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.