Q: Our 12-year-old son is a nice, smart kid who does well in school and has lots of friends. He is pretty much always in a good mood and is fun to be around. But I’m frustrated by how he does the minimum amount of work for nearly every task he’s asked to complete. We often give him specific instructions so he can’t pull the “I didn’t understand/hear you” card, but he’ll still take the easy way out or just not do the task at all. We have tried just about every punishment/positive reinforcement trick, and nothing works. At this point in our son’s life, these tasks are not life-altering (e.g., matching up socks instead of just dumping them all in a drawer), but I worry this is a sign of what’s to come. I think because he is able to do most things fairly well without having to try hard, he doesn’t see the value in working to improve or feel the satisfaction of a job well done. While he’s doing a task, he will sigh and complain, as if we will feel bad for him and relieve him of his duties. Typically, the opposite happens, and we’ll give him something else to do! I feel as though I am constantly harping on him about everything, and that’s not what I want our relationship to be like. I also can’t sit idly by while he chews with his mouth open for the 11,000th time.
A: Oy. I hear you. I have yet to meet a 12-year-old American child who whistles while he works. Why is this? Well, we are pretty lucky in this country. Yes, yes, there is a great deal of uncertainty and economic hardship, but overall, American children are living quite well. They are not fighting for their lives. They are not carrying clean water for miles. They are not scouring mountainsides for food. Americans have created a culture in which our children are not suffering the way many of our ancestors did.
But with this kind of luxury, we run into some pitfalls with our children. We want our children to have a desire to help, but, as demonstrated by your son, this is not springing forth from him naturally. Why? Well, part of the reason is the sheer safety and ease of his life. Even I rolled my eyes when you wrote about asking him to match his socks. There aren’t any real ramifications if he doesn’t vacuum or match his socks or do the dishes. No one will starve, no one will die of thirst, and he will sleep safely. You see? Our beautiful and bountiful American culture has largely done away with natural consequences of skipped chores as real needs.
But this is not the only reason children don’t do their chores. We know this because children in other homes are doing their chores. I don’t know if kids are writing sonnets about it, but many do their chores with little grumbling and even, sometimes, pleasantly. In my home, I would say that my three children do 60 percent of their chores with a decent attitude. The remaining 40 percent is a toss-up among eye-rolling, sighing or mumbling under their breath (which doesn’t bother me as long as the chore gets done).
Let’s first look at what does not work when trying to gain cooperation in children (especially tweens):
1. You are one step ahead because you’ve realized that punishment and rewards don’t work. Why? They are two sides of the same coercive coin. Whenever tweens feel manipulated or coerced (and trust me, praise is as coercive as punishment and threats), they will usually rally against it. It is the lowest rung on the behavioral ladder, and frankly, it is insulting to a mature tween. You are treating your son like a 2-year-old, so he is acting like a 2-year-old. Abandon these tricks right away.
2. You do not gain cooperation from tweens by expecting them to care about what you care about. Developmentally speaking, tweens are focused on their peers and themselves. That’s about it. And from all accounts, your son is a delight. He is not surly, he has friends, he is often in a good mood, and you enjoy being around him. I mean, sheesh, what else do you want from the kid? Do you really expect him to care about sorting socks? I ask this seriously, because if the answer is yes, I want to ask you a hard question: Are you still willing to wear him down, harass him, harp on him and threaten him over socks? I mean this. Are socks worth all of this emotional turmoil?
Here’s the deal: He doesn’t care about the darn socks. Have him sort his laundry and put it away, and leave it at that. If he cannot find a sock or shirt, that’s his problem. (Aha! There’s a natural consequence after all!) Just stop caring whether his heart is fully into these activities. It isn’t. That’s normal. Your tween doesn’t have to love his chores, and you don’t need him to do so.
3. Another trick that doesn’t work to promote tween cooperation is to constantly tell tweens what to do. They are brimming with independence. Schools are not that great at offering it, and their homes are often not much better. Allow some freedom of choice with his chores. He can make choices between laundry and toilet scrubbing, dishes and trash, dusting and wiping windows. Is there something he excels at, such as gardening or cooking? Try to look past your own narrow vision and see his skills and desires, and put them to use.
So what are we left with? It doesn’t feel like much, but let’s take a look at some other ideas:
1. Call a family meeting and assign jobs. This can be done democratically or tyrannically, but recognize that your son is allergic to coercion and will do better with choices. (In other words, you’ve gone the bossy route, so let’s try some clear and boundaried choices.)
2. Tie these jobs to real-life consequences. If you are going to create consequences, do it with your son and make them clear. While you are in the family meeting, clearly discuss what will happen when certain chores are not finished. This will not completely smooth the path, but it will help.
3. Get ready to hold the boundary when he doesn’t complete a chore. He may have a tantrum like a preschooler, but your role is to sit there, wait it out and allow the boundary to do its job.
4. Never let any of this become personal. From the assignment to the upholding of the chores, stick to the facts and always keep your relationship strong. Do not take away family get-togethers or other meaningful interactions with him. Concentrate on how the situation can improve.
5. Although I’m not a big fan of paying children for chores when they are younger, it can be an effective tool to compel tweens and teens to complete their chores. Again, work this out with your tween.
6. Above all, be encouraging and positive. You can address how a chore is done in the family meeting, but nothing kills cooperation like following someone around with critiques and passive-aggressive suggestions. Remember, you are not trying to create a robot who can complete the simplest of jobs; you are helping a child grow into a young man. Take the long view.
Whatever you do, keep it simple and have faith that if you continue to lovingly hold strong boundaries, your son will become a man who can sort socks. With or without the eye-rolling.