I threw down the gauntlet -- well, a yellow rubber glove -- in the early seventies when my newfound feminist consciousness collided with simmering resentment. I simply couldn't listen to "I did the pots" again -- my (then) husband's nightly announcement after spending his 15 minutes in the kitchen. "I planned the meal, shopped for the food and cooked," I countered. "I filled the dishwasher and cleaned up everything except the frying pan and the big spaghetti pot. And, by the way, while you were in there slaving away, I also gave the kids a bath."
Admittedly, women now expect more from their partners than members of my generation did, and many men do more. However, when researchers ask family members to keep time diaries, it turns out that men and children's "primary activity" after dinner is leisure. They feel good on weekday evenings. Women, who catch up on chores -- often, the boring tasks that no one notices or wants to do -- feel "mostly negative."
Times might have changed in the last 40 years, but many mothers and fathers are still engaged in "chore wars" -- and few think of enlisting the kids. Even professionals advise warring couples to look no further than their relationship: Perhaps he leaves dishes in the sink because he resents your night out with the girls? Has she been more critical lately because you invited your mother without asking?
Such advice, though important, is only half the solution. Chore wars isn't simply a partner disagreement. It's a family issue. Often, parents also lock horns with the children. And regardless of who is at odds, the discord poisons the air that everyone breathes.
The hopeful news is that although children are part of the problem, they also can -- and should -- be part of the solution. Instead of running your family like a top-down corporation, think of it as cooperative enterprise. The directors -- parents -- set policy and offer guidance when needed. But all members, to the best of their age and ability, pitch in because they are part of the co-op -- "stakeholders" who derive benefit and put in their time. When kids are given respect and sense that they're making a real contribution to the family -- not just doing busy work or obeying orders -- they're more likely to follow through.
Granted, this won't happen overnight, but creating a truly cooperative household, with kids who willingly pitch in, might not be as far-fetched as it sounds, if you...
1. Stop using the word "chores."
"Chores" are something a parent assigns. A role is a part one plays. Devote a family check-in to discussing the roles -- thinkers and doers -- that help your family get through the day. Meals don't magically appear on the table. We need a planner, a list-maker, a shopper, a cook and a table-setter to make it happen -- roles that can be filled by an adult or a child. The discussion and the list you generate as a family are as important as the doing, because it gives children an understanding of what it takes to run the household.
2. Let them.
Modern parents ask little of their kids and, as a result, tend to underestimate their capabilities. Pay attention to what other adults ask of your children. Her coach makes her keep score, his music teacher expects him to tune his own instrument, her scout leader lets her use a knife, another parent asks him to carry a heavy box from the car, Grandpa encourages her scramble her own eggs. Once you see how capable, organized, thoughtful and careful your child is when you're not in charge, it might be easier to let him step out of his (and your) comfort zone at home.
3. Be fair and realistic.
Use your next check-in to allow family members to volunteer for roles they'd like to play. Divvy up the less desirable leftovers. Rotate jobs, weekly or monthly, depending what each entails. That way, everyone develops a variety of skills and no one gets stuck with the dirty work. A parent can team up with a child, an older sibling with a younger one. Post the list so everyone knows who's doing what. If you have younger children, illustrate with pictures or photos.
4. Don't micro-manage.
You might think your "way" is best and most efficient, but another's way is not necessarily wrong -- just different. Hang back; you might even learn something. Be on hand to help, if asked. If you must correct, be casual and constructive: "John, I noticed that the garbage bag leaked on the way out to the garage. That's happened to me last week, too, because the bag was so heavy, I had to drag it. Do you think that was the problem?" Wait a beat; give John a moment to ponder it. If he doesn't have a suggestion, offer one ("Maybe we need to make the bags lighter?"). When a job is not done, remind without confronting-and comment on the job, not the person: "Mittens looks hungry," as opposed to "I see you forgot to feed the cat."
Especially if you're used to Doing It All, shifting the burden to the whole family requires awareness and patience -- and a willingness to let go of control. But involving children in household management isn't just a hedge against chore wars. It's a way to nudge them towards independence and, at the same time, teach them how to be interdependent. Instead of slamming your kids or partner (as I once did) with "I'm sick and tired of doing it all myself," a better approach is to say, "We can't do this family without each other."
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