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The Chore Wars

My wife and I understand the importance of chores. They teach responsibility, accountability, discipline, pre-planning, and the value of money.

Our four children, apparently, never got the memo.

We have tried many times, unsuccessfully, to create a chore system that works. Each attempt has gotten progressively more serious.

The length of this email is reflective of the months it took us to get it right.  If you value chores - but haven't quite cracked the code - it may be worth the read.

In military terms, we have now reached DEFCON 2 (Defense Condition 2: one step before maximum readiness for nuclear war).

Here is our journey to the brink of a nuclear chore war:

DEFCON 5 (lowest state of readiness): Just Tell Them
At first, we just told our kids what their chores were and expected them to do them. What a rookie mistake. Who were we kidding? It was a disaster. They claimed they didn't know what to do, wondered why they had to do X when their brother could do Y, insisted they were never told to throw out the trash, etc. It was pandemonium.

DECFON 4 (strengthened security measures): Promise Money
We then implemented a monetary incentive. For instance, do a great job and get paid $10, do a mediocre job and get paid $4. Done and done. Easy day. We thought this was a great way to teach that people often get paid for performance, not just by doing the bare minimum.

No luck. There were arguments about what constituted a "good job" versus "bad job". There were disputes about when the chore had to be completed to be considered "good". They quickly detected a weak correlation between their actual performance and what they were paid. They started wondering whether they cared enough about money anyway. It was like arguing with a clan of 1st-year law students.

DEFCON 3 (forces ready to mobilize in 15 minutes) The Chore Chart
Okay, we smartened up. This time I created a fancy spreadsheet which we posted on the refrigerator. It showed each chore, the specific duties of each chore, who was responsible for each chore during that week, and a drop-dead time for the chore to be completed to get full credit. Ha! Take that you argumentative brats. Long live the spreadsheet!

Swing and a miss! Still, the arguments persisted. This was in large part because of our inconsistent oversight and monitoring. Sometimes we just plain forgot to check the chores at all. Other times we checked, but gave only vague feedback and coaching. That gave us little authority to come down on them. We also often forgot to pay them because we didn't have the right denominations of money every Sunday night. We were expecting them to be diligent and consistent - and we were not modeling this behavior well.

DEFCON 2 (next step is nuclear war)
It was time to go all Navy SEAL on these kids. We were fed up with their shenanigans. We could barely get through dinner, homework, and hygiene - and the kids knew it. There were too many holes in our plan. It was time to break out the clipboard of woe. This was about to get real. The very sight of the clipboard sent shivers up my kids' spines. Anytime Dad took out the clipboard, he meant business.    

And lo and behold, we got compliance! A miracle to behold!

Here are the elements to the plan and why they've worked so far:

  1. Identify chore/child/day of week (Fridays is a no-chore day)
  2. Detail each task
  3. Divide chores into "bare minimum" and "bonus chores"
  4. A timestamped deadline for inspection to start (in our house, 8:30pm)
  5. A "comments" line to document positive and negative behaviors
  6. A signature line for parent and child
  7. Importantly, it is the child's responsibility to present the clipboard to the parent when they are "ready for inspection" (no longer was it the parents' responsibility to remember to check chores at 11pm). If they don't present the clipboard in time, they don't get credit.

Here's how it all goes down.

  • Child walks up to parent and says, "Mom/Dad, I'm ready for inspection"
  • Parent fills in the inspection request time (e.g. 8:12pm).
  • Parent reads aloud the first task
  • Parent and child look at the task and discuss thoroughness
  • Continue with every task while providing feedback
  • Parent assigns a grade for the chore (from A+ to F)
  • Signatures

That's it. With all of this pre-work done, the actual inspections only take about 2-3 minutes each.

On Sunday night, each child is summoned to the kitchen alone where we review, in detail, how they performed that week. We do this individually so there is no perceived favoritism or competition among the siblings.

There are no arguments because the child was involved every step of the way and signed off on their daily performance. The parent decides how much to pay the child based on their daily grades, attitude, and effort. Money is exchanged and we're off to the races.

Monday is when all the kids rotate jobs.

Obviously, we feel pretty strongly about chores. It took a lot of upfront effort to organize this system.

Also, these chores are not the only duties that the kids have around the house. There are always random "jobs" to do that are outside of "chores" (e.g. weeding, garbage cans, feeding dog, doing laundry, etc.). The kids don't get paid for these jobs. They are done as a contribution to the family. This is important so that the kids don't expect to get money every time they lift a finger. That doesn't fly either.

Admittedly, we are still in the early days of this new system, but the prospects look bright. 

I'm glad, because there's only one more step in the progression: DEFCON 1 (nuclear war is imminent), and I don't think the kids want to see where that will take them. The clipboard is child's play compared to what comes out if we go there...

I know this is a controversial topic with many different perspectives. Please leave feedback about your ups and downs with chores. Are we crazy? Is it normal to have to jump through these hoops to get chores done? Are we just bad parents? Or let us know where you see issues with our new system so we can make adjustments before it breaks down - again.

Prep On,

Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank, etc.

Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

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