Ep 14: Chores and Responsibility

Episode Summary

Dr. G, author of Get the Behavior You Want Without Being the Parent You Hate!, explains her philosophy on how to instill responsibility and a strong work ethic in teenagers. In Dr. G’s opinion, cleaning your room isn’t a chore. Chores are things teens do for the greater good of the family and household.

Who the episode is for: Dads Moms Parents

Who it's about: Preteens Teens

Topics covered: Allowance Chores Community Service Resilience Respect Responsibility Work Ethic

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Want your teenager to be doing more chores? Good idea. A strong teenage work ethic is important if you want your teenager to develop to the best of their abilities. But getting your teenager to do chores is uncomfortable. The thought of making your kids feel unhappy might even horrify you. Isn’t it your job as a parent to make sure your kids are always happy?

Actually, no! One day your kids will move out and face a world full of obstacles, and they should feel like they can manage those. We want to make sure they are always learning and growing, and let them take responsibility for their own happiness. Although, nurturing a strong teenage work ethic is hard and no one wants to be a bad parent!

So, how do you convince your teen to take on more responsibility? In this episode, I talk to respected parenting and youth development expert, Deborah Gilboa, MD. Popularly known as Dr. G, she is the founder of AskDoctorG.com and the author of multiple books including Get the Behavior You Want Without Being the Parent You Hate! She is a family physician, media personality, speaker, social influencer, award winning teacher, and mother of four boys. With plenty of life experience to go along with her professional expertise, Dr. G enthusiastically walks me through some of the hardest questions on responsibility and teenage work ethic.

As a family physician, Dr. G sees families from a large span of backgrounds and in a wide variety of situations. The one thing she sees in common across all cultures, ages, economic classes, mental capabilities, and physical capabilities, is that everyone struggles with parenting!

What caught her attention as a family doctor might surprise you. It was just as likely for a parent to ask about teenage work ethic as it was for her to be asked about medical advice. In one situation, instead of being asked something medically related to a child who had asthma, she found the parent asking her, “How do I get my kid to take asthma medication?”

At first, Dr. G wrestled with how to get kids to take better care of themselves. But this quickly transformed. She soon found herself wondering how to raise kids to take responsibility for making the world a better place. This was certainly a higher bar to set, and especially in a world that doesn’t exactly teach people how to be a good parent. As she points out, “Do you need a certificate to catch a fish? Yes. But to raise a kid? No.”

As a parent, it can be extremely difficult to keep the long term teenage work ethic goals in mind. When your kid is distressed, the option of satisfying their present desire for comfort and happiness is far easier. But, “You can only learn when you’re uncomfortable,” she says. And raising that strong work ethic in your kid is going to require a lot of discomfort for you and the child. The good news? According to Dr. G, you are not responsible for your child’s happiness!

Studies also seem to suggest that assigning your kids chores can improve teenage work ethic and the social dynamic in a house. Having a kid take on more responsibility in the house makes the child feel more needed, and feeling needed matters. According to research, Dr. G claims that there is a correlation between the amount of time kids spend doing chores for the good of the entire household, and the amount of time they choose to spend free time with family.

To Dr. G, a strong teenage work ethic is about taking responsibility for making the world a better place, and that starts with chores. Not just any chores, but chores that are teaching them things. This means letting your teens do things around the house that they might get wrong. It means being okay with your teen occasionally messing up the house on accident as he or she grows in competence. Sure, it might be easier and faster for you to do household chores yourself, but don’t you want your kids to know how to do those things, too?

The reasons for being reluctant to give more chores to your teen are completely understandable. Dr. G points out that with the amount of hours school, extracurriculars, and homework take up, taking work off your teens at the house just makes sense. Again, why make your teenager’s life harder? This is where Dr. G’s wisdom and passion for teenage work ethic really shines.

She is so quick to remind us that teenagers want more responsibilities from adults, which can teach outstanding teenage work ethic. Has your teenager asked about a car yet? Maybe they’ve asked about a pet? What about redoing their room? In essence what they’re really asking for is more responsibility! How exciting!

