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Teenagers and Chores
Guidelines for Parents

by Fred Provenzano, Ph.D., NCSP

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Background

Teenagers are at a developmental stage in life where they are spreading their wings, stretching themselves and the limits of their experience. They have also reached a period in cognitive development where they are able to more fully consider consequences of actions and are ready to exercise enhanced levels of judgment. As a consequence, they typically prefer to be out in the community, experimenting with their expanding reasoning abilities and behavioral freedoms, spending their time with peers who are also experiencing the excitement of these developments. They often don't want to be at home, which can represent to them the limits and the mundane routine of childhood. Whether they have a history of performing chores since early childhood or not, these teenagers may increase their questioning of the rationale, necessity and schedule of chores that tie them to home.

Given the arguments and the supervision that are sometimes required to get some teens to finish chores, many parents ask, "Why bother?" Be assured that the effort is, indeed, worthwhile. Accomplishment of chores are especially important for teens because they teach basic domestic "survival skills" that will help the teens to successfully and competently live separately from their parents when that time comes. This competence also adds to their sense of self-reliance and general confidence. It can also foster self-discipline and order, which are foundations for successful employment. And, chores help the teens to prepare to be responsible roommates, the first step in being responsible and helpful community members.

Of course, teenagers are also at a stage in both intellectual and physical development when their help can actually be helpful. As one parent put it, "Better their young, flexible backs than my old, brittle one." Once they are committed to the task, they can be productive and independent workers. Their ability to reason gives them the opportunity to suggest new variations that might make the task easier, or at least more enjoyable and acceptable to them. These situations also give parents the opportunity to express genuine appreciation for their teenagers' help, in situations where the teens can actually see the value of their efforts and know that they've made tangible contributions. This is possibly the most important outcome of successful completion of chores. It not only forms the foundation for self-confidence, but also strengthens family bonds through expression of mutual support and caring. The importance of this outcome was reflected in the findings of a survey of over 270,000 adolescents across the United States. Over three-fourths of the respondents said that appropriate and clear parental expectations and standards for accomplishment were key to their later success in life.

What Chores are Appropriate for Teenagers?

The chores that are most appropriate for teens are those activities that will support their independent living as young adults. Hopefully, most parents are building on a logical progression of chores that have been expected of their children since they were preschoolers or in the primary grades. Even if you're just beginning to require chores at adolescence, you can quickly build from simple to age-appropriate chores. In each of the following categories, it might be helpful to think of chores in a two-stage progression. Which chores can be accomplished at home, and which require some means of transportation? You can start with the former category of chores and build toward the second group as your teen acquires a driver's license or other means of independent transportation.

The following are some ideas of appropriate chores for teens:

Eating & Food Preparation: planning meals, including budgeting and shopping; cooking/food preparation; setting and cleaning table, serving and clean-up.

House Cleaning: cleaning their own room (more on this later); other public areas the teen uses, especially the bathroom. This includes straightening up after using the space as well as regular periodic cleaning (dusting, vacuuming, etc.).

Laundry: Sorting for color and cleaning requirements; washing and drying clothes without shrinking them; folding and putting away.

House Maintenance: yardwork; housepainting; simple home maintenance and repair; car maintenance (wash/wax, change tire, change oil and filter).

Is Homework a Chore?

It certainly can feel like a chore, in the sense that its completion is required, it may not be enjoyable, and it can and should result in a sense of accomplishment. Some parents say that their children's homework is their "work" and so excuse them from household chores. This does children a disservice. When they are living on their own, they will be expected to work a full day at their job and still come home to fix meals, clean the bathroom, do laundry, etc. Requiring them to accomplish chores as they are growing up helps them to understand these multiple responsibilities and to learn to balance and flexibly shift between them. It contributes to their planning and scheduling skills.

How Do I Set and Enforce Expectations for the Quality of the Work?

First, talk over the task with your teen. Explain the standards and why you set those standards. Do the chore with your child the first time or two, to demonstrate technique as well as to help establish the standard. If you feel uncertain about the quality of the work, require that you check the chore when your teen has completed it independently, before it is declared "finished". One technique that can be satisfying for both parents and children asks teens to stop and evaluate their work once they think they are finished, before going to get a parent to check their work. The key element is to ask the teens to look at their work as if they are their parents, to spot any details that they expect their parent to criticize. This works remarkably well for many children, because it allows them to pretend that they are "in charge" rather than "the slave." It also tends to build pride in their work and results in a much more positive interchange between the teen and parent.

