Care and Feeding

Closing the Wiggle Room

My child does well at school, but he avoids chores at all costs. How do we teach him to be a team player?

Photo illustration of a boy wearing headphones. He is positioned with his back to a hand holding out a mop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How can I tell if I’m the asshole or if my kid is the asshole?

My 9-year-old son is “one of the best behaved” kids in class, never gets in trouble at school, does all his homework and schoolwork, and practices his instrument (though with some prodding). Sounds like a great kid, huh?

So why do I feel like he’s being a jerk when he seems to be so uncooperative at home? He won’t help around the house and finds excuses to not do what we (husband and I) ask him to do (“I’ll do it later,” “in a minute,” “after I do this”) ALL. THE. TIME. I’m finding it personally offensive because I feel like he doesn’t care about the family unit. Charts, rewards, etc. don’t seem to work—all he does with rewards is to try and bargain for a better deal (“well instead of an extra 5 minutes of screen for helping do this, can I get 10 minutes?”). We can be firm and set down the rules and the deal, but he’ll whine and argue about it for days, and then try and convince us that we said something we did not.

He’s our only child, so I wonder if we are being the jerks by always trying to MAKE him do things that are not JUST for him, or is he the asshole for driving us crazy? Are we being too strict, or is he an early sociopath? I’m less lenient than the husband, but we do in general remain consistent in our requests—or demands, as it ends up.

Any advice on helping us cope or getting his ass in line?

—Who Is the Asshole Here?

Dear WItAH,

It is with great relief that I inform you that there are no assholes here. At least not yet. The trick is going to be keeping it that way.

So far, all you have on your hands is a child and parent at cross-purposes. Your son is a master obfuscator: a person who has become skilled at finding the crevices in anyone’s statements and using those to his advantage. And make no mistake, his definition of “advantage” is to not work, not have to work, not be made to work, and not to be held accountable for a lack of work. The fact that he’s doing well at school indicates he’s not entirely incapable of toeing the line, so it’s more likely that he’s simply using the increased freedom and flexibility of home as a practicing ground for some of his more advanced work-avoidance strategies.

And here’s where the trouble lies. Your dude is most assuredly working out how to not work. And probably sometime around middle school, this pattern will start to show up in his academic life, especially once he finally realizes that teachers can’t make him do stuff just like his parents can’t. And then you’re on a downhill slope to pitiful GPAs and attempts to leave school early and maybe take “online” courses. There’s no guarantee that a) this will happen or b) you can stop it, but my own experience with a kid not unlike the one you’ve described here has taught me a few things.

Master obfuscators like to make the simple into the complicated. Your job then, as the counter-obfuscator, is to keep the simple, very simple. You say please do this chore at some point; he leans way into that some point to make it seem as though he was always just about to. If you say, however, “take the trash out by 5:30 p.m.,” then there is no debate. If it’s 5:30 and the trash isn’t out, he didn’t do it. This is the kind of clarity and simplicity obfuscators need in order to be held accountable. And make no mistake, part of our role as parents is to teach them how to be held accountable. It’s an unpleasant part, but an important one. All kids, but most especially boys who may become men, need to learn how to accept being held accountable.

This is specifically so they can be kept from becoming assholes, of which we clearly don’t need more.

Which brings us to you. You must also be on guard from becoming your own asshole. It is true that your son has made a habit of avoiding accountability. But I want to propose a few alternate ways of looking at this. He’s 9 years old: It is not abnormal for him to be self-absorbed and to prioritize his own wants and needs over his responsibilities as a member of the collective. It is a childish thing to do, which is great because he is, in fact, a child. Of course, you work consistently to change that, but what you don’t want to do is treat his natural behavior like a personal and specific attack on your values. It is not that. It is just immaturity.

