick a few he actually enjoys…or finds the least repellent.
Dishwasher loading as crystal ball
I know, it’s easy for me to wax on about raising your teen’s chore consciousness when I don’t live with him. Your son may volunteer for dishwasher duty, but he loads it in a sloppy fashion: wineglasses wedged next to pots, a salad bowl (so easy to wash in the sink) on the bottom rack taking up space that could hold half a dozen plates, tomato sauce glazing the silverware so the whole interior reeks when you open the door to add the cereal bowls you find scattered about the family room.
Don’t invest your teen’s sloppiness and bad attitude with too much meaning. It’ll just make you unhappy. Instead, comfort yourself with knowledge about adolescent development. Teens are dopamine machines; their brains are wired to seek out novelty and excitement. It’s hard for them to slow down and focus on boring activities like loading the dishwasher. Another reason they appear careless is that their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, so tasks such as categorizing dishes by size and most appropriate washing method can be challenging for them. And then there’s the challenge of physical growth. You know how pregnant women are always spilling stuff down the front of their shirts because they aren’t accustomed to their changing size? A teen is in a similar predicament. Teenagers’ hands and feet are still growing; it’s easy for them to misjudge the space between racks and break a plate. So while they may display stunning dexterity while texting and playing Rock Band, the delicate hand-eye coordination required by the dishwasher may be beyond their current level of physical grace. It’s not about you, or about how poorly you’ve raised them. They just need time and practice. Insist on chores, but don’t be nitpicky. Try on a new philosophy: If the dishes get clean and don’t break, your son did what you asked him to do.
When you give your teenager a job to do, let him know ahead of time what your standards are: “OK, so you’ll scrape the dishes and load them into the dishwasher each night. You’ll do this after dinner and before you have any computer time. Any questions?” Then let him, as much as is reasonable, decide how to get it done. Don’t insist that he do it precisely the way you would. He is learning, and you’re an expert. He has his rhythm; honour it, even though yours is probably speedier and more efficient. It’s fine if he wants to play music, or pause to play with the dog. If he wants your company, consider appreciating the opportunity to spend time together rather than seeing it as a ploy to slack off.
When to hit the reset button
You have made your list of chores, let your teen take his pick, issued your minimum standards, and then backed off…and your house is still a disaster. Rather than carping, change your tactics.
First, make sure that you’re modelling a reasonably reverent attitude toward chores. Do you expect your child to hang up all her clothes neatly, but feel it’s perfectly reasonable for you or your spouse to leave dirty socks on the floor? If so, you’re creating a double standard. Do you leave all the cleaning to a housekeeper because you work so very hard? If so, you are teaching your child the lesson that busy people don’t have to clean up after themselves. Do you perform your chores obsessively, but complain all the while? Or resentfully vacuum under your child’s feet while she watches her favourite TV show? You’re teaching your child that chores are a dreary substitute for life, not a practical way to enhance it. Clean up your own attitude, and you may see a change in your teen’s.
If changing your attitude doesn’t solve the problem, talk to your teen directly about it. Try saying something like “Our system for chores isn’t working. I’m nagging you all the time, and you’re angry.” Or “When I come home in the evening, I can’t be sure that the dogs have been fed. When you feed them only sometimes but not all the time, it’s almost worse than not at all. I don’t want to have to worry about this anymore.” Put your heads together, come up with some new approaches, and agree to try again.
Another approach is to rethink your teen’s set of chores. Go back to your list of household chores and reassess. If your teen initially volunteered to load the dishwasher, but has shown himself to be too klutzy or too distractible to do it well, suggest that he might like to wash your car instead. One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome. If we are too rigid about our requirements, if we fuss too much over the need for a teen to perform one specific chore, we are missing the point of ordinary work.
We’re not giving teens the opportunity to perform these tasks with confidence and pride.
However, when teens are chronically non-compliant with chores, you need to issue consequences. Remember the principle that you are required to provide your teen with appropriate clothes, good schooling, shelter, and nourishing food. Anything else is a privilege that can be taken away when house rules are violated.
When you issue consequences, expect resistance in the form of excuses:
I am going to do the dishes, but I was going to let the burned stuff in the pan soak for a while.
Or feigned apathy:
Go ahead, take the computer out of my room. I don’t care.
Or surgically precise attacks on your self-esteem:
You’re just acting this way because you gave up your career and now your only source of pride is a freakishly clean house.
Don’t take the bait. Don’t escalate the argument or show how horribly hurt and wounded you are, because if your teen discovers a rhetorical weapon that distracts you from the business at hand, you can bet he will use it again and again and again. Remain calm. By ignoring these comments, you’ll let him know they don’t work. Say, “Nevertheless, you didn’t do the dishes and now you lose computer privileges for the night.”
Taking a privilege away from your teen is hard, I know. He’s surly enough as it is. But if your teen doesn’t do chores, if you take on all the responsibility for dishes and cleaning and yardwork, your child won’t learn self-reliance, and you will get angry and resentful. This is not a dignified stance for a parent. And your house won’t look nice! Your house—the container of the family—should be a reasonably civilized and orderly environment. (You don’t need to mention any of this to your teen; just recite it to yourself when you need the courage to enforce chores.)
I’m not making any promises, but the risk you take in getting your touchy, distant teen to do chores can result in an unexpected emotional payoff. That’s because doing chores with teens can be the most fun you have together. Organizing the closet or weeding the yard together is conducive to casual conversation, the kind you may not have had in a while. Sometimes—sometimes—that conversation will turn deep, and in a much more natural way than if you enter your teen’s room, sit on the edge of the bed, and demand a serious heart-to-heart.
From The Blessing of a B Minus by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. Copyright © 2010 by Wendy Mogel. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.