Jack and Anika made a short list of daily and weekly tasks that are just part of keeping oneself healthy and acceptable and keeping one’s house in order. The daily list included showering, tooth brushing, putting laundry in the hamper, and doing homework. The weekly list included making up their beds with clean sheets, straightening up and vacuuming their rooms, and doing one chore from a rotating list of general household tasks (vacuuming common space, washing the kitchen floor, cleaning a bathroom). They agreed one of them would help the 7-year-old but that the other two were old enough to do a good enough job on their own.

In recognition that Jack also had a point — that kids need to learn how to earn — an additional chore list was created for paid tasks. Since the kids were so young, these jobs were defined as “assisting,” not doing. These were jobs that either parent was glad to pay for having company and assistance. No surprise, tasks such as shoveling snow, big garden projects, washing windows, cleaning the garage or basement or attic made this list. They set a fair price for assisting with either all or part of the jobs and agreed to offer them to the kids before they hired the teenager down the street or resigned themselves to doing such chores alone.

Then came the hard part: Talking about what to do if the kids balked. For daily hygiene tasks, the consequence was simple. Anika and Jack already spent some alone time with each boy before he went to bed. It was a time that each boy saw as special. They agreed that if daily tasks weren’t done, they would regretfully decline to have the nightly bedtime story or talk. People who “stink” aren’t people they wanted to get close to for a cuddle or chat.

For weekly chores, they agreed that it made a kind of sense to teach the kids that one hand does wash the other in a lively household. If the kids didn’t do their jobs, perhaps they could stop doing some of theirs – like giving the boys rides or agreeing to have their friends come over. As long as such consequences are stated without anger but rather as a matter-of-fact result of behavior, they are surprisingly effective.

One way to surprise kids into paying attention in situations like this is to apologize for not teaching them as we should. The couple agreed to hold a family meeting to make their heartfelt apologies and to explain the new system. They made up the daily and weekly chore lists to post on the fridge. They decided to introduce a big word –k reciprocity — and to explain that some things just have to be done because it’s what people who care about each other and themselves do and do without complaint. So they wouldn’t fall into nagging about the lists, they decided they would tell the boys they would only be reminded once. If someone didn’t feel like doing his job, mom and dad wouldn’t feel like doing something they decided was proportionally inconvenient. There was no point in anyone getting mad. A deal is just a deal.

When I checked in several weeks later, Anika was cautiously optimistic. The boys were generally cooperating. Each had tested her or Jack once by refusing. Both of them had managed to hold to their end of the deal and to calmly say “Okay. But that means no rides today. You have an hour to change your mind or not. It’s up to you.” Each time, the boy had “changed his mind.” Everyone stayed friendly and life went on.

I asked for Jack to get on the phone too. He was especially happy with the system because he didn’t have to get mad to get things done. Best of all, he and Anika felt like they were working well together as parents for the first time in a long time.