Why I'm Strict About Chores And Screentime

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

No matter how much they complain, the kids know I won’t give in to their begging. I absolutely will not allow screentime, especially not during this pandemic summer, until they have completed all the tasks on their list. Their daily to-dos are attainable, and I leave it up to each kid to either do what I ask or not. It’s simple. They can do their work, including a chore, and have screentime in the late afternoon, or they can waste time complaining, accomplish only some (or none) of their tasks, and they can use the designated electronic time to finish their jobs.

I’m a former college teacher, and I have told my kids my philosophy many times when it comes to personal responsibility. I had many students who didn’t know how to work a washing machine, had never prepared their own meals, and didn’t have much common sense when it came to life skills. They wound up overeating unhealthy foods from the university cafeteria, and wearing some seriously dirty sweats to class.

I’d have students who would get ill and not know what steps to take, such as which medications to buy for each ailment or when it would be wise to see a doctor. They also would disappear from class for a week or so, never emailing me to tell me that they were sick. Then they’d show back up to class and ask the most ridiculous question, “Did I miss anything?” No, we didn’t do any work while you were gone. Insert eye roll.

I don’t blame them entirely. Why did their families not prepare for them for life outside the nest? It’s not that hard to scramble an egg or measure detergent, yet some didn’t have these skills. (Even my seven-year-old can operate the washing machine properly.) When their parents did everything for them, including wash their underwear and make them an after-school sandwich, they taught their children a skill, and it’s not one to be proud of: entitlement. Newsflash: that’s not how college or the real world works. Nobody is getting coddled by their professors or bosses.

Because of my experiences, I have made sure that my kids understand that personal responsibility, teamwork, and communication matter. Chores are an excellent way to teach children this trifecta. Each of my four children has a chore a day, and they’re expected to do it. Not only must they do their chore, but they have to do it “all the way” or “correctly” as I tell them. For example, unloading the dishwasher involves putting the dishes in the cabinets, not just piling the dishes on the countertop. Taking out the trash means gathering trash from all the trash cans in the house, not just most or a few of them. Once collected, the bag needs to be placed in the big pickup container in the garage.

Chores are certainly not fun, but I remind my kids that I don’t have enough time to do all the chores myself, nor are they solely mine or their dad’s job. Everyone in the house wears clothes and uses a bath towel, so they can all help do laundry. All of them use dishes, so they can help with meal-prep or snack clean-up. Everyone sleeps in a bed, so they can take care of washing, drying, and replacing their sheets. When the job is too difficult for them, we can buddy up and do it together. What I’m not doing is taking it upon myself to be the family maid. No way, not happening.

A friend of mine once warned me not to wait until my kids are older to teach them basics, like how to run the vacuum. Trying to teach obstinate tweens or “ too busy” teenagers how to dust for the first time only results in eye rolls. Teach them young, she told me.

I’m so glad I did. First, little kids find chores fun, especially if it involves machinery (hello, vacuum) or water (rinsing dishes). Second, teaching my younger kids to get involved early on put chores on their radar and as part of their daily routine. I didn’t have to unteach bad habits.

This isn’t to say we’re cleaning up our house Mary Poppins style, with cheery songs and even cheerier attitudes. My kids still grumble. However, they also know that I do not play. They have a choice: do their work and enjoy their screentime or jack around and then use their electronic time to finish their incomplete tasks. It makes absolutely no difference to me.

Chores give my kids something to be proud of, especially during a pandemic where we are spending all day, every day at home. They’re contributing to the household, and they aren’t vegging out on screens all day (which makes for really bad attitudes). Inactivity makes kids real cranky. Meanwhile, they’re learning life skills as well as that mom’s life purpose isn’t to clean up everyone else’s messes. Holding off on screentime until the chores are done is a win-win.

We’ve also ditched the battles. I don’t use their screentime as a threat for their choices or attitudes. The rules are crystal clear. The daily chore chart is posted in the kitchen. Most importantly, the responsibility is put on them. All choices have consequences, and my kids get to decide if they’d rather diddle-dawdle or take care of business so they can enjoy some mindless screen entertainment.

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