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End The Chore War With Your Teens

End The Chore War With Your Teens

By Mir Kamin

Like most people, I was a much better parent before I actually, you know, had children. I had tons of experience with kids and I read a lot of books, too. (Go ahead and laugh.) I knew that it’s important to counterbalance privileges with responsibility, and there was no question in my mind that my special snowflakes would be raised to pitch in… well, if not cheerfully, at least with a sense of loyalty to the household. I knew that children are naturally eager to be like Mom and Dad, and that “me do it!” can be parlayed into a routine of ever-increasing self-sufficiency and household contributions. My children would never complain about chores!

And then… I had kids. Ahhh, hubris.

So the thing is, children have their own personalities and foibles (who knew?) and what works for one may not work for the other. My bag of tricks from my nannying days—which totally worked with my charges, back then—wasn’t the panacea I’d planned when it came to convincing my own offspring to please, for the love of God, pick up this pigsty. We’ve been through years of different approaches, treating both kids exactly the same, treating the kids differently, being militant about expectations, backing off and seeing what happens, and the results have been mixed. Sometimes what worked for a while stopped working when the kids got older. Sometimes revisiting a failed approach later on yielded success. Here’s the only thing I know for sure: As my children hurtle towards adulthood, my goal is shape them into both self-sufficient and helpful humans. Anything that gets us closer to that goal is a win.

Here’s what I’ve learned about Teens and Household Chores:

Fair doesn’t mean equal

This mantra applies to so many facets of life, but I find myself repeating it quite often with respect to chores. There’s no such thing as everyone in the house doing the exact same amount of work. I work from home, so I cook dinner a lot more often than my husband because it’s easier for me to do so. But he does way more yard work than I do. Etc. Yes, son, you unload the dishwasher more often than your sister, because you’re homeschooled and you’re here. She, on the other hand, is older and tasked with a multitude of chores we’ve never even had you attempt, yet, so it’s our belief that at the end of the day it’s more or less fair. But don’t look for equal, because that’s not happening. (Pro tip: teenagers just love it when they complain about perceived inequality and you respond with, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”)

Assignments vs. pitching in

I know some families chart out weekly chores so that there’s no mistaking who’s responsible for what at any given time. I’m not knocking this method—it works well for some—but when we tried to legislate every task this way, a certain debate-loving teen of mine refused to do anything that wasn’t already on the chart, because “That’s not on the chart this week.” Through trial and error, we settled on a workable combination of “these are tasks we expect to be completed every weekend” and “these are things we may be asking you to do throughout the week.” So, for example, the kids’ laundry must be done by Sunday night, but anyone could be asked to do the dishes after dinner on Wednesday or vacuum the family room on Monday.

By any means necessary

By the time the kids are teens, ideally we parents can back off some on how/when tasks are completed. I used to assign chores and that was that; nowadays, I present expectations and leave the kids to work out the details between themselves. My daughter will often pay her brother to do her chores. That’s up to them, and as long as stuff gets done, I don’t care. Similarly, at one point they swapped their “regular” chores with each other, then asked if that was okay with me. Sure! These are actually very adult skills, I think, learning the value of time vs. money and how to collaborate with others. (Obviously this doesn’t apply if you only have one child, but if it makes you parents of “onlies” feel better, my kids also bicker endlessly, so there’s that.)

Raise and lower your expectations

On the one hand, older kids can do more, and can do better than littler kids. On the other hand, you have to pick your battles. If the folded laundry is sloppy, is it worth a confrontation? Probably not. Is the demand that rooms be kept spotless the hill you’re willing to die on? The trick to ratcheting up responsibilities is to relax your standards on the things that don’t matter all that much. So yes, as my youngest moved into teen-hood we started working on skills like hand-washing pots and pans in addition to dishwasher loading, but if he wants to leave dirty socks all over his room, eh, it’s not my problem (until laundry day, when he knows he’s expected to round up his mess). But dirty socks in communal living areas are not acceptable. Also, remember our foray into creating cooperative kids? One of my favorite tricks from there is the sacred phrase, “When can you have that done by?” Giving your teen that flexibility/power tends to pay off in compliance.

Display and cultivate gratitude

Chores aren’t really about chores; it’s about shaping our kids into helpful and responsible adults. Even though I expect chores to be done, that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for the effort. I make a point of saying not just, “Thank you for doing that,” but also things like, “I appreciate you” and “That was so helpful” and “You doing that for me made my day easier.” My husband and I also make similar remarks to one another (“Thank you for making this delicious dinner,” “I appreciate all the work you put in on the lawn today”). I believe the kids are picking up this “attitude of gratitude” by osmosis, even if it’s sometimes obscured by periods of extreme teenage ‘tude.

None of this is to say we don’t still have the occasional chore battle, here, but I still think (hope!) we’re winning the war on teenage entitlement, one boring household task at a time.

Published August 27, 2013. Last updated July 24, 2017.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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