Getting Teens to Be Responsible

I have a 14 year old daughter. We have been very fortunate and the kids have experienced some good things in life. She, being the oldest of four kids, especially. Since my husband and I split up two years ago, things are much more difficult for me financially. The only thing is, my kids seem to think that things are still the same, ie- money appears because they want it. I am now trying to better myself by going back to school and upgrade. Money is tight and tensions are high.

My oldest doesn’t seem to want to help in any way. Everything I ask her to do is a chore. I know kids are egocentric and everything, but I don’t think that I can shoulder all this without some help. My other kids are all better helpers than her, but it still takes a lot of work to get them to help me. I’ve tried writing things down for her, I’ve tried yelling, I’ve tried doing everything, but now I am frustrated. Help!

There’s a lot kids don’t understand about how things work in the “real world” of adulthood. Teenagers seem to know so much, because they are able to talk like adults. But their capacity of language hides the fact that they still have great difficulty seeing things from other people’s viewpoints, and recognizing how finances work.

When I worked for Mental Health, we tried out a cooperative game in which each player had to voluntarily give other players pieces which fitted their own individual puzzles in order to make a joint puzzle. A group of adults solved it after 20 minutes. A group of teenagers gave up after two hours.

Until they earn their own income and have to use it not for play but to pay their rent and buy their food, teens and young adults don’t really recognize much about budgeting. So you just have to be firm. Perhaps you could even do some of the math with your oldest daughter, so she can realize how much money there is and where it has to go.

If you’re able, it’s wisest to give each child an allowance appropriate to his or her age. The idea is that the allowance contains all the money they will receive from you, and it has to be enough to cover the basics of what they spend each week. Teenagers can have clothing money included in their allowance. The kids learn to budget, and to make sure they spend their money wisely. You know what your expenditures will be each week.

The situation regarding workload is similar, and it is very frustrating for parents, even if it’s typical for teenagers. Kids just don’t understand all the complexities of adult life. It sounds as if you are very tired, and when we’re tired we run out of resources and end up yelling on the one hand and becoming martyrs on the other hand. Make sure that with your own heavy workload, you take time to refresh yourself, and get some time for something other than work and parenting.

Make sure that personal chores which kids are old enough to handle are their own responsibility. Any child older than eleven can do their own laundry and change their own sheets. At seven or eight they can make their own lunch for school, and can tidy their own rooms. They can get themselves up in the morning with an alarm clock. You don’t need to be responsible for these things. A teenager’s room is entirely her own business.

Plan a monthly family meeting in which chores are decided on by all. Include cooking – teens often hate to clean but love to cook. Perhaps the older children could each take one or two days a week on which they do the cooking. For the less enjoyable chores like cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes, you could rotate them so it isn’t the same person’s responsibility all the time. Set a time or day by which each chore must be completed. Make other privileges (like going out with friends, or having friends over) a result of chores being completed.

Then get out of the way, and don’t even give reminders except to young children. Just make sure that the privileges don’t happen until and unless the chores are completed. Phrase it positively and pleasantly – “You can go out as soon as the dishes are done,” not “You can’t go out till you’ve done your chores.”

Make sure that workloads are reasonable. Kids have homework, and they also have important developmental tasks such as learning social skills by interacting with their peers. They should not have chores more than half an hour every day, or more than two hours on a weekend. Perhaps some things can be let go, e.g. the house does not have to be vacuumed more than once a week.

At this meeting you can also explain about allowances, negotiate the amount each child will receive, and state clearly that you will no longer give out any more money on demand. Don’t whine or complain or yell – just make it clear that this is how it has to be now, so you can manage the family budget and so they can also learn to manage money.

Revisit the issues in a new meeting each month, so that chores can be rotated and agreements can be adjusted to fit each person’s needs and outside responsibilities.

It will take a bit of getting used to for all family members, but your children will be relieved that you are setting up a clear structure for how things are done, and that you are no longer nagging and yelling.

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