Such a Chore Part 2: Getting kids there

I promised a series in a few parts on kids and chores. This second part on how to get kids to perform their assigned chores should come with two caveat.

Parenting advice often come through a bit condescending and when written by parents with real-life children, it often makes the children look perfect. My children are not perfect and they do not enjoy chores more than I do. They sometimes resist or completely ignore my requests. On a bad day, I may even get attitude. I don’t live in chores Wonderland.

The second caveat is, as with every parenting advice, your mileage may vary. Different families have different dynamics and different personalities. No parenting advice is a slam-dunk. Ever. You should read this post as a testimony more than a road-map. This is how I get my toilets cleaned once a week with 8 children and no cleaning service.

(Oh, and I was asked to specify that I would be nothing without my husband. I am neither a neat-freak nor a well-organized person. Paul is the list-maker and the task-assigner and the brain-thrust behind that whole chore business. )

Chores come in different brands and flavours. Some must be performed daily, others weekly. In our family, daily chores include pet maintenance, waste management, meals-related chores such as setting the table and emptying the dishwashers. I should also add “baby-chase” which is the chore that befalls the child responsible for following Sarah’s every step and preventing any inspired-by-Sarah chaos. I won’t get into the kind of trouble Sarah gets into, that would be a post in and of itself (and you wouldn’t believe me anyway). I am not including as chores personal hygiene, lunch-making and any other self-serving tasks that the kids have to perform whether they like it or not. I define chores as “family work”: tasks that must be performed for the family or as part of making the family work.

1. The Set-Up: We (meaning Paul but we’re really big on parental unity here so bear with me.) “We” have a list of daily and weekly chores printed and posted where everyone can see it.

Now it’s been there so long that nobody sees it anymore but whenever a child needs a reminder, we refer  to the list. We also have a trusted white board that has given me much grief and aggravation at work because once you start working with a white board you just. can’t. stop. I have a really nice white board at work and people visit my office just to write stuff on it. On Saturday morning, we <cough> write down the chores list for the day on the white board.

2. The Assignment: Try to choose chores that match your child’s personality and interests. Much has been written about choosing age-appropriate chores but you can also increase your chances of success by asigning chores wisely. For instance, my oldest daughter has more interest in looking after the animals than her brother. It may not always be possible: computer maintenance and upgrade does not need to happen every week and my son has no natural interest in taking out the trash daily. And yet…

2. The Warm-up: Manage your expectations. Children do not see dirt and chaos like we adults do.  If you are only starting to put your children at contribution around the house, you will be disappointed to realize that getting tangible results requires a time investment equal or superior to performing the task yourself, plus some added aggravation and mental strain. You may also be disappointed to realize that children are not born knowing how to sanitize a toilet. “Thorough cleaning” is in the eye of the beholder.

3. The Execution: 3.1 Show them how it’s done. Children are not born knowing how to clean a toilet or operate a washing machine. We often tend to leave children with a chore (clean-up the bathroom) without telling them what it means. If you expect your 12 year-old son to know he must wipe the inside of the toilet seat, you will be sorely disappointed. When I introduce a new chore, I do it once or twice with the children. Then they do it once or twice with me. Then I write it down and post it. Some children don’t need the list, others have fights over it (“It says clean tub before clean sink!!!”; “It doesn’t matter as long as we don’t clean the toilet first!!!”; “We can clean the toilet first if we don’t re-use the rag to clean the sink!” ; “I cleaned the toilet with your toothbrush!!!”) but it does the job.

3.2 Don’t do it for them but make sure they do it. Children are masters of passive resistance.  They also have a knack for finding the shortest route between A and B. Add the two, multiply by the number of children and you’ve got yourself doing your children’s chores for them (or dealing with a public health disaster).

3.3 Make them come back to finish it. That’s important so they know you mean it. It seals it for the next time and makes sure there is no erosion of quality over time: kids, especially teenagers, will naturally revert to the path of least resistance. So make sure you apply resistance consistently.

3.4 Nothing happens until the chores are done. This is counter-intuitive for busy women because whether we are a stay-at-home mom or a working-for-a-paycheque mom, we are constantly reminded by advice columns to take time for ourselves and that work won’t run away. But your children need to learn how to work before they can learn how to take a break. This may take more discipline from the parent than the children. Case in point: my daughters needed to go to the shopping centre to pick-up a birthday gift for a birthday party later that day. We warned them that chores had to be finished before we could leave the house. As the morning went by, it became increasingly likely that they would have to go to the birthday party gift-less. Now, do I want to be the mom whose kids show-up at a birthday party empty-handed? No. I really had to sit on my hands that day. But the chores were done and we had time to pick-up a gift.

