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Washing the dishes on the kitchen sink

House chores - Washing the dishes on the kitchen sink

I heard my husband remind our daughter at least twice to make the school lunches for the next day. Each time, we heard the same “okaaaay,” from behind a closed bedroom door.

If you have raised or are living with teenagers, perhaps you’re not terribly surprised to learn that the lunches never got made that evening. We discovered that the next morning at breakfast and were offered a timeless explanation: I forgot.

It was the second day in a row this task had been forgotten despite the reminders. We were frustrated and informed our daughter that she would not be allowed to drive to school for the remainder of the week in an attempt to impress upon her memory this simple chore.

Guess who gets stuck driving busy teenagers everywhere when you take away their car? It feels like you’re really just punishing yourself, but maybe it’s also a way to teach accountability and consequences.

I was still stewing over that morning’s exchange when I was seated next to a former school counselor at an event that evening. She had worked in a suburban high school for more than a decade and now served as director of student services in another district. Her own son had recently graduated. I expected a sympathetic ear and perhaps some useful advice when I asked her how to get two high schoolers to remember to do daily chores without having to hassle them. I’m not talking heavy lifting here — just helping put away the dishes, keeping up with the laundry, taking out the trash, walking the dog, making lunches, picking up after themselves — basic life functions.

Her response surprised me more than unmade lunches.

Forget it, she said. Let it go during the week.

High schoolers are more overworked, stressed, sleep deprived and over scheduled than we were growing up. They are taking more Advanced Placement classes and spending more hours in extracurricular activities, while entrenched in social media to stay connected socially. During her son’s high school years, she stopped expecting much in the way of chores during the week. He would help out when he could on weekends.

She advised me to take a similar approach.

For those of us who grew up with tons of responsibility and far greater expectations of household contributions, this can be a difficult idea to embrace. It seemed radical to me, and I worried I might be doing them a disservice by lowering expectations. How will they learn responsibility, I asked. How will they learn to manage time and function in the real world?

She suggested I take a hard look at their schedules. Both of them stay after school every day for at least a couple of hours for their activities, then they have several hours of homework each night. This is high school life now, she said. When do they get downtime? Why add to all the stress?

I started asking other parents of high schoolers, and I heard similar remarks: When do they have time during the week to do chores? After all, adults who work such long hours often try to outsource as many chores as possible.

The sad truth is many teens are coming of age in a broken, time-starved system. Adolescent depression, mental distress and anxiety are increasing at alarming rates.

That night I mentioned the counselor’s comments to my husband. He agreed that our punishment was a little harsh. Then, I talked to our daughter, who is in her challenging junior year of high school. I asked if she wanted me to take over making the sandwiches at night. She responded no, that it only takes a few minutes and that she would try harder to remember. But she seemed to appreciate the acknowledgement that she’s juggling a lot.

We still ask our kids to help out in the small ways family members should pitch in to keep a household running. But, when they forget or fall asleep right after getting home or the laundry piles up in their rooms, we’ve backed off the nagging and punitive responses. We’ve shifted some responsibilities to the weekend when they are motivated to get tasks done before they are allowed to go out and socialize.

The next day, I made their lunches, and she drove to school.