No, this does not mean that you have to bend to your teen’s will and give them whatever they ask for. It means asking yourself what responsibility you can bestow so they can learn and grow. For example, you could give them the responsibility to craft their own back to school health routine after a relaxing summer. Let them decide how to take wellness into their own hands instead of having the parents take the lead.

Chores are a fantastic long term tool for instilling and inspiring responsibility and teenage work ethic. They make teenagers more resilient, solidify that strong work ethic, and teach valuable life skills. And with most chores, it’s not so much a matter of “if,” but “when” your kid might need to have learned a skill.

In order to instill strong teenage work ethic, Dr. G helpfully explains what qualifies as a “chore,” and how often your teen should be doing them. Want a hint? Cleaning their room does not count! Cleaning the living room does! To Dr. G, it is essential that teens understand the importance of working for the greater good. And she has so many ideas from doing laundry for the entire family to sweeping the barn.

Dr. G and I had so much to talk about, and she has so much to share! Other related topics she goes through in this interview include: 

  • The 3Rs: Respect, Responsibility, and Resilience
  • Why allowance is important, and what you should pay your kid for
  • The value of community service
  • How to apologize for treating your teen like a younger kid
  • What to do when your teen wants to quit

I really enjoyed my time with Dr. G. She has so much passion for raising kids! She also has an abundance of wisdom for parents to learn from, and amazing, practical tools to help nurture that strong work ethic we parents long for. I had a lot of fun listening to her stories, and I know you will, too!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teenager thinking about how they can use their passions to help others

“Listen, I know I haven’t always been the biggest fan of your skateboarding. But you seem to love it and you also seem to be working really hard on it. Would you be willing to teach a class on it one Saturday morning at the community center for kids who are much younger than you?”

-Deborah Gilboah

2.  Explain the need for chores in terms of the life lessons it teaches:

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3.  Make teens feel needed and responsible when they don’t finish their chores:

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4.  Assign your kids more chores by framing it as part of a move toward independence:

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5.  Get your teenager to take on more responsibility by saying they are more mature than you realized:

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6.  When your teenager wants to make an important decision on their own, use it as an opportunity to get them to take on more responsibility:

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7.  When your teenager is complaining about something messed up in the world:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Stop Taking Responsibility for Your Teen’s Happiness:

One very damaging belief that many parents hold, Dr. G told me during our interview, is that their teenager’s happiness is their responsibility. I see the same thing with parents who consult with me about their teens. Parents resist doing anything they know will upset their teen. They tell me they feel like they are walking on eggshells around their teenager. Like they feel completely powerless. Do you ever feel this way? Maybe part of the reason is that you are taking on responsibility for your teen’s happiness. If you give your teen feedback in a constructive way and they can’t handle it, that’s not your fault. They are responsible for learning how to manage their own emotions. You can certainly offer to help, but you can’t do it for them. On a piece of paper or a note in your phone, write yourself a brief manifesto stating that you will no longer hold yourself responsible for your teen’s emotions and you will no longer hold back around your teen because you are afraid of hurting their feelings.

2.  Start Requiring More from Your Teen:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Okay. So, the book is called Get the Behavior You Want… Without Being the Parent You Hate! I read a lot of parenting books, and I really enjoyed this one. The first thing I of course am wondering is, what inspired you to write it? You are a physician, right? So at what point were you like, “Hey, parenting is kind of a thing”? And what made you then go and write the book?

Deborah: I am a doctor, I’m a family doc, and I see kids in my practice and grownups, and usually their grownups, like their parents and their grandparents, and a couple of things happen. One is I realized that a lot of the questions that my patients and their parents were asking me were not about medicine, they were about parenting. For example, I rarely heard, “Doctor, do you think my child is on the right medicine for their asthma?” I heard, “How do I get my child to take their asthma medicine?” That’s a great question. It’s important, and if you don’t have a strong answer to that question as a parent, then you’re not going to be able to keep your kid from having an asthma exacerbation. But it’s not a medical question, it’s a parenting question.

