Smart Love


End battles over chores by making them fun for kids

By Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD. and William J. Pieper, M.D.

Q:We seem to be locked in an endless battle with our 5-year-old son about doing chores. We make a list of chores for him to do each day and check off the chores he has done. If he does them all by the end of the week, he gets a gold star and we take him to his favorite restaurant. But he waits until the last minute to do his job and even then we have to nag him for what seems like an eternity. Instead of just doing the job, he says he is too tired, or lies and says he did it. I told him that he couldn’t watch TV until he put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and he slammed the dishes around until he broke one. I took away TV for a week and he cried and cried. The next day the fight started all over. I hate to see my son so angry and upset, but I also think he needs to take some responsibility around the house. P.K., LaGrange

A:Your goal is not that your son do any particular chore now, but that he take responsibility for his share of work when he is an adult. At that point, he will be on his own and gold stars will not have any effect. So the real issue is how to get him to enjoy doing his part today so he will continue to want to be helpful when no one is forcing him.

Both rewards and punishments are counterproductive because they are coercive. When you give rewards for chores, the message you send is the chore is unpleasant and the child has to be bribed to do it. When you punish the child for not doing the chore, you end up in a power struggle. When you force the child to do the chore, he resents it.

The best way to raise children to become adults who work willingly is to make chores enjoyable. To a 5-year-old, that means doing chores while spending time with you. Most children who hate being told to pick up their toys will be happy to help you pick up the toys, especially if you make it fun (challenge him to see who can pick up the most toys or ask him which animal Mr. Elephant wants to sit next to as you put the toy on the shelf). Children fundamentally enjoy being with you and doing what you are doing—even if you’re setting the table. Other chores are intrinsically fun, like washing the car or feeding the goldfish.

If a child doesn’t feel like helping on a particular day, nothing of significance is lost as long as parents don’t turn this temporary reluctance into a power struggle. Also, if your child really hates a particular chore, don’t insist on it. Instead, try to find another job he will enjoy doing. Most important, keep in mind that your goal is to show your child that helping you with chores can be satisfying, not to force him to do work that he will never want to do when he is living on his own and can choose not to do it.


Punishment won’t stop homework war Q: My 5th grader’s science teacher called to say my son has not been handing in his homework. The teacher said he has talked to my son and my son apologizes, offers an excuse and promises to bring it the next day, but doesn’t.

Meanwhile, my son’s grades are slipping because he hasn’t mastered the material covered in the homework. The teacher wants us to get involved. I think we should ground him from his traveling basketball team, but my husband thinks that would be too tough on him. He wants to take away his allowance for a week or two. I want to make enough of an impression on my son that he won’t do this again. What do you advise? S.R., Palos Hills

A:To solve this problem, you must first find out why your son is not doing his homework.

The most likely explanation is that he didn’t understand some of the early material, so he is having more trouble now. If this is the case, sit down with him in a positive frame of mind and review all the material back to the point he stopped doing homework. Once he understands the concepts and is ready to start doing the missing homework, make yourself available to help.

Your son has somehow gotten the idea that he can’t turn to you when things go wrong in school. To avoid another episode like this in the future, you need to let him know everyone has difficulty with homework sometimes and you are always happy to help.

It’s also possible your son needs help organizing his time. Again, this indicates he needs help, not punishment. When he gets home from school go over what is due the next day and ask his input on making a schedule for getting everything finished. If you have quiet work to do, suggest that he might like to sit with you and do his assignments.

In short, your son needs your help, not disapproval and punishments. If you assist him now, he should be able to get back on track at school.


Is doctor right to say moms should leave the room? Q: I have to take my 8-month-old baby to the pediatrician for shots. A friend said her pediatrician advises mothers to stay outside the room during the shots so the baby doesn’t blame the mother for the pain. I feel uneasy about letting my daughter go through the unpleasant experience without me, but I don’t want my daughter to feel alienated from me. What are your thoughts about this? T.M., Chicago

A: The irony is your daughter will blame you much more if you aren’t there to comfort her when strangers are causing her pain. If the pain occurs in your absence, it will be that much worse because she will want you to be there to soothe her. In addition to the injection, she will have the pain of missing your calming presence. On the other hand, if you stay with her and hold her while the shot is administered and then do everything you can to comfort her, the pain will occur in the context of your love and warmth and will be quickly forgotten.

One other note—at eight months, your daughter is likely to suffer stranger anxiety, which means she may get upset when she sees a face other than yours. The “cure” for stranger anxiety is to reassure your daughter by letting her see your face. So this is an especially bad moment in her development to have strangers take her away from you and cause her pain. If you don’t stay with her, the unpleasant experience may cause her to be abnormally vulnerable to stranger anxiety.


Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., have a new book, Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work, and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than two decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

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