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Get Your Teen To Help Clean At Home

Updated: Oct 25, 2018

How to elicit cooperation, end power struggles, and keep things in perspective

She ‘forgets’ to take out the trash with a consistency that seems that seems intentional. His shoes are left in the middle of the living room, exactly where he kicked them off. Nothing you do has any effect.

Don't fret. You are not alone. Kids do fewer chores than they did a generation ago.  One study found that though 82% of American adults said they did chores as children, only 28% expect the same of their offspring. This is a puzzling trend since most parents believe it’s important for kids to help out around the house. Those who pitch in do have been found to have better grades, behavior, and family cohesion.         

Then why does getting a teen to cooperate cause so much tension? For one, many parents are resentful because they feel by thirteen or fourteen a child should know to clean up after themselves. Parents interpret their failure to do so as ingratitude. However, consider this- although teens are all about growing up, part of them still wants to be taken care of like a little kid. Anthony Wolf author of “Get Out of My Life But First Could You Drive Cheryl And Me To The Mall calls this their ‘baby self.’ It only comes out at home, which is why they can be so irresponsible, lazy, and demanding.

Teens are also uniquely wired to seek excitement because during adolescence their brains explode with dopamine receptors. It takes a lot of excitement to produce a steady supply, which is why teens love to take risks, but abhor taking out the garbage.        

This doesn’t mean your son or daughter deserves a free pass from household chores. However, a different perspective will help reduce the tension. First, don’t take your teen’s slovenliness personally.  Second, though it is troublesome to find a stack of dishes under their bed, it is not a sign they will grow up to be an irresponsible sloth that won’t get into college (though maybe having a clean bedroom should be a requirement for admission).

With this fresh point of view reminding them to do their chores will become a normal part of parenting a teen. Your job is not to get them to do their chores independently or even willingly, but rather, to teach them the value of helping out. It is just like when they were toddlers and you ordered “clean-up time.” The only difference is that unlike a cooperative four-year-old, your teen is going to ignore you.  So you have to get smarter.             

Rather than berate them for being irresponsible, or insist that you need more help, explain that doing chores is a way for each member to support the needs of the whole family. You might find driving your daughter to soccer practice as boring as she finds emptying the dishwasher, but that is how a family works. Here are some suggestions to help drive home the ‘all for one and one for all’ philosophy.

Set Expectations; Set expectations for a task by making a how-to list:       

  1). Rinse the dishes

                    2). Carefully load them in the dishwasher to save space

                    3) Scrub the pots clean, dry them, and put them away

                    4). Wipe down the table and counters

Hold a boot camp:  To ensure chores are done regularly and correctly enlist your kids in a boot camp. This is where they practice a task over and over until it is done right. For example, see how many times they can set a table, clear the dishes, and then set it again in an hour.

Schedule weekly clean up times:  Set some time aside each weekend where everyone has a job and works together. This can include regular house cleaning or yard work, or special tasks. Make sure the job can be done in a few hours, and then do not let your kids (or your spouse) do anything else until they have completed their responsibilities.

Hold a Work Holiday:  Set aside a weekend day and assign chores, special tasks, etc. End the holiday with a celebration- something fun like going out to dinner or even for ice cream.

Offer rewards?: When it comes to paying kids to help around the house I follow the lead of Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us: He suggests that linking allowance to chores: “…sends kids a clear (and clearly wrongheaded) message: In the absence of a payment, no self-respecting child would willingly set the table, empty the garbage, or make her own bed. It converts a moral and familial obligation into just another commercial transaction—and teaches that the only reason to do a less-than-desirable task for  your family is in exchange for payment."

The next few suggestions require you to follow the ‘one reminder’ rule:

Create natural consequences:   One mother I knew told her kids laundry had to be put in the hamper by Tuesday at bedtime, for washday Wednesday. She then showed them how to use the washer and dryer because after Wednesday they had to wash their own clothes or wait a week.

Leave it there: When your teen leaves their tennis racket in the bathroom ask them to put it away once. If they don’t, the next time they ask you for a ride, to sign a school form, etc. tell them you will do it as soon as the tennis racket finds its way back to the closet.

Set Consequences:  When you do set a consequence (“If you don’t take the trash out by 10 pm you will lose your phone the next day)” stick to the ‘one reminder’ rule.  Don’t nag or threaten, just tie up the trash bag at 10:01, and grab their phone on the way out to the garbage can (I don’t mean throw it out, as tempting as it may seem, just hold onto it for a day).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly whenever possible use humor to lighten things up. My favorite example is a Dad who found creative things to do with the belongings his kids left all over the apartment. Used tissue went into their sneakers, scattered water bottles were slyly hidden in backpacks, only to be carried to school the next day. He viewed these antics as a game, not punishment, and so did his kids.

Remember, you and your teen have much better ways to spend time than fighting about their messy room. While teaching them to be responsible is necessary, they also need to laugh with you, talk to you, and sometimes just act goofy and let off steam. In a just a few short years, they will be off at college, your house will be tidier than ever, and I guarantee, you will miss the mess!

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