By Elizabeth Handley
If you had asked Thomas Lincoln about his son Abraham, he probably would have told you that Abraham was a lazy kid. This was because Abraham, determined to escape the hardscrabble existence of his farmer father, neglected his chores in order to read everything he could during every waking minute available in an effort to educate himself.
Abraham’s habits did not endear him to the community; he was seen as odd and not very hard working. Thomas was enraged by his son’s devotion to reading. He depended on Abraham to help out with the necessary, arduous chores and later help support the family when Thomas hired him out. Occasionally during his rages, Thomas destroyed Abraham’s books, an unthinkable waste at a time when books in pioneer-settled areas of the country were exceedingly rare. Their relationship never recovered. While this issue in families today is rarely so divisive as it was for Abraham and his father, kids’ chores create stress in lots of families.
Our education calendar still reflects the need for children to be available to work during peak planting and harvest times. But it’s been about 100 years since most families were dependent on their children for much of anything tangible in our society. In many of the families I see in my psychotherapy practice, children do not have many, if any, responsibilities around the house. Often the parents sheepishly tell me that they have decided it is just easier to do everything themselves. (This was me up until I entered grad school about 11 years ago.)
Sometimes the child or teen is so busy and often stressed about “getting everything done,” and parents hesitate to force the issue. What I have found is that this drives significant guilt in teens and they readily admit it. They are well aware that Mom and Dad are doing everything around the house and that their parents need help. And, none of us like to be nagged or told to go do something “and do it now,” which is what parents are reduced to demanding. Over the years, I have learned that kids who are given chores don’t like the chores but admit that they are relieved of their guilt when they contribute to family life.
The White Board
When I went back to grad school I was a single mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 11. It was around that time that I realized that my children had manipulated me into some very rude and demanding behavior I often see parents resorting to now. I could ask my kids nicely to do something, but in the end if I wanted it done, I inevitably had to go stand between them and the TV (this was in the dark ages before they had iPads, etc.) and say some form of “do it and do it now.” Master manipulator that I had become, I had even learned to wait until they were watching TV to ask them to do chores.
I resented having to behave this way and I thought about what it was like for them. No one in my life treated me that way. At their age, they had very little insight into their own role in my behavior. They were too young to be able to think about it. And they certainly didn’t get it when I was standing in front of them yelling about it.
I decided that I wanted the process of assigning chores to be nonverbal because the nagging was exhausting us all. But there needed to be something in it for them. I theorized that if my demanding behavior stopped and they got more control over how things were done, I had a better shot at getting them to buy in to it. (This element of control turned out to be the key.)
So I bought a white board for each girl. I wrote their chores for that day on each board before they got home from school. The girls were not allowed to use any electronics until the chores on their own white board were done – and done well (if they weren’t, they reappeared on the white board). The rule was “no screens until the white board’s clean.”
But here’s what was in it for them. The list was made by 3 p.m. and no chores were added after that. Therefore I was no longer appearing in their room at random moments interrupting whatever they were doing (which was sometimes homework) and making demands because I was sick of asking nicely.
In addition, there were a few unintended but happy consequences. Using the white board helped my girls to organize their time around their chores and homework and be more flexible about who does what. The cardinal rule of the white board is that no comparison is allowed. Unfairness can be addressed calmly. Whining and complaining results in chores disappearing from one white board and showing up on another (the whiner’s).
Somehow, the idea of what we called “crunch time” appeared in the family. This came to refer to a time of higher schoolwork load (remember, I was in school too). For example, when I was writing key parts of my thesis, I could let the girls know that a crunch time was coming and their white boards might have a bit more on them, but it would end soon. That led them to articulate when they had finals or big projects to get done and request less on their white board for a while, which meant more on the other’s. But it was understood that it was temporary.
A greater awareness of what was going on with others in the family developed, as well as a feeling of supporting others by picking up some of their chores. We all did it because we knew that there were going to be times when each needed the others to help out.
I introduce the white board when I meet with families because household chores often cause so much conflict, which ratchets up anxiety in the family system. I also like it because it requires the parents to organize their thoughts about what they want done. This prevents the parents from getting overwhelmed and barking out orders because they’ve suddenly realized how messy their house is. That was my style and it was not at all appreciated.
The concept of the white board rarely goes over well with the child(ren) initially. However, if the family gives it a solid shot at the beginning, kids see the benefits very quickly. They like the control, they like getting their parents off their backs and they like not feeling guilty about not helping around the house. Sometimes families use the white board technique but then get away from doing it (which I have heard some kids actually complain about). But if the family had been using the white board long enough for kids to experience the benefits, it isn’t too difficult to get reestablished.
Elizabeth Handley, LMHC, CCMHC, is the author of Blue Brain Training: A Simple, Organized, and Effective Way to Reduce Anxiety and Stress in Children, Teens, and Their Families. Currently she is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Ashland, Mass., in which she specializes in the treatment of anxiety and stress in children and their families. For more information visit bluebraintraining.com.