Charting a New Course

by Brian on August 31, 2006

in A Parent in Israel

Did you ever hear any of the following in your house?

“It’s not my job, it’s his.”

“I cleaned the table last night.”

“I don’t have time to make my bed. I have to study for a test.”

Well, we certainly have, too many times, and after fourteen years of parenting it was getting a bit old. The same fights and arguments day after night after day.

It’s not that our kids were shirking their responsibilities per se. It’s just that we didn’t have an effective system to track, enforce and reward the desired behaviors. For any task, a parent would generally ask one of the kids on the spot.

In addition to opening the door to dissension, this approach created a general atmosphere of stress. Who’s going to get “picked” tonight, the kids would wonder (and so would their parents)? During dinner I could almost hear those brain cells calculating the latest cunning or creative excuse why someone else should wipe down the counters.

I take much of the blame myself. I’ve never been very good with discipline. Rather than sticking to my guns, when met with a determined teenager or a whining eight-year-old, I’ll opt for the easy way out.

“Sure, I’ll do the dishes,” I’ll mutter to myself. “Fine, I’ll sweep the floor.” After all, what’s a parent for if not to give his children a carefree unencumbered life?

My wife Jody, on the other hand, was of another mind entirely.

“They need to learn to do these things,” Jody said. “It will prepare them for life.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Had I been forced, er…allowed to actually do anything in the kitchen growing up, today I might know how to cook more than just mushroom omelets and French toast. Certainly getting a little more help around the house these days wouldn’t hurt either.

It was time to chart a new course in our household. And that’s what we did…literally, starting with “The Chart.”

Creating a “job chart” may be old hat for many parents. But for us, it was out-of-the-box thinking.

Jody and I started by writing down all of the things that need to get done in the house to keep it running smoothly. This activity can be quite shocking when you realize how much stuff we do every single day and every week. We counted 29 individual activities, not including repeating tasks like setting and clearing the table.

Next we plotted the tasks into three charts arranged by days of the week:

Daily Personal – these are the tasks that each child needs to do on his own – things like Make Bed, Pick up Clothes, Brush Teeth. Next to each task was a checkbox. Because everyone loves checking off an item from their To Do List, right?

Daily Rotation – these are tasks that the house needs and that can be “signed up” for by children and parents alike for different days in the week – Unload Dishwasher and Take Out Trash, for instance.

Weekly Rotation – finally, there were some tasks that only need to happen once a week, like Bake for Shabbat and Take Newspapers to Recycling Bin

The next step was to write out exactly what each job entails. It’s not fair to assume that the kids already know exactly how to do everything they’re being asked without some sort of training.

This was actually a tip I picked up from Michael Gerber’s popular “E-Myth” series of books and seminars. He says that one of the reasons many new businesses fail is that the entrepreneur who started the company – whether it’s a hi-tech software developer or a small family-run bakery – doesn’t create a “manual” for every job that the organization requires. Without this kind of formal documentation, if a key person leaves, everyone else sputters and lurches into crisis. No one, Gerber maintains, can be allowed to be irreplaceable.

All the more so for a family, I figured.

I spared no detail in my line-by-line job descriptions. Here, for example, is how we wash clothes in our house:

1. Check to make sure all clothes from kids’ rooms are in laundry hampers.
2. Remove two hampers from wooden frames and bring upstairs to laundry room.
3. Start cold water in washer on setting for “8 Minutes – Normal” and add liquid soap.
4. Bring up clothes in two hampers from parents room.
5. Sort out whites and wrinkle release clothes.
6. Put colors into washer.
7. In 45 minutes, check and put any clothes to be hung on line in dryer for 10-15 minutes.
8. Remove clothes and hang them and move remaining colors to dryer.
9. Set dryer for 60 minutes and press Start.
10. Switch washer setting to warm water and follow process above.
11. After water has dispersed liquid soap, add whites from both kids and parents.
12. Hang clothes as necessary and dry the rest.
13. After each load, move clothes to basket and bring down to living room. Return basket to laundry room.

Who: Abba
Duration: 4-5 hours
Frequency: Weekly
Day: Tuesdays

I will allow you to exhale one collective “oh my God,” but no cracks about yekkes or me being excessively anal, you hear?

When we had finished all our preparatory work, we printed out the job descriptions and charts and called a family meeting.

The kids are always a little suspicious about surprise family meetings (it’s like a pop quiz – nothing good can ever come out of it), so I set out immediately to reassure them. “We want to share with you a new system that will reduce stress in our house,” I began.

After a brief introduction, we whipped out the papers. Our youngest, Aviv, immediately took to the charts. He was ready to start checking things off before he’d even read them, bless his good natured little eight-year-old heart.

Twelve-year-old Merav proceeded to peruse each job description as if she were studying for a test. She also appeared to welcome the new structure.

Only fourteen-year-old Amir was savvy (or is that cynical) enough to realize what was coming next.

“And what happens if we don’t do our jobs?” he asked.

Jody and I had discussed this already. “There will be rewards and consequences.”

“I knew it!” Amir said and buried his head in his hands.

“If you don’t get your jobs done,” Jody continued, “you won’t be able to use your computer or GameBoy or watch TV the rest of that day. Nothing with a screen in it.”

“That’s not fair!” Amir blurted out, brimming with hormones and indignation.

“What’s so important that you have to be on your computer every day?” I asked. But it was Merav who responded.

“I have to check my email,” she said.

“But you’ve only had an email account for, what, less than two months,” I countered.

Aviv was still studying the chart. “How can we put away backpacks in the morning?” he asked, referring to a task on his Daily Personal chart. I explained that this was a task for when he gets home. He nodded approvingly and proceeded to check off the task.

There was some more back and forth, and not an insignificant amount of discussion about what the reward should be (a night out at the movies, dinner with pizza and ice cream?) Everyone signed up for daily and weekly jobs (whether begrudgingly or with gusto). The night ended without any fisticuffs, though not entirely on the optimistic note in which it had begun.

It’s too early to tell how this is going to work out over the long term. Research shows it takes about a month of consistently doing something to bring about a real change in behavior. But the initial results look promising.

The next morning, all three kids’ beds had been made and the breakfast bowls had been rinsed and put in the dishwasher. There was no argument that night over whose job it was to wipe down the counters. The day after the same. By day three we had to give a punishment to one child for leaving clothes lining around on the floor, but I did it with as much compassion as I could muster and received no lip in return.

Clearly we are heading into highly uncharted territory!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous September 1, 2006 at 6:32 pm

I think it's a bad idea for parent to blog about their personal conversations with their kids. How would you like your conversations with your parents posted in public for all the world to see. Parents have to be trustworthy so their kids can come to them for help with problems. What kid would confide in parent who will post their conversations on the internet?

2 Anonymous September 28, 2006 at 7:50 am

I wonder why people complain about you writting about your family when This Normal Life is about your life in Israel which certainly includes your family. I have to admit I did wonder how your daughter Merav felt after you wrote about her almost crying on the phone to you during camp. She ended up sounding very brave under the circumstances and should be very proud of herself. That post really showed some of what the people of Israel were going through. But I got bogged down in this post and didn't make it through all the detailed instructions. Sorry about that.
From the other
Brian Blum

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