Care and Feeding

We’ve Never Asked Our Tween to Do Chores. Is It Too Late to Start?

We don’t want him to grow up expecting everyone else to do the dirty work!

A messy, unmade bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife is a surgeon, and I work full-time outside the home (we’re both women). Though we could financially make it work if I wanted to stay home full-time, I really enjoy my work, and we both thought it was important our three children see both moms as working adults. This arrangement only works because we outsource a lot of the domestic work around the house—laundry, cleaning, yardwork, etc.—to external folks. We do this so we can spend the little time we all have together bonding and having quality time, as opposed to doing domestic work.

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Here’s the issue: My oldest son “Paul” (he’s 12) has seen this arrangement his entire life, and believes it’s completely normal for a maid to take care of all the housework. We messed up in not expecting him to make his bed or tidy his room—we never really taught those skills, and haven’t held him accountable. Most of his friends are far more adept at housework. I don’t want him to grow up expecting someone else to do all the “dirty work” for him, be it a maid or his future spouse. At the same time, my wife and I are dreading the thought of spending limited family time on dragging a 12-year-old through chores. He’s a good kid, but of course balks whenever we ask him to do work that we’ve never expected or asked of him before. Have we permanently created a non-self-sufficient kid? Is there a (relatively) painless way for us to turn this around?

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—Moms in Massachusetts

Dear Moms,

I don’t think this need be permanent, and it’s really good that you’ve now realized it’s an issue, because you have time to course-correct. You are going to have to give Paul chores and then deal with whatever his reaction is, but such is life and parenting! That doesn’t mean you need to “drag” him through endless hours of housework—as in most cases, there is middle ground. Just pick one or two basic cleaning skills to focus on at a time, and build on that.

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I’d probably start with having him make his bed and keep his room picked up, because it’s his space and it makes sense for him to learn to be responsible for it. When we’ve periodically hired cleaners to come in and help or do a deep clean, we have always kept to the rule that all the rooms need to be picked up before the housecleaners come in to dust and vacuum—it is not their job to pick our stuff up off the floor. Then continue by choosing one skill at a time to teach: setting the table. Loading and unloading the dishwasher. Vacuuming the rugs. Dusting a room. Doing a load of laundry. Cleaning the bathroom. Learning to cook a simple meal. Mowing the lawn or raking leaves, if applicable. Etc. You want him to learn all of it eventually, but of course he can’t be expected to learn everything at once.

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Obviously, you’re not going to make all of these tasks Paul’s responsibility; he should have a few chores at a time (for example: keeping his room reasonably picked up, doing his laundry weekly or biweekly, and loading the dishwasher after dinner). You can switch these out for other skills once he’s acquired more. And there’s no need to single him out—now that you’ve noticed this pattern with him, you can work on not perpetuating it with your other kids. Start teaching your two younger ones household chores as soon as they’re capable of learning, and give all your kids regular responsibilities based on what feels reasonable to you.

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I think you can be clear with your children about why they need to have these practical life skills: It’s for their own good! Unless you are planning on paying for their future service professionals, they probably will need to do all these things for themselves one day. As you said, you don’t want them expecting other people, in particular future roommates or partners, to clean up their messes and do all the domestic labor unaided. Additionally, I think it’s OK to help them understand how fortunate they are, and that most people can’t afford domestic help at all (personally, I know my children love it when I remind them that I had to wash all the family dishes without a dishwasher). You don’t need to try to make them feel guilty, of course, but a little reality/privilege check might help counter whatever unexamined feelings of entitlement have built up over the years.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mom to a 12-year-old boy. While I love him to pieces, we share a 1.5 bedroom apartment (one real bedroom, one large walk-in-closet turned bedroom), so it’s been months and months of trying to attend work and school Zooms simultaneously and struggling to have any personal space. I have been dating an amazing guy for four months now, but I haven’t told my son about him yet (he thinks he’s just my new friend). I’ve only officially introduced my son to one other serious boyfriend, whom he became very close with, and he was devastated when we split—so I’m not sure about introducing him to my new guy after just four months, although my boyfriend knows about him and is OK taking it slow.

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My boyfriend invited me to a romantic getaway at his cabin for two weeks this summer. My sister asked me if my son would like to visit her for a couple of weeks, any time this summer, since we’re all vaccinated. She and her husband have no kids and live a few states away on a farm in a rural area. The two weeks I’d be away with my boyfriend are also when they’d be happy to have him, and I’m really tempted to send him. My son loves his aunt and uncle, and I’m sure that two weeks taking care of animals, hiking, and fishing would be amazing for him after spending most of his time in a tiny room staring at a screen for the past year. And two weeks in a beautiful house with my boyfriend without anybody to walk in on us is super tempting to me. But I feel guilty about sending my son away by himself just to go on a couple’s trip, especially since I haven’t told him about my boyfriend. On the other hand, my son misses his aunt and uncle a lot and has been asking if they can visit, so this would probably be fun for him. Would I be a bad mom if I sent my son to my sister’s and told him I’m going on a vacation with my friends as well?

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—Desperate for Non-Tween Time

Dear Desperate,

Assuming that your son is also excited about visiting his aunt and uncle, I definitely think you should send him. You wouldn’t be doing so just so you can go on a trip with your boyfriend. As you say, this is for your kid, too—both of you will benefit from a getaway. And it’s important that you also have time to focus on your relationship and overall well-being.

