Question: My teenage children resist doing household chores, especially my daughter. She will tell me she is too busy with homework, or is doing something and will get to them later. My son is more responsive when prompted, but has to be reminded all the time. How can I teach my children that doing chores are lifelong skills they will need as adults? How can I instill in them a sense of responsibility to help at home?
Answer: Life is messy, isn’t it? Literally and figuratively.
I want to tell you a story about my brother, Hugh. Hugh grew up a pretty shy child, but he loved playing sports. He had some really good friends, but loved to sit and make Lego cities for hours, all by himself. He lined up his Matchbox cars by the hundreds and left them wherever he wanted. He did not pick up his stuff.
As Hugh grew up, he kept his bedroom very neat but kicked his sneakers off his feet from the living room door to the coat closet. A good 10 feet away. It seemed that hundreds of shoes sat there, all of the time, stinking away.
I do not recollect Hugh emptying a dishwasher, dusting or putting his clothes away.
I do not recollect Hugh running a vacuum, scrubbing a toilet or picking up his jacket/gloves/scarves/sneakers/cleats/backpack or anything else. Ever.
But I am his sister, so there may be some bias. And I didn’t do much either, but whatever little I did, Hugh did far less.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Hugh goes to college. I knew he would be a filthy disaster. But no. He called my mom and asked for laundry tips. He read the backs of cleaning labels. He had friends and roommates who lived with him and did not run in horror.
Fast-forward another couple of years, and this gross brother of mine moves to Europe for work. He knew not one soul. Who would cook? Who would clean? Who would dust? My husband and I went to stay with him, and I was going to be vindicated. My brother would be living like the pig I knew he was. But again, no. Our guest room was set up beautifully. The bathroom was clean. There was extra toilet paper, and food in the fridge. Hugh, my gross little brother, had grown into a responsible, clean man.
Why, dear writer, would I tell you this story? Am I suggesting that your children laze around eating grapes whilst lifting their legs so you can vacuum under them? No. I don’t want that for you or your family. I tell you the story of Hugh because of what did happen and who my brother really is — outside of the chores. Lazy in his youth due to a doting mother? Assuredly.
But when it came to homework, work ethic, sports responsibilities, kindness to others, respecting elders, going out of his way to help, integrity, honesty, a great sense of humor, humility and conscientiousness? My brother was a good teen and grew into a great man.
So, parents of teens, I know the chores grate on your nerves. I know the room is a wreck and the food is everywhere, and the clothes are thrown about.
I could hand you data about how rewarding them with some money won’t really work and how to hold the boundary when the job isn’t done (no trash out, no car keys). I could doomsday the whole thing about how you have spoiled them, how you have lost your chance, and that your children will be the young adults we all loathe reading about in different articles.
But I am not going to do that.
My parents did something right. A lot right, in fact. And with that in mind, I want you to ask yourself a couple of questions about your life and your teen:
•Do we all spend time together, laughing and enjoying each other?
•Do my children take care of their responsibilities with school and outside activities?
•Do my children have kind and trustworthy friends?
•Do my children seem to respect my parental opinions and me? Do they come to me for help?
•Do my children spend too much time on technology?
•Do my children handle their money responsibly?
Let these questions guide you, and then set some limits on chores. Don’t be afraid to make demands and have expectations, but don’t do it in lieu of relationship-building. Carrying trash and dusting are easily learned skills. Connection, respect and listening are the bigger-picture ideas we want with our children through the teen years.
One final Hugh story: My brother was recently inducted into his college’s hall of fame for his collegiate sport. My entire family went, as well as many of his high school and college friends.
As my brother took the microphone, he first thanked my parents. “Mom, thank you for making it possible for me to do all of this. I started playing when I was very young, and thank you for driving me everywhere. Thank you for all of the time you spent, I wouldn’t be here without you. Dad, thank you for traveling with me and teaching me how to play golf, as well as learn the deep history of it. . . . I truly understand it. My parents completely supported me and I am forever grateful.”
That, right there, was the man being built out of a pile of messy shoes. Could he have done more at home as a teen? Yes. Would it have been worth it? We will never know, will we?
But it is clear that what remains out of the messy teen years are the connections you build, not necessarily the chores handed out. Keep the chores close, but your teens closer.
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