When Is a Chore Not a Chore?

Dear Mr. Dad: What is the deal with chores? I did them, my parents did them, and so did my grandparents. I don’t have children of my own, but I’ve noticed that very few of my friends’ kids seem to have any chores or responsibilities at all. What is going on?

A: When I was young, chores were something that contributed to the good of the family, and every kid I knew did them (according to a recent poll done by Whirlpool earlier this year, 82% of American adults did chores when they were growing up). But today, the word “chore” has taken on a completely different—and completely absurd—meaning. In a lot of cases, it has no meaning at all. According to that same Whirlpool poll, only 28% of parents say they assign to their children the same chores they did when they were young.
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Lies: I Really Want to Believe You, But….

Dear Mr. Dad, I have a real problem with my ten-year-old daughter: Just about everything she says is a lie. If she tells me she’s texting a girl friend from school, it’s probably a boy. If I ask whether she’s cleaned her room, she’ll look me straight in the eye and tell me Yes, even though I know (and she knows I know) that she didn’t lift a finger. If I were to ask her if grass is green, she’d probably tell me it isn’t. Why is she doing this and how can we get her to stop?

A: Telling lies is a part of human nature, and it starts very early in life. A study on lying done at Toronto University in Canada found that about 20% of two-year-olds lie, but by age four, 90% were doing it. And the lying doesn’t stop when we grow up. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that 60% of adults can’t make it through a simple 10-minute conversation without telling at least one lie (in fact, people in the study told an average of three lies in that 10-minute period).

Lying is a learned behavior. When we’re very young, we look at the adults in our lives as all-powerful and all-knowing. Trying out a lie—and getting away with it—shows us that people can’t read our minds. As we get older, we discover that lying can sometimes get us out of trouble and may even help us avoid getting punished. The more successful the lies, the more often they’ll be told.

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Clean My Room? Sure. But Only if You Pay Me

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have very different opinions about bribing our children. She wants to reward everything they do, from getting good grades at school to cleaning their rooms, with some sort of treat. This can be money, a special toy, or whatever. I say that the kids should learn that an achievement, like grades, should be its own reward. What do you think?

A: In last week’s column I raised the issue of paying kids do certain chores and I got a lot of emails—about half thought that was a good idea, half didn’t. I hate to say it, but there is no absolute right and wrong here. But I should have made a clearer distinction between bribing children and rewarding them. Although they may produce similar results, there’s a big difference.

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He Screamed, She Screamed

Dear Mr. Dad: My two children, 8 and 10, have never gotten along. They fight over the smallest things, so our house is a constant battleground. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry but this seems more serious. We’ve tried sitting them down and talking to them, time-outs, and such, but nothing ever changes. What can we do to make it stop?

A: Well, you can start by giving up on the idea that your kids are going to stop fighting. As parents, we want our children to get along, share, and love each other—it makes life so much easier (and quieter) if they do. But they won’t. As long as there have been siblings—all the way back to Cain and Abel—there has been sibling rivalry. Part of it has to do with competition.

Our society is based on performance and we generally reward people who outperform others. Do better in school, go to a better college. Sell more widgets, earn a trip to Hawaii. Win a championship, get a trophy (or at least one that’s bigger than what everyone else gets for just showing up). It’s understandable how siblings might feel that they have to compete with each other—for your attention, your praise, your love. And unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you can’t give your kids equal amounts.

In a lot of cases, parents (and other adults or people of authority) inadvertently encourage rivalry by favoring one child over another. They probably don’t mean to but it happens anyway. Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your brother?” or “Maybe you should try another activity. Billy is a better athlete than you are”? Or perhaps you heard someone approach the sibling of a top performing child and say, “Your sister is so amazing. It must be so great to have a sister like that”?

    There’s no way to completely stop siblings from fighting. But you can help them do it less destructively:

  • Go on dates with each child, giving him or her your undivided attention.
  • Don’t play favorites and don’t compare your children. They’re different people with different needs. Pay attention to those differences and act accordingly, making each child feel special in his or her own way.
  • Understand that you’re going to fail sometimes. It takes an incredibly long time for kids to truly learn that “fair” and “the same” are two completely different things.
  • Ask your kids—one at a time—to help you understand why they’re fighting so much. Encourage as much detail as possible (comments like, “He’s not nice to me,” or “She drives me crazy,” won’t cut it). And listen carefully to their answers. If there are legitimate issues, schedule a family meeting to talk them through.
  • Establish ground rules. Arguments are okay. Physical violence and name calling are not.
  • Intervene less. Jumping in—unless it’s absolutely necessary—keeps them from learning to resolve their differences on their own. If you do have to get involved, try not to take sides. Get everyone calm and then discuss the issues.
  • Look on the bright side. As unpleasant as your children’s behavior is to be around, it may actually be good for them. By fighting with each other, they’re learning about empathy, negotiation, conflict resolution, effective and ineffective ways to handle arguments, and how to win gracefully and lose with dignity.
  • Model good behavior. If you and your wife can argue, compromise, and make up, your kids may learn to do the same.

The Case of the Overall Underachiever

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have become very concerned about our 11-year old son. He’s a perpetual underachiever in almost everything, from school to the ball field. We know that he can do better – he’s smart as a whip! How can we encourage him to do better?

A: We all want our kids to get good grades, have lots of friends, and do great things in life. But before your child (or you, for that matter) can accomplish those goals—or any others—he has to answer two questions. First, “Is this goal actually worth achieving?” Second, “Am I capable of achieving it?” If the answer to either (or both) questions is “no,” chances of success are pretty slim, whether in school or the real world.
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