Second, it might help to remember that his cleverness and cunning are actually strengths as much as they are annoyances. He’s a bright kid who is learning through trial and error how to get what he wants from life. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing and should not be disciplined out of him. Intelligence is his superpower, and like with all superpowers, he must learn how to use it correctly. Be clear with him about what his tasks are. Hold him to them with gentle consistency. Lead by example, and try not to take his behavior so personally that you become overly combative or abusive. In good time, I think it will turn out that you are raising a wonderful and responsible member of the human race.

More Care and Feeding:

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I’m the White Parent of a Biracial Child, and My Father-in-Law Uses the N-Word a Lot. What Should I Do if My Son Starts Saying It, Too?

My 11-Year-Old Still Sleeps in Our Bed

Slate Plus Bonus: Can I Cut My Sister Out of My Life?

Dear Care and Feeding,

This has been an extraordinarily difficult year for my little family involving serious mental illness, a restraining order, a move, and a divorce. Things have finally started to calm down, and my 5-year-old son has been so resilient through all of this, but I’m unsure of how to handle one aspect of our new reality. As a result of all this mess, my son and I are now living on my salary alone, which is less than half of what our household income was previously. We weren’t wealthy, but were able to afford to eating out sometimes and swim lessons and treats and a big Christmas and other experiences that cost money. I make enough now to cover our basic needs, but not much more. For the last few months, as we’ve been in survival mode, I’ve been floating by on savings, but it’s time to start living within our means. How do I handle this with my son? He is very perceptive and will need a real reason for why we can’t buy/do things that we used to be able to do, and I don’t want to just constantly say we don’t have money for things, especially for activities we used to enjoy together (it’s easier to say no to “stuff”). I also don’t want to explain things in a way that will instill any negativity toward his dad. How do I handle this with him?

—Broken Open

Dear BO,

I don’t know that it’s easier to “just say no” without talking about money, and in fact your letter proves that. As you point out, it is in fact very difficult to give a child an answer without an explanation, and as they grow, it only becomes more difficult. I think it’s perfectly fine to say, “We don’t have the money.” This is not a concept to hide or be ashamed of. I was raised with my mother telling me that we didn’t have the money for things, and I have had to tell my kids on countless occasions that we don’t have the money. It’s the truth, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I do think your instinct to talk about this situation without shit-talking your child’s other parent is a good one. But the two things—being honest about lack of money and telling your child his dad is a monster who has ruined both of your lives—are not by any necessity connected. As a general rule, one good post-divorce strategy I’ve learned is that while there are plenty of feelings and resentments (both justified and unjustified) to go around, by no means is it appropriate to use my kids as a place to process or work through these feelings. Friends, family, therapists are there for this. The kids must be kept out of it. The only exception comes when and if my former partner’s behavior is harming my child and that child needs validation that what they are experiencing with the other parent is real and not imagined. Only then might I carefully share with my child the nature of some of the difficulties I experienced with their other parent. But in all things, the priority is the preservation of the child first.

My advice is to tell your son that since the divorce, things are a little different, you don’t have as much money as you did, and that you are working to change that. Then tell him that you and his father both love him, and that he will always be taken care of. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 3. My husband and I aren’t extreme nudists, but we sleep in various forms of undress and venture back and forth to the shower that way. The toddler seems generally unfazed by this when he comes to our room in the mornings. When does nudity and small people become Not OK? My general sense is that bodies are really pretty normal things to have around, but I’m guessing it gets weird at minimum due to socialization at some age? I suppose I could just wear pajamas or a robe and not overthink it, but I’m also kinda curious! Is there a right way to manage this without going from “hey healthy bodies are whatevs” to “hide yourself, slattern!”

—The Naked Truth

Dear TNT,

There is nothing wrong with nudity. It is great that you feel that, and this means that there is an increased likelihood that, through osmosis if nothing else, you will help your kid grow with a healthy critical eye toward our society’s weird double standards and bad-faith arguments about the human body. There will, however, be a very clear moment at which your family will have outgrown shared nudity. It is the precise moment your kid says, “JFC, mom can you please put some clothes on?!”

It will be coming sooner than expected. Keep the robe handy.