The average American kid has more stuff, wants more stuff and gets away with fewer chores around the house than any previous generation. This trend is not limited to the affluent — it cuts across all socio-economic classes. Let’s call it “entitle-mania.”
As parents, most of us haven’t made it a priority to train our children to roll up their sleeves and dig into daily household drudgery. The fallout? Many children today feel entitled to all the benefits of family life — without giving much back.
Highly indulged kids are not happy kids. They typically have a false, inflated sense of importance, which is inversely related to genuine self-esteem. Happy kids work toward achieving goals. Research shows that a strong sense of self develops when kids buckle down and master challenges.
Chores: A Way of Life
When parents build chores into the family routine, they are helping their kids build character. This character development instills a sense of responsibility, an expectation to give back to the community of home and a work ethic.
But here’s the reality: Most children don’t do chores with smiles on their faces. Getting kids to help out around the house takes years of training, starting when they are toddlers picking up their toys, progressing to youngsters clearing dinner dishes, and leading to teens who feel obliged (albeit begrudgingly) to participate in household tasks.
While parents should expect 100 percent compliance on family responsibilities, they shouldn’t expect a joyful response — or a perfect job. When, what and how the chores get done is negotiable; whether they will is not.
Creating New Habits
What can parents do when they find themselves with a child who does zilch and expects a lot? Here are some helpful tips:
• Avoid threats and ultimatums.
“Do it, or else” statements are more likely to arouse defiance instead of cooperation. A negotiated deal and an ongoing, working alliance will always be more effective.
• When children have a pattern of not doing as asked, let them know that you’ll remind them once and if they don’t comply, they’ll owe you “payback of time plus additional interest time” with another chore. If the child protests the task of emptying the dishwasher, you can say,
“I expect you to do it in the next 20 minutes. It’s your choice, but you’ll owe me the time so it’s in your best interest to play by the rules.”
• Positive strategies work better than punishment. Once in a while, we may have to punish kids, but a steady stream of negative threats doesn’t inspire cooperation. Instead, flip the language and set up incentives. Giving the child plenty of notice, we can make an upbeat offer like, “After you make your bed, we can get out the Legos.” Think of it as translating from Greek to Italian. Instead of “Do X or you don’t get to do Y,” it’s “First you do X, and then you get to do Y.”
• Steer clear of enticing a child with something highly desirable, such as a special birthday celebration, a car or a new puppy. This is almost always a bad idea, since parents as well as children buy into special things emotionally. Parents then have grave misgivings about withdrawing the offer if the child isn’t successful. Parents should never create situations (promises or threats) they’re not willing to follow through on, since it erodes their credibility.
• Tell children that you expect them to do chores, no ifs, ands or buts. Part of a parent’s job is to prepare children for the world, and the way of the world is: First you do your work, then you get your reward or privilege. However, terms are negotiable. Kids can be allowed some say on which chores, which deadlines and which rewards. This input can mean the difference of night and day in their attitude.
• If it becomes clear in a few weeks that the plan isn’t working, call it off and come up with something else. If the child isn’t going to succeed, there’s no reason to keep going. Consistency is desirable once you have the new routine under way. Good parenting involves consistency and stability, but it also requires adaptability and innovation. In this instance, it’s perfectly OK to say to the child, “Look, what we’re doing isn’t working. We need to adjust the plan to get back on track.”
• Don’t be discouraged if things get worse before they get better. Most indulged kids are very good at wearing parents down. Because tantrums have worked before, kids will not only keep at it, they’ll double their intensity — following parents into the bathroom, telling parents they hate them, threatening to go live with Aunt Betty. Withstanding their wrath can be awful the first time, but behaviors will improve once the child knows parents mean business.
The later we take action, the more inconvenient it will be, but it’s never too late! Kids can acquire new habits. Routine is a beautiful thing.
(This article is adapted from “Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens & Teens,” by clinical psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., and writer Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.)