Don’t Just Pay for Chores. Pay for Performance.

‘Tis the season of chore-time slackerdom.

School is starting again, practice for fall sports is in full swing, and, inevitably, it’s simply no longer possible for children of any age to empty the dishwasher or take out the garbage. There, like, just isn’t enough time, and what parent has the time to police them anyway?

So here’s a motivational solution from Julie Clarke, a mother of two in San Jose, Calif.: Pay for performance. In her house, she and her husband hand out $40 a month to each of their two daughters when they do an adequate job. But Katherine, who is 12, and Lauren, 8, can earn $60 each if they exceed expectations or they can receive $20 or even nothing at all if there’s a lot of reminding and whining along the way.

I have never been a fan of paying kids to do chores. To me, chores are something that everyone in the household should do in exchange for getting to live there. If the parents don’t get paid, then the children shouldn’t either. Allowance is something altogether separate to my mind — a way to teach kids how to use money.

Polls of American parents have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of mothers and fathers don’t see it this way. Which is all well and good until the kids decide they don’t need any more money, and the parents have to decide whether to excuse them from all the chores they then refuse to do.

But this hasn’t happened in the Clarke household yet. If you don’t think it would happen in yours, given the amount of stuff your kids will want to buy over time and the list of things you make them pay for themselves, then the Clarke compensation system is worth testing in your home.

Here’s how it works:

First, the list of chores: Make the bed, get the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and be ready for school on time. In the afternoon, empty the lunchboxes, refill the water bottles and walk, feed and clean up after the family’s Maltese-poodle mix. (Mom and Dad spare the girls the task of deer and wild turkey excrement removal.) Other duties include emptying the dishwasher, helping with dinner, folding and putting away laundry, and practicing piano. The girls split walking and cleaning duties for the dog, and at dinner one tends to help with prep and the other with cleaning.

Ms. Clarke and her husband came up with the system for two reasons. “I don’t have the time, patience or capacity to manage every single thing they do,” she said. “I was never the mommy with a sticker chart for peeing in the potty or the one who gave points for doing chores. I wanted a holistic approach to the month.”

She also had distinct memories of the first time an employer evaluated her. “It’s a hard lesson to learn when you go into the work force. `What do you mean I’m not getting a great bonus?!’ ” she said. “I want them to learn this earlier rather than later.”

The biggest evaluative factor is attitude, especially given that Katherine is on her way to becoming a teenager. The need for nagging, or lack thereof, is high on the list as well. Being proactive wins special notice too, like when Lauren picked up the slack when Katherine had surgery. It was nice of her, though perhaps it wasn’t entirely selfless. “She was totally working it,” Ms. Clarke recalled, laughing.

The girls get feedback throughout the month, as needed. Eye-rolling, drama or the need for frequent reminders will lead to a verbal warning that the payout is trending downward. The results tend to be evenly spaced too, with the pair earning $40 each about half the time and getting the bonus or the lowest amount 25 percent of the time each. They don’t always get the same amount, and occasionally they get nothing if the month has been particularly rough. Their father, Gary, a true-to-form geometry teacher, wonders if a mapping diagram for proper chore completion might improve their success rate.

So far, the family’s approach has not proven enormously popular beyond its own walls. Ms. Clarke, who works in marketing for a technology company, mentioned it at a parenting workshop once, and the people in the room didn’t quite take to it. Some of them said that it could never work for them, since their kids simply won’t do their chores unless a parent is hovering and constantly reminding them, bonuses or not.

Others didn’t like the idea of posting chore scores as if they were ice-skating judges. “I remember one mother who said she could never do it, and I know her two boys, and I can tell that one is going to be a lawyer and one is going to be in sales,” Ms. Clarke said. “I would start them right now based on those personalities. They’ve already learned how to work their mom so well.”

Some parents may question the size of the Clarke kids’ allowance, given that it amounts to nearly $15 a week during high-performance months. But the Clarke adults budget only for the after-school and summer activities they can afford and require the girls to spring for the rest. Katherine, for instance, pays for half a week at overnight camp.

Lauren, who’s a gymnast, recently split the cost of a used mat with her parents, drawing from the $1,200 she had saved. And if she wants to take extra lessons aside from the one per week that her parents pay for, it’s on her. “It’s going to be about $100 per month, which she can afford, so she has to decide whether she really wants to do it,” Julie said. “I think it’s a pretty good question for an 8-year-old to have to answer.”