Family is where children learn work ethics and the value of a job well-done. Chores are one way to get them there.

Such a chore! Part 1: Why chores matter? (it’s more than a clean toilet)

This post is a follow-up to last week’s Intervention post and the art of raising children who pick-up after themselves. I intend to write a series on chores. Why it matters, how to get your kids to do it and finally, how to get you to get your kids to do it.

Many parents put chores in the “pick your battles” folio of parenting. Of course, we all believe that children should pitch-in and learn to pick-up after themselves. All those frustrated to find an empty box of cookies in the pantry say “Aye!” Wouldn’t it be nice if the child who finished the cookies had the wherewithal to throw away the box? And yet, how many of us – especially those with large families where suspects abound – will call our children to the kitchen and ask them to pick-up their trash? We are more likely to shake our heads, throw away the offending empty box and move-on. We too often chicken out of holding our children to a standard of participation in the family’s life and well-being commensurate to their age and abilities. It is, after all, easier and more time efficient to throw away the empty box (or clean the bathroom, pick-up the toys or vacuum the bedroom) than to go through the song and dance of asking our children to do it. This is where parents of large families are at an advantage: doing everything for everyone is no longer time efficient and forces us to go through the song and dance of demanding concrete results from our children. Cue violins.

In our family, chores are not just a way to get stuff off the floor they also have an important role to play in the broader picture of education. It reminds me of something I read from Marybeth Hicks (who, shameless plug, will be giving a talk in Ottawa on November 18. My friends are organizing the event. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling Rachel at 819.775.5429). She was saying (probably through Twitter), referring to her children and political awareness: “We’re raising taxpayers.” The idea is that we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults and we must always keep sight of the adults we want our children to become. My long-term vision for my children is to raise them – in the words of James Stenson, another parenting author and speaker — to become “competent, responsible, considerate, and generous men and women who are committed to live by principles of integrity.” Here’s why a chores routine matters for the big picture.

1. Responsibility. In our family, children are not expected merely to pick-up after themselves but to play a role in the day-to-day function of the family. Each one of the four older children has responsibilities that go beyond their self-interest. Are they shining beacons of altruism? I wish! I mean, not yet! I think the quotes they will remember best from their formative years will be “It’s not a contest” (when they say “But I set the table twice in a row!”); “I don’t care whose turn it is, I just need it done ” (When they say “But it’s so-and-so’s turn to set the table”); and “I just made supper for the whole family all by myself” (when they say “But I just set the table all by myself.”) In other words, cry me a river. Chores that directly affect others in the family include washing bathrooms, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, feeding the pets, taking out the trash. This type of chores emphasizes the team-work aspect of the family. Look at it as a two-wheeler bicycle: you have to keep moving to stay on it. Each member benefits from the family and each member has to pedal to keep it going.

2. Timeliness, or doing things in a timely fashion.  When we limit our expectations to asking the children to pick-up after themselves, we generally tend to leave them in charge of the timing. There is a time and place for displaying initiative and ownership. When the garbage truck is barreling down the street is not that time. Timeliness is important because children need to learn that some things need to be done when they need to be done, not when they feel like it — also known as their own sweet time, also known as whenever. When I pile-up clean laundry on my daughter’s desk and ask her to put it away, there is no loss of functionality for the family if she gets dressed off her desk for a week and does her homework in bed. On the other hand, when she doesn’t empty the dishwasher before leaving for school, I (the mother with two infants in a sling) feel it right away. How many chronically unemployed adults explain their job losses by pathos such as “I don’t work well with rules” or “My boss did not understand my way of working”? Your own sweet time or whenever may work for you but it won’t always work for others. Agreed?

3. Method. Garbage has to be taken out weekly. If you dust the upper shelves after the lower ones, you will have to redo the lower shelves. Dust before you vacuum. Vacuum before you wash the floors. Don’t use the same rag to clean the toilet then the taps. And if you do a lousy job, mom will make you do it again. By doing chores over and over again – and by being forced to do them well — children learn efficiency and the importance of method. They also learn that doing the job well a.s.a.p. gets the boss of their back.

4. Team work. Assuming your children work well together. If not, they’ll learn coping strategies for working with people they don’t like. Full disclosure: my children don’t work well together. This morning’s coping strategies included hurling insults and orders at each other. Hey, it’s a work in progress ok?

What if you agree with everything I write but are having a hard time making it happen in your family? My next English post will expose a few pitfalls of developing a family chores routine and how to avoid, or at least get around, them.