I am generally Team Tell Your Kids the Truth—and I’d be surprised if the 12-year-old you’ve been sharing a small space with for over a year has zero suspicions about your new relationship, but maybe I’m wrong! In any case, if you aren’t ready to explain or introduce your boyfriend to him just yet, that’s your prerogative—it seems fine for now to tell him you’re going on a trip with a friend. It all depends on how comfortable you are with not telling your son the whole truth right now. If you think you might be nearing a point when you’d tell him about your new boyfriend anyway, you can always consider moving up the timeline a bit, so he knows before you travel. Whenever you do tell him, I think at 12 it’s possible to talk openly with him about how you’re not yet sure where this new relationship is going—and that whatever happens, you don’t want him to get hurt.

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• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I recently welcomed our first child. Choosing his name was incredibly difficult, but ultimately we found one we love. The problem is with his last name. I did not change my last name after we got married; I thought about hyphenating, but ultimately decided I didn’t want to—my name is my name and I don’t see a need to change it. My mom and I have different last names, and there was never an issue growing up. This bothered my husband for a while, but he either let it go or decided it wasn’t an issue. Even though I’m really sensitive about people using the incorrect last name when referring to me, when we were choosing names for our child it was a “no-brainer” that we would use my husband’s last name.

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About a month after giving birth, I started to feel sad that my child didn’t have any part of my name. It was one of those things I didn’t realize I cared about until after the fact. I asked my husband what he thought about legally adding my last name as a second middle name, but he shot me down. When I brought it up again, he said he’d “think about it.” We should agree on our child’s name, but I don’t understand his hesitation—his name is not more important than mine simply because it’s “traditional” to use the man’s last name. Do you have any advice on how I should handle this?

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—Fighting for Naming Rights

Dear Fighting,

You’re not even talking about hyphenating, or some other compound surname, or changing your child’s last name to yours—which would also be completely fine, by the way. You just want to give them a second middle name. Middle Name, Part B: something that would be very meaningful to you and your child, and really shouldn’t be a huge deal to anyone else. I don’t understand why your husband would initially shoot the idea down, and it’s really hard for me not to see that as a red flag. Even if he’s now “thinking about it,” it seems deeply regrettable that he’s turning this into a point of contention, something he either “lets” you do or doesn’t.

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You could try explaining to him just how important this is, if you haven’t yet done so in detail—depending on how it was initially put to him, it’s possible he doesn’t fully realize how much this means to you. If he does get that and he’s still unconvinced, it just seems like a massive failure in many areas, including empathy. In that case, I’d also ask him to explain his hesitation and tell you why it’s so important to him that your child not have your surname as any part of their name, effectively requiring him to own up to or attempt to justify what appears to be baseless sexism. If he realizes that he really doesn’t have any rational argument here, it’s possible that could encourage him to back down so that he doesn’t appear totally unreasonable.

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If you go through all this and he remains staunchly opposed, you might be stuck—I Am Not a Lawyer, But I believe in most cases in two-parent families you can’t legally change your child’s name without the other parent’s consent. Still, even if that’s where you land for now, I think it’s OK to talk with your kid, when they’re older, about why you considered making your name a part of theirs. You don’t necessarily have to share your husband’s opposition to the plan (although I’d be tempted to throw him under the bus, I’m petty like that); you could just state the fact: “At one time, I really wanted you to have my family name as a second middle name, because _____.” Your child might never elect to use or legally change their name to include yours, but at least they will know your intentions and why it was so important to you, and they can think about whether it might be important to them, too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 50+ child-free aunt and great-aunt. Although I’ve never wanted or had kids, I was a teacher of older teens (middle and high school) for over 25 years, and am now retired. I have time to spare, and had wanted to help my niece by babysitting my toddler great-niece. She said, in no uncertain terms, only another parent could watch her. I asked twice, got the same answer twice, so I won’t push the issue. I’m just wondering why. My niece has ADHD and very high anxiety, so much so it’s like the anxiety is a whole other person in the room, so I chalked it up to that, plus knowing this is her one and only very precious child. But it honestly felt like a slap in the face as a child-free person, as well as a teacher with vast experience with kids. I know I’m extremely capable of keeping a toddler alive, fed, hydrated, and entertained for a few hours! Is this common, to want only another parent to babysit? I mean, 20-to-25 percent of all teachers don’t have kids! What am I not seeing?

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—Confused in the Deep South

Dear Confused,

Yeah, I’m not going to be able to explain this one to you. Like many parents, I dream of the occasional free child care offer from relatives who are actually good with kids. I don’t think every teacher is necessarily a natural at child care, as those are two different jobs, but I’m not questioning you or your capability. And while every child is different and might do better or worse with various types of caregivers, I’ve never once heard other parents mention parenthood as a prerequisite for babysitting. All the babysitters I’ve hired have been child-free themselves.

If this is really hurting or bothering you, and/or harming your relationship with your niece, you can of course ask her for a more detailed explanation. But I suspect you already have your answer, or at least most of it: She’s feeling anxious. That is very real, and not necessarily something she can help. Given that, I would try hard not to take her child care stance personally, even if you disagree. It strikes us both as odd, but it’s a choice she has a right to make, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you or your abilities. Hopefully you can still spend time with and get to know your great-niece.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

We are moving from the overpriced Northeast city where I was born and raised to a slightly less expensive coastal city 1,200 miles away. This won’t occur until the end of the school year. My question is: When to tell my kindergartner son? I’m a former teacher who worked with a majority of international students, and I have seen kids “check out” of school and friendships once they find out they are moving, so I don’t want to tell him too early. I also don’t have any specific answers right now about where we will live exactly, his future school, etc. But we have already started telling our family and friends, and it seems unfair to keep this news from him.
I want him to be excited about the move, but I, myself, am not totally thrilled about it. Should I wait until I have more information to provide or just tell him now?

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