Deborah: Then I had this other realization, and this was a real aha moment for me in my practice. And I’m not in private practice, I’m in a federally qualified health center. So I see folks from over 100 countries. Our patients speak 61 different languages. I see all kinds of family situations. I see different cultural backgrounds, linguistic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds. One of the things I’ve discovered is that actually everyone struggles with parenting. And I think that is not only is it specific to the parent and the child, each relationship, but it’s a relationship you don’t want to break up with that person ever, so you have to find ways to make it work. And the stakes are high for parents because we want to be great at this. The education is low. Nobody teaches you in any formal way, how to do this.

Andy: Right. You don’t have to get any kind of certificate.

Deborah: Right. There’s no license. To catch a fish, yes. To raise a child, no. So, that being the case, this is hard.

Andy: Sure.

Deborah: And then I had a moment where I was seeing a patient who suffers from progressive MS, multiple sclerosis. And when I was seeing her, I’d known her for several years already as her doctor, when I was seeing her, she was already at the point where she’s in a wheelchair and she’s able to only reliably move her neck and her head except for breathing. So she toggles her wheelchair with a toggle by her chin to control her wheelchair. But other than that, not a lot of physical function. And I say, “Hey, Miss So-and-so. How are you today?” She says, “Wonderful. My grand baby just turned one, and he’s getting to be such a big boy. The roses by my front door are coming up. And I’m going to that concert in the park on Friday. Things are great.” And we had our visit.

Deborah: And just a few visits later that same morning I saw a woman who’s almost exactly the age, same race, same linguistic background, same socioeconomic level, same educational level, but her medical issue is some mild, occasional, low back pain. And I walk in and I say, “Hey, Miss So-and-so. How are you?” She says, “Terrible.” I said, “What’s going on?” She said, “Well, it’s just that my family doesn’t understand about my back, and nobody cares, and they don’t want to help me, and they won’t make accommodations for me. Things are just awful.” And I said, “Is your pain much worse?” She said, “Well, no, but it could be.” I went on and I helped her that day as best I might. But I kept thinking, “How do I get my kids to grow up behind door number one?”

Andy: Right. Right.

Deborah: What is that thing that allows someone who is facing what pretty much anyone would objectively say are difficult obstacles to feel positive and resourceful and excited about life, and a person who does not on paper seem to have very many obstacles who feels the opposite? Because I know that my kids will face obstacles. It’s the only thing as a parent that I know for sure. So if I don’t help them to feel like I can manage this, or, gosh, I haven’t seen this before, but I’ve seen other people, people in my life have faith in me, I’m going to figure this out, then I’m really letting them down. That’s what caused me to dive into this work. And I discovered something that really frustrated me. That is our society has given parents the mistaken belief that our kids’ happiness at any given moment is the metric of whether or not we’re a good parent. That’s bogus, but it is damaging. Damaging.

Deborah: If I believe that my kids’ happiness is the measure of my good parenting then everything I do is geared towards their happiness. And not even kids themselves think that’s a good idea beyond age five. When I work with teenagers, I say, “What do you want from the adults in your life?” And they say, “Empathy.” They never say, “I want them to just make me happy.” They don’t think that adults can make them happy. And they’re right. They occasionally think their friends can make them happy or their partner can make them happy, but they mostly don’t look to other people to try and make them happy. But we have convinced ourselves as a society. And it used to just be your mother-in-law who thought that, right? Well, but are they happy?

Deborah: So, I did a TED talk and I included in my TED talk, a billboard that I passed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that is a fuzzy picture in the background of a rest stop. And in the foreground of this enormous 40-foot billboard is a four-year-old holding a double scoop ice cream cone that’s falling off a little bit with this big smile on his face, he’s taken a big lick, and the slogan below says, “Tantrum averted.” And I almost crashed my car, Andy. Because not only might that work, a whole group of millennials sat in a marketing meeting and said, “This will sell our rest stop.” And they were right.

Andy: Yeah. Just how do I just get him to just be happy, just stop crying?

Deborah: Just be happy right now.

Andy: It’s fine. What do you want? What do you need? Just, I’ll give it to you. That’s such a strong impulse though, right? I mean, as a parent, right? So you think that’s cultural then, that there’s been a shift in our perceptions about parenting and about what the role of a parent is that has somehow led to this climate where parents now kind of think that it’s their job to make their kids happy.

