Dear Rachel,

My 14-year-old daughter refuses to help with household chores. Even her younger siblings do more than she does. In order to get her to help with the smallest thing (like set the table), I have to ask her so many times that it just isn’t worth it—it’s faster, easier and less painful to just do it myself. Her 16-year-old sister is just the opposite, always willing to help when asked and even before she’s asked! The trouble is that the older one ends up doing far more than her share, and even though she says she doesn’t mind, I feel that it’s very wrong. How can I turn my lazy, self-centered youngster into a responsible and caring member of this household?

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated,

As your letter demonstrates, each child is a world unto herself, with her own G‑d-given strengths and weaknesses. While the older one is not challenged by household tasks, the younger one obviously is. Just as you (hopefully!) have compassion for your own weak points, cutting yourself some slack and lowering your expectations, you need to do the same for her. Or, as the sage Hillel put it, “Don’t treat others the way you yourself don’t want to be treated,” which in this case means, don’t hold this daughter to a standard that is unreasonable for her. In other words, while you help her through this challenge, don’t aim to turn her into her sister or even into a “responsible and caring member of the household.”

Considering her natural temperament, adjust the goal to something more attainable. For instance, it is probably reasonable to expect her to

  1. do what you ask her to do after you’ve asked her just once or twice; or
  2. help with a few specified chores each week.

However, it is not reasonable to expect her, at this stage of the game, to

  1. anticipate what is needed and eagerly hop to it like her older sister; or
  2. develop a set of feelings like “caring.” Even if she doesn’t “care,” she needs to do more household tasks. Hopefully, the caring part will develop when she has a family of her own or when she matures.

Meanwhile, let’s see how you might get her to achieve the two goals mentioned above:

  1. Specify her chores. For example, give her three weekly chores: setting the table on Friday nights, bringing grocery bags into the house after your regular Tuesday afternoon shopping expedition, and emptying the dishwasher every Sunday night. Fulfilling these three tasks without needing to be nagged or even reminded would be a reasonable goal for her.
  2. Don’t expect her to do unspecified chores. Although there are some 14-year-olds who can completely run a home, she is not one of them. This means that you can’t expect her to do extra things like clearing papers off the table, taking the garbage can in from the curb, clearing the front hallway, putting frozen goods in the freezer, or anything else.
  3. Ask once. What you can do is ask for her help for any of these tasks—but you can only ask once. It should sound something like this: “Sweetie, would you mind bringing the laundry basket down to the machine for me?” If she does it, offer gratitude and praise: “Thank you so much, Honey! That was very helpful of you.” But if she doesn’t do it, say no more and get someone else to do it or do it yourself. The idea here is to keep the whole notion of doing housework and childcare as pleasant as possible. This means no nagging, criticizing, lecturing or otherwise fanning the fires of negativity.
  4. Be generous with your praise. When other members of the household do pitch in, express your praise and appreciation loudly and clearly. Let your daughter see and hear your pleasure when others offer assistance and participate appropriately.
  5. Be positive. During this training process, be sure to offer as much general positive attention to this child as possible. Smile, joke around, talk about interesting things you saw or read. Follow the 90-10 Rule (9 out of 10 communications need to feel good to the adolescent). People are more willing to help those they like than those they resent or dislike; when she sees that you’re being positive to and around her, she will hopefully develop a desire to please you by helping you more.
  6. Be empathic. Interestingly, empathy for negative feelings is received as a very positive communication. So if your daughter makes a face when you ask her to do one of her three chores, your empathic response (“I know, Honey, it’s not your favorite thing to do!”) will make her feel closer to you. Other similar responses to balking include, “I know you hate it,” “I know this isn’t your thing,” “Next time I buy a house, it will be self-cleaning—who wants to do this stuff?” and so on. Light humor is fine if you know it will be accepted (no sarcasm or ridicule of course!).
  7. Be soft . . . If your daughter doesn’t do one of her tasks, go right up to her, look her softly in the eye, and quietly and kindly ask her to go do it now, as it is waiting for her (e.g., “Sweetheart, the bags are still on the floor in the hallway. Can you please take care of them right now?”). Remember, as our sages teach, “The words of the wise are heard when softly spoken.” Keep anger and irritation out of the picture.
  8. . . . Yet firm. If, despite all your kindness, she still routinely “forgets” or neglects to do her tasks, let her know that in the future, neglect of a task will result in a consequence. “If you don’t do it, then I have to do it myself, which is fine, but because I had to do that, I will not (name a consequence here, like drive you to your friend/take you to the mall/do that errand you asked me to do/make your lunch/give you your allowance/buy you those shoes you asked for, etc.).” Pick one consequence each time and offer the rationale “People will always go the extra mile for you when you gladly help them out, but you'll find that people, including mothers, need to know that their relationships are mutual, where both people give and take. No one wants to be the only one giving."

    It’s important to convey that her lack of reciprocity has consequences. It will not be good for her if you end up resenting her because she maintains an unhelpful, self-centered stance. Instead, continue to be the educator, showing her that she has an active role in creating healthy, happy relationships. Again, skip the lectures and anger. This will never work. Instead, communicate softly and compassionately if you need to set these kinds of boundaries.

Teens must be treated more like adults than like little children. Overpowering this age group usually results in further rebellion and total loss of parental influence. Build your relationship, show respect, convey love and demonstrate disappointment or hurt. Hopefully, your daughter will soon be doing more of her share around the house!