How We Got Our Children to Do Chores

This is the absolutely true story of how Willie and I took two children who "would not lift a finger around the house'' and removed them from Family Welfare:

When our children, Eric and Amy, were 9 and 6 years old, Willie and I divided most of the household chores between them, distributed them over the seven days of the week, posted a calendar on the refrigerator and provided printed directions concerning each chore. The only chores not on the schedule were mowing the grass, cooking meals, washing clothes and ironing (all four of which they assumed as they got older). We showed the children the program and said, "From this day forward these are your responsibilities within the family.''

People ask, "But how did you get the kids to do the chores?''

I answer, "We published the schedule, provided printed directions and told them the chores were their responsibility.''

Note: We didn't ask their opinions, hold a family meeting, explain to them why we felt they should be contributing in this fashion to the family, try to persuade them of the necessity of pitching in, or offer them money or "smiley faces'' that they could later exchange for special privileges.

People then ask, "But what did you do if one of the kids didn't do a chore?''

We made sure it didn't happen again. About two weeks into the program, Eric "forgot'' to do his Saturday after-lunch chores. I found him outside playing baseball with the other boys in the neighborhood, called him in and confronted him with his lapse. He intended to do it later, he said. I reminded him what his mother and I had told him on Welcome to the Real World Day: Chores took precedence over play, and we would not look kindly upon having to repeat this fact of life. He promised to do the chore later. I said he'd do it right then and there. He exhaled a sigh of defeat and went inside and did what he should have done earlier. Then he started back outside.

"Where are you going?'' I asked.

"Outside to finish the game.''

"No, Eric, you're not. You're going to your room for the rest of the day and going to bed early.''

His face burst into shock and dismay. "Why?!'' he demanded.

"Because you didn't do your chore when it should have been done.''

He said he was sorry and he wouldn't do it again, to which I said, "That's the idea,'' and sent him packing to his room. And no, I didn't go up two hours later and let him off the hook. He served all of his time and went to bed early.

After telling this story - as I often do - to a live audience, I ask for a show of hands from those who think my punishment didn't fit Eric's "crime''; that I had been unjust and despotic. About a third of the folks raise their hands.

I then point out that precisely because I was so "unjust,'' I never again had to remind Eric to do a chore. One time was all it took.

Why, then, are so many parents so reluctant to nip misbehavior in the bud, as I did with Eric? The answer, of course, is that what I did to Eric smacks of what the parent of the '50s might have done. And today's parents have been told - by the Pied Pipers of Enlightened Parenting - that they must not, under any circumstances, rear their children the way they themselves were reared, lest they do irreparable psychic harm.

And it is precisely because today's parents allowed themselves to be persuaded of this malarkey that they find themselves chastising, yelling, criticizing, complaining, threatening and yelling some more.

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