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Need Kids to Follow Instructions? Don’t Ask. Tell.

A year ago, I committed what is known as a “mom fail” (basically any false move committed during the act of mothering). Preparing my then-2½-year-old son to go out in the morning for a play date, I asked him, “Do you want to go to H.’s house?” Emphatically, he said no. “Well, we have plans; he’s expecting us,” I amended lamely. My son burst into tears, and no matter how I tried to spin it, he was adamant. Maybe he was tired; maybe the dark, cloudy morning visible from our windows was too uninviting. Whatever the case, I was now in the awkward position of having to drag him, kicking and screaming, down four flights of stairs (we lived in a walk-up) while also toting my younger boy, then an infant. So I canceled the play date (thus committing a “friendship fail,” too, all in one morning).

Inwardly I told myself that I would never do that again, but I was thinking in terms of specifics: I will never again ask my children whether they want to go on a play date that I have already arranged. Then I looked at the larger issue, which is my tendency to ask my kids almost everything. “Do you want to put on your shoes now?” “Should we have macaroni and cheese for dinner?” “How about you go brush your teeth?”

These are questions that present a problem if they are answered with no, because they are not really choices. If we’re going outside, we need shoes. If I’m preparing mac and cheese for dinner, that’s what we’ll be having. And we all know what happens when we don’t brush our teeth: cavities, hygiene issues and a future of dentist bills.

I know I’m not alone with my “Ask, Don’t Tell” approach. At the time of the Play date That Wasn’t, we were living in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for being a yuppies-with-strollers paradise, filled with parents who obsess over school districts, the local food co-op and the merits of buying a two-family home. While living there, I constantly overheard my fellow parents having conversations with their children that could maybe, perhaps, possibly be taken for coddling. “I understand you’re feeling upset,” I heard a mother tell her toddler at a playground in Prospect Park. “Just hit me as hard as you want until you feel better.”

At the time I thought this was outrageous and enjoyed recounting the story to our friends. But then I decided to stop throwing stones and examine the motivations behind my own parenting style.

Why was I resisting giving my sons directives? For one thing, I want them to feel that the world is their oyster, a blossoming of infinite opportunities in which they are never denied. Second, I never wanted to be that mother who yells orders at her children. And finally, I’d read that presenting choices to kids helps give them a sense of control and lessens the tendency toward meltdowns and temper tantrums.

Bibi Boynton, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in play therapy for children and parent coaching and has a private practice in Park Slope, calls the hesitation to set limits with children a “well-meaning mistake,” but stresses the importance of issuing directives and sticking to them — and emphasizes that parents can do so in a loving way. “By setting limits with your children using clear and nurturing language, you are in actuality providing children with the safety and consistency that they need to have all the freedom you want them to have,” Ms. Boynton explained. “That doesn’t mean you have to bark orders, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t sigh and commiserate when your child balks at tooth-brushing.”

Hmm. So instead of asking my older son about the play date with H., and then lamely trying to enforce a command that was disguised as a question, I could have stated it from the get-go: “We are going to H.’s house.” If he’d objected, I could have explained that we had a date and that I truly believed he would have a good time. I could have discussed his feelings and acknowledged them: “If you don’t like playing with H., we don’t have to in the future, but today we’ll keep our date and see how you feel afterward.”

“Children will appreciate you taking a moment to really connect with their feelings and verbalize them,” Ms. Boynton said. “And this sense of being understood will go a long way toward getting the job done.”

And as to the desire for my kids to see the world as limitless, it is the yearning of a loving mother, but there is a profound and obvious problem with it: The world is not limitless. On one side of the spectrum, limitations exist for even the richest, most privileged children. On the other side, there are kids in this country and the world who face limitations every day that range from the relatable to the unthinkable. All children need to learn that their fellow human beings face obstacles — some of them seemingly impossible to overcome. How else will our kids be able to cope when they face obstacles of their own? And how else will they learn to push these boundaries, advocate for others and strive for a better world?

If that sounds like a concept that’s too complex, not to mention heartbreaking, to teach our children, I’m counting on it being a learning curve that unfolds over decades, and a lesson that can begin with a simple command: “It’s time for you to brush your teeth.”

