Chore, not chore

The two young boys who live across the street spend most of their outdoor time either shoveling dirt or carrying water around in a watering can.  It’s not because they don’t have anything else to do; there are various “toys” and more traditional play options available.  They’re doing this by choice.  And it’s easy to see that they take it very seriously and also that they delight in it.  When under the burden of a probably oversized load of cargo, they’ll squeal cheerfully “This is so heavy!”

No one has told them yet that this is the kind of work we consider chore.  To them, it’s just one thing to do.  They do it because they’ve seen the adults around them doing it (in the course of tending yards and gardens), and found that when they do it themselves, they like it.  The digging and carrying feels good and purposeful.  (Or maybe just fun.)

I know several other young children with this kind of relationship to the types of tasks and activities that are generally understood to be a drag – one who loves sweeping and vacuuming, another who insists on being included in cooking and washing dishes, a third who always wants to be in charge of organizing.

We run the world and talk about it to kids as though there are fun things and not-fun things, chore things and not-chore things, work things and not-work things.  But we know it isn’t really like that.  We know that just as digging and hauling dirt is fun for one person while it’s boring drudgery for another, a 5-mile run is a dreaded chore for one and the best part of the day – a blissful rush of peace and fulfillment – for another.

So I wonder if we might be wise to stop teaching kids the age-old mantra that you have to do things you don’t want to because that’s the way life works.  Maybe things would actually work better, all around, if we let kids see us acknowledging and celebrating preference.  Maybe everyone would get to keep doing the things they were attracted to when they were young – the things that felt the most purposeful and fulfilling.  And maybe everything that there is to do – the art, the sport, the building, the teaching, the farming, even the accounting – could still get done.

Falling down on the credibility job

Yesterday I was considering buying a product online so I read some reviews.  One caught my attention because it matched especially well the frustrating experience that had led me to consider buying the product.  The reviewer’s comments were very positive. One of the options I had after reading it was to read her other reviews which I immediately did.

Why?  To check her credibility.  If her reviews were always positive, I’d have been a little suspicious.  Some were, and some weren’t, so at the very least I knew she didn’t only have good things to say.  (It’s of course more common to find that a person’s reviews are consistently negative, which is also helpful to know.) I just wanted to know whether she was someone who sometimes likes/approves of things, and says it, or whether she was just posting a bunch of positive reviews to improve her own morale, or plug the company, or whatever else might possess a person to do such a thing.

Kids give us opportunities to show credibility all the time.  They say things like “This homework is stupid.  Why do I have to do it?” and we very often pass up the opportunity, even though if you asked us we’d say we want to be seen by kids as trustworthy. We just don’t recognize it as an opportunity to gain credibility.

So we don’t tend to look over their shoulders and say things like “Huh.  I see why you feel that way.  I wonder why the teacher assigned that.  Do you think it’s because…” Instead, we’ll say things like “You don’t have to like it you just have to do it,” or “Can you just get your homework done so we can eat?” or “Your education is important, your education is your job, you’ll be glad later that you learned that.”

And every time we do that – every time we turn down the opportunity to weigh in honestly about something, to give kids a chance to see us  grappling with the complexity of things – we forfeit a little bit more credibility.  We’re like the reviewer who only says good or bad things.  We’ve merely chosen a position, and declined to engage in any kind of inquiry, analysis, or critique of it.  It’s an odd choice, when you think about it, because we want kids to become discerning about what they choose to opt into and out of (when it comes to what they’re asked or pressured to do by friends, partners, insurance salespeople, etc.)

It’s not as though we have to engage in a lengthy discussion every single time a child challenges something; it’s just that if we never do, it sends a message that’s inconsistent with how we say we want kids to turn out.  If from time to time we say things like “Huh.  I’ve never really thought about why kids have to do that.  Maybe it’s _____, or maybe it’s ______, or maybe the reason was once good but it’s time we rethink it,” then kids see that we’re willing to actually consider what’s in front of us.  So that when later we say “I’m concerned about your staying over at _____’s house because ______,” they’re less tempted to dismiss our concern out of hand as just another in a long series of thoughtless adult responses we’re delivering on auto-pilot.

How good they have it (part 3)

Continued from yesterday and the day before

Habit and perspective

The other thing to remember about the context of kids’ resistance is what has gone before.  When children are young, we do everything for them.  For a while we do everything for them because they can’t do it for themselves.  Then, even after they become capable of participating in some things, we tend to keep doing a lot of it because it’s easier and faster.  Laundry is a good example.  Most kids could participate in laundry from a young age without there being much effect on the quality of the outcome.  Cooking might be a different story.  But in either case, their participation would slow the process down considerably, so often we don’t invite them to participate as early as we might. Then, at some point, we decide that it’s time for kids to be doing things on their own.  There’s an age when it seems as though they should be able to do things for themselves, and be willing to do them for themselves.  We get frustrated when they resist. But often our expectations are undermined by the way we’ve behaved up to that point.  Our choices and behavior may well have been born of good intention, or efficiency, or other perfectly reasonable components, but it can still undermine our expectations. Continue reading

How good they have it (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday)


What if when kids resist, it’s less about whether or not they think they should be expected to perform a given task and more about the context in which they’re asked to perform it? Paying attention to the context of resistance not only acknowledges where kids are coming from, it reveals more of what may actually be so about the impact parents have made in their attempts to teach kids the importance of contribution.  It also makes more room for peace and productivity.  Letting go of the don’t-know-how-good-they-have-it interpretation is also more likely to yield the results parents want: things get done, and the relationship between parent and child is improved and deepened, rather than weakened by the power struggle and resentment. Continue reading

How good they have it (part 1)

(I’m including here for the first time a summary of the post so it’s possible to get a glimpse of the content before… opting in… to the full text.  Also this time I’m posting the text in parts, over a few days, due to its unusual length.)

