The father sitting across from me is genuinely bewildered. He doesn’t understand what his wife is talking about. The immediate issue seems to be what it takes to get their three boys (ages 10, 9, and 7) to clean their rooms on Saturday mornings.
“You talk to him,” Anika said to me. “I can’t get through. He just doesn’t get it that bribing the kids to clean their rooms is a terrible idea.”
“Hold on,” said Jack. “You wanted me to take charge of the Saturday chores and that’s what I’m doing. You have to admit that it’s getting done now.”
“Yeah. But only because you promise them a trip to Red Lobster for lunch if they do it.” Anika was barely keeping her voice civil.
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Jack. “I get paid money for work. They get paid with a lobster roll. I don’t see why we had to come to a counselor just about fish.”
Anika turned to me. “You see what I’m dealing with? He doesn’t get it. Two weeks ago, they were satisfied with McDonald’s. Now it’s Red Lobster. The oldest has started to lobby for a trip to get ice cream after lunch for him to keep cooperating. He says he doesn’t care what his room looks like so if his dad wants him to straighten it up, he has to make it worth his time. And the other two are following his lead. Where will it end?”
Jack shook his head. “I told the kids that they can’t get a pay increase every week. They have to do their rooms for a month without complaining to get more. I figure that’s fair.”
“Ho-boy,” I thought. “This is going to be difficult. Jack has a point that money makes the world go around. But Anika is right to be concerned. Their boys have already figured out they can negotiate more out of Dad – just for doing the very basic routines of life. Bribery does work. But I’m with Anika on this one. Where will it all end? Filet mignon at the Ritz? More important, what are the kids learning from the situation?”
I asked Jack how his parents got him to do things.
“My dad just gave us a kick or a hard slap if we didn’t do what he said. I promised myself if I had kids I’d never do that!”
So that was it. This very nice man didn’t want to hurt his kids — either physically or emotionally — as he had been hurt. But he hadn’t given his approach much thought beyond that.
Not surprisingly, Anika came from a very different kind of family. She was taught from early on that doing chores was just something that had to be done. Yes, she and her sister got treats now and then for doing an especially good job, but generally not for doing what was expected. Treats were a fun surprise, not a reward for doing what they should.
It frustrated her enormously that Jack felt doing work around the house was an imposition on their children. He thought adults should do the heavy lifting and that kids shouldn’t have to do much more than be reasonably polite and do their homework. He and his guys had a great time together. They all saw Anika as demanding and a bit of a drag. Anika felt unsupported by her husband and seriously outnumbered. She was also upset that she saw the boys developing into spoiled kids who felt the world owed them a living.
So we talked. We talked about whether Jack thought kids should be paid to do everything they don’t really want to do. Should they be paid off for brushing their teeth? For taking their dishes to the sink after dinner? For doing their homework? We talked about whether parents have the right to insist that their kids do some chores without sweetening the deal with a bribe. We talked about how he could have some authority without cash involved. Most important, we talked about why it is that the two of them –reasonable people who loved each other and their children — had difficulty agreeing about how to parent.
Looking back on our work together, I’m impressed that Jack put up with more than a couple of sessions. Having initially complained that Anika was dragging him in, he became an active participant in our conversations. It soon became clear that he hadn’t wanted to upset Anika. He did want his boys to be good workers and to not take their mother for granted. But he hadn’t really thought through the implications of bribery as his chief method for enlisting cooperation. Once he could take a step back from the argument, he was interested. Once he was interested, Anika could stop fueling her concerns with anger. They came to a new understanding of each other and started setting mutual parenting goals.
For our kids to function independently in the world, it’s our job as parents to lay in basic habits of daily living. That means keeping themselves presentable, knowing how to organize their stuff, and doing the basic routines of household maintenance just because they need to be done — not because we are bribing them. Once Jack and Anika could put aside their exasperation with each other, they could agree that bribes are at best a short-term solution for getting the kids to be clean and orderly. The downside is that the kids don’t internalize the habits that will sustain them throughout life.