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Learning from Natural Consequences—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Chores are supposed to make a child feel valued and competent, right? My fifteen-year-old has to be reminded and reminded to take out the recycling. This is the same routine every week!

It takes so much of my energy to get him to do it that I’m often tempted to do it myself. If he’s already gone to bed without doing it, that’s what I end up doing anyhow.

Not My Job

Dear NMJ,

Yes, chores should do exactly what you said – instill confidence through appreciation from the other members of the household and self-satisfaction from handling the job. Children, teens, unlaunched adult children, as well as spouses and long-term house guests should be included in the household operations. Once the division of chores has been decided – by rotation, by lottery, by choice – you might need to give a quick reminder the first time or two, and a demonstration or assistance if needed. Then you should step back. It’s not your job, it’s his.

Natural Consequences

The Behaviorist theory of human motivation suggests that we will repeat actions for which we have experienced a reward. Likewise, we are less liable to repeat an action if there was an unpleasant consequence. Natural Consequences can take advantage of an unpleasant consequence that the parent has nothing to do with.

For example, if a child has been told and shown how to dress appropriately to play in the snow, but leaves his gloves behind, the natural consequence is cold fingers. The unpleasant experience is recorded in memory which serves to remind him to wear gloves the next time he goes out to play in the snow. If you run out after him with his gloves, there is no unpleasant consequence for him to experience.

If your teen has been successful with the task of taking out the recycling before, it’s obvious that he is capable of doing it. Your reminders only serve to annoy him. He can be successful at avoiding feeling annoyed by not paying any attention to you. And in the end, you take out the recycling once he’s gone to bed anyway.

This is working just fine for him, but it isn’t working for you.

Let it Go

I’ll assume that taking out the recycling is his permanent job rather than a rotation. What would happen if it didn’t get done at all? (In other words – you don’t do it for him.) Let’s imagine the recycling piling up in your kitchen container for a second week or more.

Instead of a reminder for him to do this chore for the family, make a casual observation about how full the bin is – maybe two days before the truck comes. At this time, he isn’t being nagged to do something right now, only sympathized with. “Gosh we drank a lot of juice this week. The cereal boxes barely fit in there!” This works especially well at the moment he’s struggling to put something in the bin himself.

Family Meeting

If at some point, you, and other members of the household if there are any, are affected by the overflowing bin in the kitchen, call for a family meeting. Initiate a discussion about the division of chores so they will be effectively carried out.

If your fifteen-year-old still prefers the recycling chore to others, ask what support he needs to be able to, literally, carry it out. If you ask why he chooses this job you might stumble upon the motivation he can summon in himself to get the job done. Is he an avid environmentalist? Replace the reminder to, “Take out the recycling” with, “Save the planet” as part of the routine of cleaning up from dinner the evening before the truck comes. Is he competitive? When it’s recycling time, mention a neighbor (maybe a household that includes a classmate of your son’s) who has much less or much more recycling out than your family does. Does he consider this an “easy” job? Sympathize with his difficulties with remembering to do the job on his own and ask if he notices how much easier it is to take out one week’s worth rather than two (or more).

The goal of a Behavioristic approach to solving this problem is to put the responsibility for this chore in your son’s hands. Your role is to guide him toward finding his own reward for doing the job all by himself.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Register for upcoming parenting workshops on Zoom!

  • February 23 “How to be the Perfect Parent”
  • March 9 “Why Do Children Misbehave?”

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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