Summary: When kids resist chores, learning, and other commonly mandated tasks, it’s easy to interpret their resistance as a perception of entitlement, as laziness, or as a lack of gratitude for how good they have it.  Resistance in kids is not only more complicated than that, its roots are very often less unbecoming. If you make it your mission to really get to the bottom of kids’ resistance, setting aside the temptation to jump to conclusions about where they’re coming from, not only can you improve your relationship with them, you’re more likely to move them to get things done. Continue reading

How do I get my child to…

How do I get my child to __________?

I hear this question a lot, with varying contents filling in the blank.  For example,

…hold her pencil right?

…read more?

…practice his violin?

…keep her room clean?

…spell better?

In some ways these are all really different questions.  The bedroom and violin and the spelling are very different kinds of tasks.  But when kids aren’t complying with adult wishes, regardless of the nature of the task at hand, it’s often for very similar reasons.  And you can resolve this How do I get my child to… question with one approach for many different kinds of tasks.

You can start by checking with yourself about why you think it’s important.  Often we decide that kids should be doing various things because we had to, or because other kids are, or otherwise out of habit and popular mandate.  Upon closer inspection we may well find that the things we’re insisting upon are not actually in keeping with our goals and intentions for children.  We may even be sabotaging our own efforts.

Take the pencil-holding as an example.  If you’re paying enough attention to how your child is holding her pencil to be upset about it, chances are you are committed to her becoming a proficient writerTradition and habit compel us to make children do things whichever way we’ve decided is the best way. We settle on the best way, and then we insist that children adopt that way. 

Not only is this a sure-fire way to teach young people not to innovate, it doesn’t usually work as a way of getting them to do the thing we’re trying to get them to do and in fact discourages them from getting on board.  A good question to ask yourself is Is it getting in the way?  Is the way she holds the pencil getting in the way of anything?  Is it slowing her down?  Is it frustrating her because it’s slowing her down?  If it isn’t, then you might want to let it go.  There are likely other battles where the thing you’re trying to influence is getting in the way of something, so if this one isn’t, give yourself and your child a break from the battle of it.

But if you’ve determined that her grip is actually getting in her way, there are ways to address the problem that don’t alienate her or otherwise make the problem less likely to resolve.  A lot of it lives in the language.  If you say to your child “Don’t hold your pencil like that.  Hold it like this,” you’re really just being bossy.  I know we think that we’re entitled to boss kids around because we’re old and they’re not and people bossed us around when we were young.  (Imagine too what it would be like if every time a freshman got picked on just for being a freshman, he decided that when he became an upperclassman he wouldn’t pick on freshmen.  Soon the tradition would end, and we could move on to more interesting problems.)

I don’t bother to try to talk anyone out of bossing kids around, if it’s really getting them what they want.  But it’s usually not.  It’s usually getting them recalcitrant kids who do the very least they can to get by, which undermines the kids’ own ambitions as well as their parents’ and other adults’ ambitions for them.  You can shift everything by shifting the language you use to address your concern:

“I noticed you’ve got your pencil between your first and second fingers.  I know you’ve complained that writing is hard, and you hate to have to do it; I’m wondering if it might be more comfortable if you tried it a different way.”

Or “I noticed something about your writing that I think might help speed up the process a little bit for you.  If you want me to show you, I can.”

It’s old news that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  There’s a little more to it than that here because it’s not enough to just be nicer with your bossing. If you say “Please hold your pencil like this,” you may feel like you’re being nice, like honey, but it’s the mandate that lands like vinegar.  This message curls the tongue and turns the stomach: “I know what’s best and I’m going to tell it to you and you should be grateful that I’m looking out for you.”  Kids don’t like being bossed around any more than adults do, and when you stop bossing them around they become available for receiving input, suggestion, recommendation.


When you choose a contractor to work on your house or you consider a purchase or service of any kind, you expect a compelling argument for any costs you’ll incur in the course of the transaction.  It’s how you protect yourself from spending too much on stuff you don’t need; how you get what you need for a reasonable price. It’s one of the ways you find your way through the world.

Why, then, do we shut kids down when they ask for justification or explanation of things like homework and chores?  If we want them to be discerning consumers (not just of goods and services, but of social interactions, career paths, anything), it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The only possible explanation for the approach is that we think the only way to get a person to do something is to force them to; that it shouldn’t matter whether or not they can see the value in it.

If someone tried to force you to hire their company or buy their product, without answering your questions or taking your objections and concerns seriously, would you do it?