Now Is the Right Time!
As parents, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and daily chores provides a perfect opportunity. Chores allow your teen to play a role in contributing to the maintenance and care of your family’s household. Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the process of learning and establishing lifestyle habits whether it’s making their beds in the morning, doing their dirty dishes, or cleaning up their games and supplies that will extend throughout their lifetime. Teens who do chores learn that part of being in a family is contributing to the work and responsibilities of family life. When they pitch in, it creates a sense of autonomy, belonging, and competence.
In fact, research has found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood can be directly traced back to whether a child began doing chores at an early age, as young as three or four.1 But, it’s never too late to begin! Another study linked children doing chores to positive mental health in their early adult years.2 Certainly, we may well be experiencing the final years our teen is living in our household. The skills and habits they develop in caring for our family home will serve them well as they make their own independent home in the not-too-distant future. And, for today, doing chores teaches a work ethic that is essential in helping teens persist toward any type of goal.
Yet, there are challenges. Teen’s schedules are busy. After school, your teen may have soccer practice, several hours of homework, along with desires for socializing with friends. “Why do I have to take in the garbage cans? My friends don’t!” you may hear from your fifteen-year-old. Whether it’s cleaning up their room or setting the table for dinner, our teens may engage us in power struggles when they have other goals in mind like, “How can I socialize or game longer?”
The key to many parenting challenges, like chores, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your teen’s needs are met. And, daily chores are a way for your teen to learn valuable skills like timeliness and responsibility. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Whether it’s asking a fifteen-year-old to make their bed and turn off their lights each day or reminding an eighteen-year-old to rinse their dishes and put them in the dishwasher after dinner, these can become our daily challenges if we don’t create regular routines with input from our teens.
Today, in the short term, chores can create:
- greater cooperation and motivation as we go about our daily tasks;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we each implement our respective roles and feel set up for success;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to complete our responsibilities with practice and care; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen:
- builds skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- builds skills in responsible decision making, hard work, and persistence; and
- gains independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency.
This five-step process helps you and your teen establish routines. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about chores by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to chores so that you can address them. Teens need more autonomy as they find their independence and seek to define themselves as individuals separate from their parents. In gaining input, your teen:
- has the opportunity to think through the routine and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for implementing the chore);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their day.
- Ask and negotiate. You might just start by thinking through rooms of the house beginning with your teen’s room. You might ask and consider together:
- “Help me come up with a list of chores.”
- “What might be some chores we should consider?”
- “Why are chores important?”
- “What chores feel most meaningful to you?”
- “Which ones do you think you can be successful at getting done regularly?”
Create a checklist together of your household responsibility plan on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Teens appreciate owning the list and may enjoy checking off their list.
Be sure you create your plan at a calm time. Don’t create your plan when you are either in the routine itself, are hungry or tired, or have time pressures.
- Discuss challenges. As you talk about your teen taking on responsibilities, talk about times that are typically challenging, like when they are playing video games and don’t want to stop to clean up.
- Ask, “Why is clean up time a challenging time for you? How can we address those problems to make those times easier and help you remember what you need to do?”
- Brainstorm ideas to solve the problem: “Could we set a timer at the end of game time so that when it goes off, you put your things away?”
- Make the agreements very clear. Be sure that you both are on the same page about the expectations. Teens love to look for loopholes, so talk through those. Say, “I want to make sure we are on the same page. Tell me your understanding of what I am asking you to do.” Make sure you have clarified whether “clean your room” means pick up, vacuum, or dust.
- Write your plan. Make sure your teens are the ones writing down the plan (it doesn’t have to be perfect!). Make it simple.
- Post the plan in a visible location. Refer to it as a reminder: “What’s next on our plan?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
There are some chores that might be challenging for your teen initially. Frame these as evidence about how your teen is growing in terms of the responsibilities they are taking on. Though teens would often like to appear fully capable and independent, they are still learning the tasks of family life. Consider: “If my teen left our house and lived away from us today, would they know how to do a load of laundry, how to pay for utilities and rent, and prepare three healthy meals a day?” Thinking about what tasks they’ll need to be able to do when they are on their own can offer you guidance on areas to step up their responsibilities. When you’ve identified those areas, you’ll need to teach them to do those new tasks.
