At a recent dinner party, I remarked upon what a delicious meal my son had made for the family the previous evening. Little did I know what a remarkable achievement this would turn out to be. It sparked a major discussion on the subject of teenage children participating in meal preparation and other chores around the house, and the seeming impossibility of expecting such a feat. I explained our family rule, which we adopted wholesale from a friend’s family. Each of the kids is expected to prepare dinner once a week. They must plan the menu and make the ingredient list by noon on Sunday so that I have time to include it in the weekly grocery shop that I do. My husband also cooks once per week, I cook three times per week, and on the remaining night we either go out, eat leftovers, or cobble something together. Each child also washes the dishes one night per week, my husband washes the dishes on every other night except on the night when he cooks–that’s my night to wash the dishes. It works for us because I truly love to cook, hate to wash dishes, and he gets home later than I do such that if he were cooking we wouldn’t be eating dinner until 9:00 PM.
Back to our little dinner party. After explaining our family meal system, one of my friends asked “but what would you do if your son just said no and refused to cook dinner?” I will confess that this had not even occurred to me, but my immediate response to her was “I would turn to him and say, “Do you like to eat food? If you expect to eat the food in this house you will help prepare it.””
And I realized once again that many parents are giving their children too many choices. Give choices as often as possible when either choice is reasonable and acceptable to you. But participating in the life of the family, which–fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective–includes quite a lot of cleaning, washing, and meal preparation, is not a choice in my book.
Now I imagine that some of you are thinking well, of course, and perhaps even “don’t most children help around the house these days?” And maybe most do–I have not conducted any surveys. And granted that my experience exists mostly in the white middle class people realm of things, but I have found that, at least in that realm, many children are not doing anything around the house and parents either never asked or have abandoned any expectation that they will do so. Big mistake. And thus, here are my lessons for whipping those kids into line and getting them to help around the house.
As always, try to start when they are young but don’t give up if you haven’t done so–it is never too late.
Very young children can help to set and clear the table. My kids started setting the table at around the age of five. I gave them the choice of taking turns or doing it together, and they chose to do it together and have done so ever since. One of them puts on the plates and glasses; the other takes care of the napkins and the silverware.
They didn’t start regularly washing dishes and preparing meals, I am embarrassed to admit, until they were well into their teens. When I first proposed our system, my daughter readily agreed and said she was looking forward to cooking. My son was not happy, but confessed that he could not argue with my logic and would accept his sentence. He recently told me (he is now a sophomore in college and living away from home) that he is so grateful that he had to cook dinners and that he learned to cook well. He is a very healthy eater and truly appreciates good food made from scratch. Both of my children surprised and impressed me by, after initially starting with simple recipes, creating elaborate feasts based on my Madhur Jaffrey or Rick Bayliss cookbooks. Oh yeah, I did set some basic ground rules about the content of the meals after their initial forays consisted of repeated offerings of “ potato-cheese bake.” Nothing else, just potato cheese bake. Meals had to consist of a protein (veg or meat, we are omnivores), and green vegetables, and some sort of grain or starch.
When my kids were a bit older–probably about 8 and 11 years old–I realized that they could help to clean the whole house. I am not an obsessive housekeeper by any means. While I like things to be neat, I work full time and house cleaning is reserved for weekends or when friends are coming over.
It’s so important that your children are not raised in some magical land where, through no effort of their own, messes are cleaned up, dirty floors become spotless, and everything sparkles while they go about their carefree ways. I don’t know too many people in this world who live like that.
Perhaps even more important, for me at least, is that my kids not see me as this robotic drone who exists to clean up after them and cook for them, and that they not see a family model where the primary housecleaner and cook is the only adult woman in the home.
So this is how I got them to help clean the house. I divided the house chores into four areas, making them as equal as possible. I quickly realized that I could not just command them to clean their area–those unfamiliar to cleaning or those who might have quite different standards from your own need very explicit guidance. So our house cleaning organization looks like this:
| Living room
|| VacuumClean all surfaces with wet rag
| Dining room
|| Vacuum or sweep floorClean upstairs
|| Mop the floorClean countertops and stovetop
|| Mop the floorScrub sink, tub
Each room is rotated among the four of us on a regular cycle. You can do your chore whenever you like as long as it is finished by 5:00 PM on Sunday. See? You can still have choices. Are they happy about doing these chores? No. I’m not happy about doing chores either. Welcome to reality, kids.
PS Just to be clear, my children are not some home-schooled Amish type kids who have tons of time on their hands to be spending at home. They are your typical busy, overscheduled teenagers with soccer to play, excessive homework to finish, musical instruments to practice, etc. Yet somehow–like every other teenager I know–they also seem to find time to hang out with friends, watch silly videos on YouTube, post photos on Facebook, etc. If they can do these things, they can scrub my damn toilet.