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10 Secrets Every Parent Needs to Know About Saying No

Last week, we explored why kids don’t jump to it (Obedience: Why Do You Have To Tell Them Five Times?) when we ask them to do something, as part of my series Are Kids Today Spoiled and Undisciplined?  Many parents told me that post helped them understand conflicts from their child’s perspective, which made it possible to find some common ground and more cooperation. As always, a few parents advocated more harshness: “Parents just need to learn to say No and back it up with punishment!” But even many parents who are committed to loving guidance wondered, “How can I say No if I don’t resort to threats?”

This is, of course, the million dollar question. But it is indeed possible to get kids cooperating, without resorting to yelling, threats or harshness.  The secrets?


1. Kids only listen to us because of who we are to them.  Our influence depends on their connection to us. If your child won’t listen, start by consciously connecting. Strengthen your relationship by:

  • Looking for every opportunity to empathize, especially as you set limits and redirect. “That looks like so much fun….You love racing your truck around the house….And I’m worried that crashing it like that could scrape up the wall, so we need to find a safe place to crash it.”
  • Committing to 15 minutes minimum of one-on-one Special Time to connect with each child daily.
  • Roughhousing to get your child laughing every single day.
  • Welcoming his tears when he needs to cry, even when it’s because you’re saying no.

Within a week of this focus on connecting, you’ll see your child start to pay more attention when you ask for his cooperation.

2. Kids accept our direction when it’s part of the routine because that’s just the way life is. “We always clean up the toys before dinner. That’s the rule.” Kids may not love these rules, but if we cheerfully insist on them, they’ll become habits, like washing hands after using the bathroom, or doing homework before playing.

3. Kids accept our requests when they realize, through experience, that the limit is firm. If they learn they can always adjust our limits, they will naturally challenge them every time. That doesn’t mean you can’t listen to their arguments and reconsider. (You want them to get good at finding win/win solutions.) But once your mind is made up, be kind but firm. Get in their physical space in a pleasant, humorous way, so that ignoring you isn’t an option. “Hey, didn’t you hear me?  Time to clean up now.  Let’s drive that dump truck to the toy box.”

4. Kids accept our limits when we accept their desires, and their anger, sadness or disappointment about our limits. They don’t have to like our limits; they just have to follow them.  Once they express their desire and their unhappiness, they can more easily accept the limit and move on. “You wish you could play for ten more hours, right? You could play all night. It’s hard to stop playing and clean up. Want to growl while we clean up to show me how snarly you feel? Let’s have a growling contest while we put the stuffed animals back on the shelf.”

5. Kids follow our requests when they don’t feel pushed around. Avoid initiating a power struggle. Find a way to give a choice, and some autonomy. “It’s time to clean up now.  Do you want to drive the cars into the box, or airlift them in?”

6. Kids follow our requests when we transform them into something fun and inviting.  You can make a game out anything, and no kid can resist an invitation to play.  Let the trucks have a race to the toy box. Use funny voices. Have a contest about who can clean up fastest. Pretend you’re the wrecking crew. Tell a story while you clean up about a kid who hated to clean up. Can you do this every time? No, unless you’re superhuman.  Every parent has days when they’re just too exhausted to make things fun.  But if you do this when you can summon up the energy, it will make a big difference.

7. Kids follow our requests when they’re age-appropriate.  Most five year olds can’t clean up by themselves. Even if you think he “should” know how, he needs your company to stay on task. When we clean up with our kids, over and over, and make it enjoyable, they eventually learn to take pleasure in making their space orderly. But usually for young children, the only pleasure in cleaning up is the connection with the parent — so make the most of that connection to inspire the clean-up.

8. Kids accept our limits when they see we care about their happiness. “I know you don’t want to destroy this tower you worked so hard on.  We usually clean everything up at night, but let’s leave your tower up to enjoy. And if we hurry with the rest of the clean-up, we’ll have time for an extra story.”

9. Kids accept our direction because they trust us to make rules that support their well-being. That trust is established by the way we interact with them every day. “We clean up so we don’t trip over the toys and break them. And so we have a clear space to play tomorrow.”

10. Kids accept our NO because they feel our deeper YES.  Kids will do almost anything we request if we make the request with a loving heart.  Find a way to say YES instead of NO even while you set your limit. “YES, it’s time to clean up, and YES I will help you and YES we can leave your tower up and YES you can growl about it and YES if we hurry we can read an extra story and YES we can make this fun and YES I adore you and YES how did I get so lucky to be your parent? YES!”  Your child will respond with the generosity of spirit that matches yours.

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