Children sharing in household duties—willingly, without a sponge being thrown at them—sounds terrific. But getting there is a long and, yes, messy process—one that often doesn’t seem worth it. Not only do you have to teach them how to load the dishwasher but you also have to wrestle with the following: Is it important that they load it like you do? How long do you nag until you just do it yourself? And is it the best use of their time when they get home late from debate practice and have mounds of homework? Here’s the thing: Cleaning is a crucial life skill. “Research shows that doing chores as a child is a predictor of professional success. If we don’t teach children that life requires a willingness to do crummy stuff, we are not giving them the tools it takes to thrive,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult, who, as Stanford University’s dean of freshmen, started noticing that her incoming students were lacking in practical skills. She discovered that parents—like her—who failed to teach their kids to pitch in were partly to blame. “We are doing too many mundane tasks for them,” she says, “wanting to be loved, trying to make life easier.”
Foisting those duties on your kids will be difficult—at first. Keep two things in mind. First, cleaning chores need to be second nature. “If it’s a habit, it ceases to be a source of conflict,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. That means it needs to be easy. (Won’t put a coat on a hanger? Buy a hook.) Second, don’t be a tyrant. Have an all-for-one vibe where everyone pitches in because he or she is part of a family, not because Mom will yell if you don’t. “Kids need to know that their help is valued. So appreciate it. When there’s less shame and guilt, kids tend to get with the program,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. If they don’t? Blame the plan, not the kids. You may be expecting too much for where they are developmentally. (Or the hook is just too high.)
These tips will help ensure that your dirty work has long-lasting results.
- Any routine household task they haven’t yet learned, like mopping the floor or doing laundry. “By the time kids are 11 and 12, they are sensitive to how others see them,” says Markham. “That makes them more interested in their appearance, but also in their home.” Of course, their standards will be different from yours. But this can be an opening for chores—doing laundry or organizing the closet—that play to a desire to present their best selves.
For best results…
- Assign a drawer. Makeup, deodorant, acne lotion. Middle schoolers with their changing bodies collect lots of flotsam—and it all lands on the bathroom sink. Clear a drawer or provide a basket for them to dump it all. And toss in some cleaning wipes for the sink while you’re at it, says Jeanie Engelbach, the founder of ApartmentJeanie.com.
- Make room for extra towels. Your little Narcissus suddenly needs one for her body, two for her hair? Add S hooks to the towel rod so there’s room for all to hang side by side.
- Time ’em. Even kids who have been clearing dishes for years will balk as their homework load increases. But it takes less time than they (and, frankly, you) think that it does, so set a timer for proof. “Bet them they can’t get the job done in 10 minutes,” says Amanda Wiss, the founder of the organizing firm Urban Clarity. If they don’t quite make it, see if they can come up with tricks for shaving off a minute or two, then try again the next night.
- Create a donations bin. Getting rid of old toys and too-small clothes is crucial for keeping a house clean, but persuading a kid to spend all of Saturday morning going through stuff is a long shot. Instead, have a spot in the house where they can put things as they decide they’re through with them. Allowing kids to purge on their own terms gives them a sense of control, says Wiss.
- Make a punch card. Fun still matters at this age. Wiss suggests customizing loyalty business cards at a site like Zazzle.com, then giving them a punch each time your kid takes on an onerous chore. Reward: a double chocolate-chip Frappuccino.
Teach them to…
- Do all of the above, plus bigger jobs, like cleaning the garage, and tasks they’ll need to know how to do in college. (Disinfecting a mini fridge?) By now, your teens may be more or less in the habit of putting away homework, clearing dinner, and even vacuuming on weekends. So go ahead and toss in an extra job now and then. “They need to get used to the idea that in life your boss will ask for more than your job description,” says Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and the author of Getting to Calm: The Early Years. Just don’t blow your top when you find them texting, not sweeping. “Teens get distracted by whatever is in front of them. They’re not being jerks—it’s biology,” says Frances Jensen, M.D., a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Teenage Brain. That’s because a teen’s frontal lobes (the part of the brain governing empathy, judgment, and cause and effect) aren’t fully developed yet. They still need clear directions—and patience.
For best results…
- Face facts. Your teen simply doesn’t have the ability to ignore messages from friends while doing a boring task. Instead of lashing out (or giving up), gently nudge him back to reality. “I’m not saying be lenient—just treat teens like a hybrid between child and adult,” says Jensen.
- Stay out of their space. Constantly fighting about his bedroom? Shut the door. “Our kids’ rooms are their domain, where they get a break,” says Lythcott-Haims. Julie Morgenstern, the author of Organizing From the Inside Out, agrees: “Their lives are complicated and in transition, and their space reflects that. What looks messy to us might make perfect sense to them.”
- Lay it out. Teens aren’t big extrapolators. If there’s a multistep task before them, like tidying after friends leave, list what needs to be done. “Put your arm around them and say, ‘OK, so we need to uncrumple the rug, put the afghan back on the couch, and scoop up the snack wrappers,’ ” says Markham. When they come back with “Ugh! I’ll do it later!” remind them that it will take only a minute and it’s not fair to others to leave common rooms a mess. “Teens are not uncaring—they’re just otherwise occupied,” says Morgenstern.
- Don’t talk, point. When tensions run high, reminding your teen to wash the dishes might be the flame that ignites the fireworks. Kastner suggests listing agreed-upon tasks on a whiteboard. “If you’ve been clear about consequences, you can just point to the board and say, ‘This is your reminder. I want you to be successful so that you don’t lose your phone,’ ” she says. “That’s very different karma from nagging.”