Another helpful way to identify what kinds of tasks teens can take on to demonstrate greater responsibility is to learn about what developmental milestones they’re working on. Strategies can also be formed around developmental themes.3 Here are some examples:4
- Fifteen-year-olds show an increase in demonstrating independence while also respecting rules. You can make the connection between greater privileges and their ability to show responsibility. They will have greater self-control than just a few years ago.
- Sixteen-year-olds may fight chores, routines, and contributing to your household with more vigor as they grow in their confidence and identity and feel they should have the freedom to do more on their own without the ties to your household. They desire risk taking. Part-time jobs and getting a driver’s license can become a healthy way to fulfill that need. Find ways they can contribute by seeking their input and emphasizing the importance that adults – young adults too – take responsibility for the care and keeping of where they live.
- Seventeen-year-olds have completed puberty and thus are fully inhabiting their adult bodies, yet their adult brains have not fully formed. These young adults are beginning to envision their future outside of your home. Some may be terrified while others will embrace and be excited by the future possibilities. They are more independent still and are taking less risks as they view their uncertain adult future. They may better understand that their contributions to your household reflect their growth and responsibility.
- Eighteen-year-olds will be more comfortable with adult responsibilities and returning to you for advice again. They don’t feel they need to fight for their independence anymore since they are on the threshold of the adult world. They may fear their future and may also relish in the possibilities. Give them chances to try out new tasks they may need to learn for their future independent life.
- Nineteen-year-olds can be living on their own, so if they are not yet, think about them as an independent emerging adult under your roof. They can and should be making their own decisions about their daily routines and bigger choices like who to befriend or become romantic. They may seek your advice and guidance knowing that ultimately, they now have the right to choose for themselves. But also, any adult must care for their environment so while it will be important to gain their input on how they want to show care, they still need to find ways to contribute to your household.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- There is a simple process called interactive modeling that teachers use that can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.5 If you suspect that your 15-19-year-old might be resistant to being taught a new task by you, then this can be done subtly. Just working side by side on a project and chatting about what you are doing actually models the behaviors, promotes reflection on what you’re doing, and helps transfer the skills to your teen. Here’s the full process…
- Say what you will model and why.
- Model the behavior.
- Ask your teen what they noticed.
- Invite your teen to model.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”
- The following is an example of how this might look between a parent and teen who are talking about mowing the lawn. “I’d love to show you how to keep yourself safe while mowing the lawn. I will be showing you some basics, but I want you to watch for some of the things I do to keep safe. There are also a few things I will do that make things easier. I want you to see if you can catch these.”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Daily chores can be opportunities for your teen to practice new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen performs the chore.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Use “I’d love to see…” statements. When a teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “I’d love to see how you make dinner for the family.” This can be used when you are in the routine and need to move on a next step.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what teens are not doing right, but how often do we recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you brought back the garbage can from the curb today without my asking – that’s taking responsibility!”
- Proactively remind. You may whisper in your teen’s ear, “Remember the ways to stay safe when moving the lawn? What are they?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior is by recognizing when and how your teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. They need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Don’t move on or nag. Teens often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if we believe they are simple and don’t require much time. Be sure to wait long enough for them to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen a new or challenging task so that they understand how to perform it. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Actively reflect on how chores are going. You can ask questions like: “How are you feeling about when it’s time to clean up? Do you know where everything goes?”
- Infuse some fun! Why not make clean-up time or chore time fun? Working together as a family can be enjoyable time spent. Turn on some of your teen’s favorite music or sing a song while working.
- Reflect on outcomes: “Looks like you forgot to finish the laundry. What could help you remember in the future?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on particularly challenging times of the routine can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Check your own tone and attitude toward chores! If you groan when it’s time to get them done, your teen will surely groan as well. And, it could add to your struggle to get them involved. So, approach chores with a “let’s dig in together” kind of attitude, and that’s how your teen will learn to approach them as well.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is still our teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished like getting dinner on the table. But if your teen is working hard to clean up their mess in any small ways, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your teen’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are buzzing through putting their laundry away and on time, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you put all of the laundry away in the time we agreed upon. Yes! Excellent.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You put your game away when you were finished. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “The lawn is mowed” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say, “You were able to stop your gaming, and get the lawn mowed in time for dinner. Well done!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the full dinner preparation and clean up to go smoothly – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine.
- For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with clean up in the evening, and then we’ll play a board game together before bed.”
- Or in the morning, “We’ll rinse our breakfast dishes, put them in the dishwasher, and then, have a few minutes to hang out together.”
- Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.