"It is not what you do for your children but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings."- Ann Landers
I have been a huge fan of Love and Logic (visit www.loveandlogic.com) since my kids were little and it's always neat when a lesson I've read transforms the way I live my life. Many years ago, I read a post about what to prioritize when it comes to managing all the time demands between the school dismissal bell and a reasonable bedtime for everyone in the household. The article asked: "Between sports, music lessons, homework, test preparation, household chores, and social activities vying for time, what is most important for your child's success later in life? Which activity takes priority?" As a recovering perfectionist remembering my own childhood, academics seemed the obvious choice. I was certain that studying for a test took priority over everything else on the list. Imagine my chagrin upon reading that the authors found doing chores had the greatest correlation with success in adulthood. The reason for this is because, in adult life, no matter how crazy things get, the mundane activities of laundry, dishes, meal prep, pet care, and the like, still need to get done. Being able to approach and complete daily habits and healthy rituals correlates with happiness. Adults don't say, "I have a big deadline tomorrow so I can't feed the dog." There might be days when the bed doesn't get made or dishes remain in the sink but, for the most part, adults manage to fit in these ordinary, seemingly unimportant but necessary tasks even when we are too tired to do another damn thing. The sooner we can transfer personal responsibility and accountability from the parent to the child, the better for everyone in the family.
I was bewildered to learn that doing chores is worth enforcing and prioritizing for kids, largely because I was "helicoptered" by my own parents long before that term was coined. I have no memory of doing chores as a kid. Consequently, I experienced a ton of resistance to these ordinary activities when I left my own childhood home. I was curious as to where my intuition had steered me to the "wrong" answer on the Love and Logic quiz. (Wrong answers always capture my attention, thanks to all those years of conditioning trying to never make a mistake.) In my house, academic success trumped all other measures. This message wasn't delivered directly, it was just a silent understanding, a philosophy that was implicit. A few years ago, I asked my stepdad (who moved in when I was 6) why I never had to babysit my brother who was 10 years younger than I was or had to get a job when I was in high school. He told me, "We wanted you to do well in school and stay out of trouble and that's what you always did. That was what was most important to us. We didn't need you to hold a job and we took care of the other stuff so you could stay focused." I can remember coming home from school and my mom saying, "I cleaned your room today. I did it for me, not for you." I always found this message really confusing and wasn't sure how to respond: "Ummmm,.. thanks?" The outcome of this model was that I did attain lots of academic achievement and did not develop a drug habit in high school, but I was completely unprepared for the non-academic parts of adult life. College wasn't too tough a transition because doing laundry in the dorm basement or at the local 'Duds'n'Suds' was fun! Cooking meals in my first apartment was neato! After graduation, I lived on my own and began to realize how inept I was at taking care of myself. I ate raw Ramen noodles from the package or dry cereal from the box rather than cooking a meal. In med school, I made no time to eat so my mom, who was local, went to the grocery store for me. (Parents do this sort of thing when they love their children and want them to eat well, especially when stressed.) All of this was still fairly workable because the only person affected was me (and my mom always claimed she liked stocking my fridge and taking care of me). But when my now-husband moved in and noticed that all I ever did was study and that he was doing the vacuuming, cleaning, laundry and dinner prep, the shit got real. I didn't know how to make mundane tasks a priority, take care of a home or another person's needs. I was clueless. With that cluelessness came lots of resentment on the part of myself and my partner.
The point of all of this is not to rail on my parents for spoiling me. I know that the ways they helped make my life easier came honestly, with love, and with the intention of helping me succeed academically, a goal they believed would be my ticket to lasting happiness. It was a noble mission. It just didn't work. I spent the majority of my late twenties and thirties, as a spouse and then as a parent, trying to figure out why life seemed so much easier for everyone around me. Why did I feel so incompetent despite how successful I looked on paper? What was I doing wrong? Why couldn't I manage "all the things" without such inner turmoil and relationship tension?
Reading the article from Love and Logic was a real game-changer for me. It provided the 'data' to support a different approach. By prioritizing chores and ways to help out around the house, my kids are not only capable of doing the everyday stuff but they contribute to the overall functioning of the home. The distribution of labor is more equal so there is less bitterness about what is and isn't fair. They truly lessen the burdens for a working parent and are much more prepared for adult life than I was.
When does the magic transition happen? Is there an age when kids are suddenly eager to clear the table or put laundry away without reluctance? I haven't had that sort of epiphany in my own life so I can't really expect my kids to have that kind of innately positive mindset. It has been my experience, however, that the earlier we start sharing the ordinary duties of running a home, the better. Very young children are excited to help with chores and if you can harness and capitalize on this enthusiasm and continue it, things will be much easier! However, the teenage years are not too late to start. A family therapist told me years ago, "Action trumps attitude." What this means is that, if your child complains but actually completes the activity, you are winning. So, it's not essential that your teen excitedly or promptly complete the chore, only that they do it. It's ok if they complain the whole time. It's ok if they're annoyed. Do not waste your breath or energy focusing on their having a positive attitude toward the chore. The only objective is that they complete it. It helps to put on fun music or set a timer for a challenge to see how quickly it can get done. Here's what an actual conversation looks like after dinner at my house:
Son: "Dad, I have a big test tomorrow. I don't have time to unload the dishwasher."Daughter: "I can't load the dishwasher until he unloads it."Dad: "Who should unload the dishwasher? Mom planned the meal and I cooked the meal and both of us made the money to buy the meal so should we also clean up the meal?"The groaning starts. The eyes roll. The tempers flare.Parent: "I know you have a lot to do tonight and all of us have had a busy day. The tasks will take five minutes each and you can flip a coin or bargain with each other if you want to trade jobs tonight. We are going to retire to the study."
Consistency is important. I remember when the kids were in daycare and the teacher said, "The best way to get him to stop an undesirable behavior is to consistently but kindly redirect his attention." I thought being consistent referred to doing things the same way for a week or so. I had no idea consistency might be necessary for years before a behavior changed. I bring this up because it may take years before your child is willing to do their chores without arguing about it. But then one day, you'll find yourself unwinding on the couch in the study, with the kids working together taking turns playing their favorite songs while cleaning the kitchen, and you'll know what success really feels like. And after you help them move into their first apartment, you won't worry as much about whether or not they'll be okay.