My kid is having a dreamy summer--full of lazy days spent deciphering cloud formations, performing circus tricks on her bicycle and waltzing to her grandmother's house each afternoon for games of killer badminton, followed by intense spoiling sessions. (Sample dialogue: "More ice cream, dear?" "Don't mind if I do!") Then, last week, tragedy struck: I told her to mulch the flower bed. My daughter is sweet and helpful, as long as the chore is a) interesting, b) fun or c) profitable.
Mulching is none of those things. Like many other boomer parents, I've always acted as if my kid's main functions in life are to be respectable, responsible, smart and happy. But I had forgotten a lesson from my childhood: one of the privileges of parenthood is that you can make your kids do stuff. Unpleasant stuff. Stuff you don't want to do yourself.
Remember when kids did yard work during the summer? Now they're all at space camp or clown school or starting their own dotcoms. Doing a mundane job at home for low or no pay--such as helping paint the porch--has absolutely no allure. So be prepared: when you ask your kid to weed a row of tomatoes, she will look at you as if to say, "What's my motivation?"
Kids need to be involved in the workings of the household; they should be expected to keep their room clean, clear the plates from the table and help with the laundry. Outdoor labor is more physically challenging and often involves potentially dangerous tools. But for older kids, mastering these chores can boost competence and confidence. Unfortunately, putting a kid to work outside can be an unpleasant experience for parents.
Ellen Galinsky, director of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, notes that "sometimes parents are so busy, it's easier to do something yourself than get a kid to do it." While this is understandable in the short term, Galinsky's research into teen attitudes toward work shows that kids who learn to do chores at home develop a strong work ethic for life. To get a kid to do a job he doesn't want to do, parents might be tempted to bribe him, but that can backfire. If your son can negotiate a price with you, good for him, but I feel strongly that kids should know they won't get paid every time they lift a finger.
Parents must show a child how to perform the chore they want done (be clear, but don't elaborate too much) and give a reasonable deadline for the job. Then the parent should leave the area (unless a child is using a mower or similar tool for the first time). Do not supervise too closely--it is as nerve-racking for them as it would be for you if your boss hung out in your office.
If your child does a great job, praise her, but remember: she hasn't dug the Suez Canal. Excessive praise is condescending and counterproductive. If she does a lousy job, acknowledge that some work has been done, but go back out and calmly reinstruct. If your child does the kind of job most kids do--my friend Brian says his yard grows noticeably smaller each time his daughter mows it--tell her how much you appreciate the good start that she has made. Your child--like your garden--is a work in progress.