Deborah: Right. We do. We think that this is our role. And we’re wrong because being uncomfortable and being happy at the same time, that’s really difficult. That takes a certain level of enlightenment that I think people only get to on the rare occasion. But you only learn when you’re uncomfortable. So, I hold, and I think a lot of people agree with me once I think about it twice, that the job of parenting is to make sure that our kids are learning and growing. If they can figure out how to simultaneously be happy, that’s awesome. I definitely love it when my kids are happy, but their happiness isn’t my responsibility.

Deborah: Listen, I have four sons, and I am usually what lawyers would call the proximal cause of their unhappiness. I’m the one who said, “You can’t have that truck because you hit your brother in the head with it,” or, “You can’t go to that party because you’re not allowed to speak to someone that way,” or, “No, you can’t go on that outing because it’s too dangerous,” or, “You have to do this chore even though none of your friends are.”

Deborah: So I’m usually the one who’s either putting up boundaries and enforcing them or pushing my kids out of their comfort zone. That’s my job. I do want them to be happy, but then I push on parents. I push on adults because this has spread beyond parents. It used to be that educators were able to successfully push back against this idea. Coaches culturally used to be able to push back against this idea, and they’re losing ground. And so I look at all adults who work with kids and teens themselves and I say, “Here’s how I want you to look at that. I want you to look at it that if I don’t help you to learn and grow now, when I’m not around you won’t have the skills you need to be happy.”

Andy: Yeah. I think it’s so important to be able to say, “Hey, I wouldn’t feel like I was being a good parent if I didn’t push you in this way.” I wonder, you mentioned chores.

Deborah: Oh, this is my favorite.

Andy: Right? And I got that impression for somehow. I don’t know what it was, but as I read through your book, the chapter that stood out to me was the one on chores. I mean, you have a whole section on responsibility, and even not in that section, responsibility seems like a major theme of the book as one of the kind of cornerstones of your approach is really instilling responsibility. But I wanted to talk about chores because you had some really interesting ideas about chores and one of them was doing chores every day. So can you break that down for me a little bit? And how do we kind of extend this stuff to the teenage years?

Deborah: I think that there are two ways to think about the value of doing chores. One is some interesting research that shows that when teenagers were asked two separate questions, they were asked, “Are you required, or how many hours a week are you required to do repetitive work for the good of your household?” This isn’t just cleaning your own room, putting your own dishes away, putting your own laundry away. This is for the good of the whole household.

Andy: The greater good. Yeah.

Deborah: So this could be anything from mucking out an entire stable, to shoveling, because I’m in the middle of a snowstorm, shoveling the front walk, to making a meal for the family or doing childcare for another kid in the family, whatever that is. And then separately, they asked these same kids to say of their free time, the time that they genuinely could choose what they do, how many hours a week do they choose to spend their free time at home with their family? Not at home in their room, doing their own thing, but at home with their family. There was a statistically significant correlation between more hours required of a teenager to do work for the family and more hours chosen for leisure time with the family, which seems so counterintuitive to any person who’s ever had to do chores.

Andy: Paradoxical.

Deborah: But the authors go on to suppose, and they did some qualitative interviewing as well with some of these teens, to find out that they felt more needed. They felt more integral to their family because they knew that they were needed. And being needed matters to us as humans. We’re a communal species. And knowing that our contribution matters, hearing our parents complain like, “You were away last week and I didn’t have time to do all the things that had to get done because you usually take care of those things. It’s not the only reason I missed you, but gosh, I really missed you.” That those kinds of things matter. That’s one issue. If you want your kids to want to spend more time with you, paradoxically require more of them.

Andy: It’s also like there’s all that great research on longevity and simple little things like the study in a nursing home where they randomly assigned people to either have a plant that they had to take care of themselves or to have a plant that was taken care of for them by the staff. And the ones who got the plant that they had to take care of themself-

Deborah: They lived longer.

Andy: They lived longer. Right. There’s such a human need to just feel like we’re needed and like-

Deborah: Purposeful.