Should I Have to Remind Teenagers to Do Their Chores?

You'd better plan on it unless you want to feel frustrated. Teens are certainly capable of remembering a schedule of things that are important to them. However, chores are just not that important to them. Furthermore, they don't feel responsible for them. After all, it's your house, not theirs! They don't feel the same level of "ownership" in the way the house looks. This explains why they can sometimes show impressive cleaning skills when their friends are coming over or they're left at home for the weekend, but don't remember the chores at other times. For regular chores, save yourself the hassle and remind them. Some teens bristle at this reminder, however, because they think that they don't need the reminder. To avoid this resentment, you might include the reminder in a general review of everyone's schedule and responsibilities for the day, or make a reminder/check-off sheet for everyone's chores (including your own). Then you can present the list as a reminder for yourself, also. Another strategy is to ask your teen to monitor the compliance with chores for the family, including your compliance. They feel more investment in the tasks, and you may share more empathy with your teen when you experience their reminders to do your chores.

Should I Pay for Chores?

Should you pair chore completion with earning allowance or other rewards? This depends on your beliefs and values. Some parents view paying for chores as preparing their children for responsible wage-earning as adults. Others think of chores as contributions to family maintenance, not a "job" for pay. Some think of an allowance as a means to teach their children about money management, and want to avoid confusing this with the lessons of chore completion. And, many families establish certain regular chores that are required without pay as family contributions, but then also offer special, elective jobs that are available for earning some money over and above the regular chores. Any of these combination approaches can be effective, so long as you form your rationale clearly in you mind and then explain the system and rationale clearly to your children. However, if you do give allowance, pay, or other tangible rewards in exchange for work, these rewards should always be combined with verbal recognition and specific, positive acknowledgement of the accomplishments. The relationship between the chore and the cost should be specified and must be honored. If your teen accomplishes the task, the agreed payment should be made, regardless of any other misbehavior that has occurred in the interim. If the misbehavior is unrelated to the chore, then the consequence for the misbehavior should also be separate from the reward for the chore.

Chores and the Paid Job

Once teens get a paid job outside of the home, it is not uncommon for their household chores to be reduced to allow for time at work. However, it is important to maintain their involvement in and responsibility for some chores to continue the concept of family responsibility. Some teens say that they would rather pay someone else to do their chores. That certainly is an option, just as some adults pay others to do their housecleaning or ironing. If your teen chooses this option, two considerations are important. First, they need to learn to budget the costs and accept responsibility for them. Don't allow them "credit" to pay for someone else to do their chores, and don't loan them money or give them extra money to either cover this cost or for recreational activities once they're broke. Second, maintain quality control over the chores. For example, if they hire a sibling or a neighbor kid to mow the lawn, it has to be done to the expectations that you would expect of your children. Otherwise, they have to make sure the job is up to standards, even if it means finishing it themselves.

Summary

Chores offer parents an excellent opportunity to teach basic life skills, foster awareness and responsibility, strengthen the foundation of family values, and build positive bonds with your child. With patience, support and respect for your teen's developing competence and self-determination, you can encourage proactive self-confidence and healthy family relationships with your child.

Resources

Barnes, B. (1997). Ready for Responsibility. Zondervan Publishing. In addition to basic ideas about chores, this book includes more comprehensive lists of specific chores that are appropriate for various age levels.

Dreikurs, R. (1964). Children: The Challenge. Plume/Penguin. A classic that has been reprinted many times, it continues to be one of the finest parenting guides. It offers a comprehensive explanation of using logical and natural consequences for behavior.

Eyre, L. & Eyre, R. (1984). Teaching Children Responsibility. Simon & Schuster. This book offers many creative and easy-to-adapt ideas for teaching responsibility to children of varying ages. It offers a year-round monthly program for encouraging responsibility, with ideas of how to adjust the program for children of different ages.

Shure, Myrna (2000). Raising a Thinking Preteen. Holt. An excellent text for understanding the relationship of accomplishment, positive feedback and self-esteem.

Fred Provenzano, Ph.D., NCSP, is a private practitioner in Seattle focusing on child, adolescent and family therapy and is an affiliate clinical instructor in the School Psychology and Counseling training programs at the University of Washington. He has gained additional experience through parenting his two adolescent children.

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