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The question

I attempted to get my two kids to participate more in household chores with a sticker and reward system – when they earned 10 stickers, they would get a reward such as going for ice cream or to the toy store. My younger child bought into this system whole-hog and consistently earns these trips. The older one sits like a sad, sulking lump when we announce we're going, says she doesn't care about it and would rather miss out on the reward than do the chores. However, over time I've noticed that her attitude has shifted from not caring or wanting to participate, to a sense that she doesn't deserve the reward because she's not as good as the other child, or not a good person. It was not at all what I intended, and now I have one child who still doesn't do chores, and additionally is potentially facing self-esteem issues. How do I rectify this, without just giving in and buying her rewards? And how do I get her to participate in chores?

The answer

I should say at the outset: Not only am I not a parenting expert I'm not even sure I'm all that good a father. It's like my mother used to say: "You didn't come with a manual." I have two teenage sons now (and a "tweenager") and if anything I find being the parent of teens even more confusing than being a teenager itself was.

I try my best and love them to bits. I'd gladly take a bullet for any one of them. (And as I slide down the wall, leaving a bloody trail, I'd smile quietly to myself, knowing I'd done the right thing.) So. Having issued that caveat: I do think it's hugely important to get your kids to participate in chores. Not for your sake: for theirs. When my kids were younger I was struck by a unique "longitudinal" study – one of those rare studies that follows numerous people from the time they're toddlers until they become adults – out of the University of Minnesota that suggested the single most accurate predictor of whether someone will become a "successful" adult was whether they did chores as kids.

Not whether their parents were divorced or together or rich or poor. Not whether they were shown flash cards. Not what neighbourhood they grew up in. Not their spot in the birth order. Not whether they went to private or public school.


So ever since then I made a concerted effort to make my kids do chores. Walk dog, load/unload dishwasher, sweep floor – and, of course, it all helps me, and my wife. A little. But the truth is it only makes a minor dent in the mountain of work involved in running a household of five human souls and one canine one.

The real reason I do it is for their sakes. A tough sell, and tough for them to wrap their minds around, but true nevertheless.

So how do you get them to do chores around the house? I can answer that in three words: You compel them. Forget this reward system. Not only has it not worked for you, it's backfired.

Another concept my kids have a hard time wrapping their minds around: Their allowance is not payment for chores. I give them money so they'll have some change jingling around in their pockets to spend (not the oldest: he has to earn his own now). But they do chores as part of the family enterprise.

"You do chores because we're all in this together," I keep saying to them. Maybe one day it'll sink in.

To me, it is no less than the trajectory of a human life: You start out helpless (and people do chores to keep you fed and clean and clothed), eventually become useless, and finally through a long process of trial and error, learning and repetition, actually become useful to the people around you.

And once you've attained usefulness status, you should try to be useful as much as you can for as long as possible.

So that's what you should tell your kids when they whine and moan and whinge about doing chores. They're helping you out, they're learning how to do stuff, and anyway it's not optional. Maybe if they attain Bieberesque levels of fame, everything will be handled by their handlers and their entourage and their managers and they won't have to perform menial tasks. They won't even have to carry their own umbrella. They'll have a liveried "umbrella handler" for that.

Otherwise, for the rest of us, there is no such thing as a chore-free life, and the sooner they learn that immutable fact the better.

What am I supposed to do now?

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