Andy: … we have responsibility that we have to complete. Yeah, we’re almost robbing kids of that if we don’t require them to do a serious amount of chores around the house.

Deborah: Right. That’s the goal. That’s the motivation for the adults in their lives to do them, to get them to be at home. How about the motivation to get them so that they’re able to leave home? Every single thing that we want our kids to know how to do when they move out of our homes, they have to learn to do while they live with us. And then the last piece I give parents, especially parents who tend to be achievement oriented about their teenagers, because, Andy, we have a myth in this country that even though we do see these rare teenagers that we feel like are capable of just astounding us, becoming Olympic athletes or starting a nonprofit or building a YouTube business that raises millions, we also believe somehow that the vast majority of kids can’t be expected to study for a math test and take out the garbage.

Andy: Right. Yeah.

Deborah: Because we have that belief that I have to take care of all the menial work and be your administrative assistant and your chef and your chauffer and your maid so that you can study and get the grades that you need, like focus on your extracurriculars, and you’re captain of this team and you’re this and you’re that. First of all, if we want them to live lives of achievement, which I have to imagine those parents do, I don’t know who they think is going to be doing those things for their child in perpetuity, but separate from that.

Andy: Right. Like, okay, so when your kid joins the workforce, he’s probably going to have to do more hours of work than he’s doing now. And on top of that, take care of everything else and pay the bills.

Deborah: I hate to say this, I would argue that they often don’t work as many hours in the workforce as they are in high school, but separate from that.

Andy: You know, it depends on if you consider the vast amount of extracurricular activities that kids are doing.

Deborah: Yeah, and the work they’re doing for those. But here’s what I want to say to parents. If I went in for a parent-teacher conference, my youngest child is in third grade, and if I went in for a parent-teacher conference and his teacher told me he was excelling in a particular part of math, like division, and I was like “He’s really got it. Every time I give him a quiz, he gets it right. I barely have to grade it. I don’t have to teach them a thing. It’s amazing.” And I say, “Oh cool. What are you going to work on next?” Now, here we are in January. If that teacher said to me, “Oh no, no, we’re good. We’re going to stay right here. It’s easy for me, it’s easy for him. I don’t have to teach. He doesn’t struggle. We’re sticking right here,” I would have a problem with that. I want my kids working at the leading edge of their ability. But why don’t I do that at home?

Andy: The zone of proximal development.

Deborah: Right. I talk to parents all the time who say, when I say, “What does your child do for chores?”, and they say, “Oh, she puts her laundry in the hamper and she puts her dishes in the sink.” And I say, “That’s great. Is she four?”

Andy: Right. Right.

Deborah: And they say, “Oh no, she’s 14.” Right. Why don’t we have our kids working at the leading edge of their ability at home, which means we’re teaching them things and they’re getting things wrong sometimes and they’re struggling somewhat, and they’re uncomfortable.

Andy: Well, so in order to do that, we have to be okay with letting them mess up our house, right?

Deborah: Yes. And not just our house, but they will learn competence by getting to be good at something. But very few people are good at something the first time. Although I will tell you, and you read about it in my book, if you happen on this part, in my house, when you turn seven, you start to do the laundry for the family.

Andy: Sure.

Deborah: And now each of my kids have had two years of doing laundry from age seven to age nine. And I can tell you that none of them have ever pinked anything or shrunk anything. I have, but they never have.

About Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Respected parenting and youth development expert, Deborah Gilboa, MD, is the founder of AskDoctorG.com. Popularly known as Dr. G, her passion for raising kids with character makes her a favorite family physician, media personality, author, speaker, and social influencer. A mom of four boys, she inspires audiences with relatable stories and easy tools to develop crucial life skills in children ages 2-22.

Her work with the deaf community has received national recognition and was the focus of her service as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow and she has received multiple awards for clinical excellence in teaching, including the Alpha Omega Alpha Volunteer Clinical Faculty Award as a Clinical Associate Professor for the University of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine.

Dr. G is the author of multiple books including Get the Behavior You Want Without Being the Parent You Hate! (Demos Publishing) and parenting activity books focusing on building her 3R’s of Parenting: Respect, Responsibility and Resilience.