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Putting an End to “Chore Wars!”

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As a psychologist who specializes in working with children and youth, one of the most frequent concerns expressed by my clients is getting their young children to do their routine chores. Busy parents find it difficult to monitor chore compliance – especially with resistant/reluctant kids. In the absence of consistent monitoring, the child will generally avoid the established chore schedule.

Of course, the kids know that mom and dad are very busy and often do not have the time to check up on them and follow through with appropriate consequences when chores are not completed. They “test” their parents’ vigilance, resolve and stamina whenever there is the slightest possibility that they may remain engaged in preferred tasks and escape the nonpreferred chores.

What I find most fascinating is that when we discuss the “chore wars” in session, it turns out that the children often do not see the chores themselves as that onerous. Modern parents typically require only minimal help around the house compared with earlier generations of parents. It is not the burden of the work that leads to resistance and the desire to escape so much as the pattern of communication about the chore duties that leads to frustration and anger.

In a recent family session with “Jack” and his mom and dad, it became clear that this 8-year-old boy did not perceive his parents’ request that he complete routine chores and independent living tasks (i.e., cleaning his room, putting the dishes in the dishwasher, brushing his teeth, etc.) as too much to ask. Rather, it was the manner in which his parents spoke with him about his routine duties that irked Jack; and the timing!

He readily admitted that he got upset when reminded to do things that are nonpreferred activities. He stated candidly, and without arrogance, that he just does not like being told what to do – especially when it does not fit in with his own plans and mood.

Furthermore, he noted that he did not like or excuse that trait in himself. He made it clear that it was not his parent’s fault that they got into arguments about doing his chores. He said, “It is me. I just do not like being told what to do. I am not proud of it – it is just the way I am right now.”

How refreshing it was to hear him declare his truth like that! He is, indeed, strong-willed and he has a dominant or “ascendant” personality. That type of child often grows up to be a leader. However, at young ages, they are difficult to parent because they are always “challenging the chief.”

Once Jack let his parents off the hook and admitted that it was his issue with being directed verbally, especially by his dad, we moved on to developing a solution that would work for everyone. I challenged Jack, who is quite bright, to come up with an idea that would work better in his home. He, with a little coaching, came up with a nonverbal way of informing his parents about the status of chore completion. In effect, this took the “bite” out of having his mom or dad prompting and reminding (he called it “nagging”) him constantly.

Step one was to list the chores and self-help requirements:

  • Cleaning his room
  • Cleaning the playroom after use
  • Putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher
  • Packing his lunch
  • Cleaning up after the dogs 3 days per week
  • Putting everything he would need for the day in his backpack
  • Brushing his teeth
  • Making his bed
  • Unloading the dishwasher
  •  Taking his vitamins

Step two was to agree upon a “contract” that clarified both: when the chores were to be completed, and what the consequences would be if they were not completed.
In Jack’s case the agreement was that he could do them “when he felt like doing them.” However, they had to be completed before he went to sleep that night.
The beauty of this is that Jack got the freedom of choosing when he did his chores during the day. This was very important to him because he was frequently not “in the mood” to do them at the same time one or both of his parents were thinking that he needed reminding. Their impulse to ask if he had done this or that often came at just the wrong time (from Jack’s point of view), and this generally led to push-back.

Another key to the success of this strategy was that Jack is not a night-owl type. Once he becomes tired, he wants to go to sleep. But, he willingly (without top-down coercion) agreed that the chore/duty requirements were not that difficult, and that if he did not do them it would be a logical consequence for him to be awakened by his parents – typically around 9 pm after he had fallen asleep – so he could keep his end of the agreement. During our contract negotiations, Jack admitted that he would be probably be annoyed when awakened after he had already fallen asleep, but agreed that the deal was fair because in return, his parent agreed not to remind or cajole him about chores during the day. In Jack’s mind, this was a big win.

Jack’s parents, on the other hand, were delighted to be relieved of the parental duty of reminding and cajoling as long as they had some way of knowing whether Jack was doing what he agreed were reasonable chores.

It was Jack who came up with the idea of using a “LEGOs Chore Stick” to give his parents a visual status report of how he was doing. Each chore has its own Lego color attached to one side. Once the chore is completed, Jack affixes the same color Lego on the other side. Thus, a visible way of communicating what has been complete and what still needs to be done – sans the verbal exchanges that so frequently devolved into arguments.

The fact that it was Jack’s idea, and that it involved LEGOs – one of his favorite toys – ensured “buy-in” and motivation to keep the new system working. All Jack’s parents had to do was check the LEGOs Chore Stick at bedtime to determine whether or not they would be waking him up or letting him sleep soundly, proud of demonstrating his ability and willingness to manage his responsibilities on his own term – truly a win-win!

Jack and his dad emailed me the photo of the finished chore management “tool” and gave me permission to share the idea with others – even though Jack jokingly noted the following as a post script in the email: “P.S. Jack M. has copyrighted this idea (because he is very smart).”

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By Patrick Madden,
M.A., Licensed Educational Psychologist
June 25, 2014

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