Charted and Set Sail

by Brian on February 10, 2008

in A Parent in Israel

It’s been a year and a half since I reported on our family’s using a “chart” system, described in the column “Charting a New Course.” So, you might be wondering right, how did it go?

The short answer: well, there’s good news and bad news.

We had two goals when we set up our chart system. The first was practical: we wanted to get the kids to help out more with chores around the house and at the same time reduce the level of stress that resulted from never knowing who was “on” for a particular chore on any given day.

The second goal was more behavioral: we hoped that by instituting a clear system of rewards and consequences, over time we could create new patterns of interaction where the kids would pitch in without needing to be asked.

So far, we’ve succeeded nicely on the first…and failed miserably on the second.

The most important take-away lesson? If you’re going to try to enforce a chart, you’ve got to be willing to play the part of policeperson, at least when you’re getting going.

If it was up to my wife Jody, we’d probably be doing great. She loves laying down the law and handing out tickets for infractions. But it’s exactly someone like Jody you need to make this system work.

As I wrote in that previous column, for the first few days we had a lot of self-directed enthusiasm from the kids. Our youngest son, Aviv, was raring to do anything and everything asked of him for the simple pleasure of being able to check off the tasks on his personal worksheet. The two older kids were more motivated by the prospect of the reward at (it’s amazing what a little Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey can bring out in a child).

By the end of the second week, though, beds were no longer being made consistently nor were the dishes being cleared with the same gush of gusto we had in the initial rush of compliance.

Jody and I debated what to do next.

“They should lose their reward,” Jody said. “And receive a consequence.”

“So which is it,” I asked, “lose the reward or receive a consequence?”

“Both,” Jody replied.

“That’s not fair,” I sputtered, sounding more like my sixteen-year-old son Amir than a stern but loving father seeking to instill positive values in his children.

Before long, it was clear that the parents who had painstakingly set up the chart system didn’t see eye to eye themselves. And this was just one of a number of nuances that neither of us had quite thought through yet.

Such as: what do we do if the reward is a family activity? Do we not rent a movie for Saturday night? That punishes everyone. But how can we exclude one child from the evening’s fun just for failing to pick up a sock?

And: should we be checking the kids’ charts each day or use some sort of honor system? What happens if a kid does the tasks on his or her chart but doesn’t actually check them off?

And: should we hang the charts on the refrigerator for easy access and review? (“No way,” said fourteen-year-old Merav, fearing the public humiliation should any of her friends come to visit).

But the most critical question came down to this: should we give the kids a warning or grace period before coming down hard?

Jody took the maximalist approach. “They need to have something taken away if they’re going to learn,” she posited.

I went the opposite way. “What do we really want to accomplish here? We want the kids to do their chores, right? Does it matter so much how we get there?”

Jody wanted to say yes, but I could see she wasn’t entirely sure. That was enough for the old softie and dysfunctional disciplinarian that I am to win this round.

“Why don’t we try it my way,” I suggested. “If it doesn’t work, we can always get tough later.”

As if that was ever going to happen. Once we started down the slippery path of non-enforcement, there was no turning back to the purity of chart heaven. Rather than consulting their charts and proactively stepping up to the job, the kids waited for a parent to tell them who was on for clearing the dish rack tonight, or who was supposed to take the trash out.

If I saw that clothes hadn’t been picked up, I’d gently remind the culprit to make sure his or her room was straightened up by morning…or when school was out…or before bed the next night at the absolute latest, I’d warn, finger wagging unconvincingly.

Sounds like a great big flame out, doesn’t it? But you know what? It wasn’t. That’s the crazy thing. After a few weeks of our modified system, the floor was being swept and the kitchen counters were getting wiped down. Maybe not right away or without prompting. But they got done. And there were no disagreements over who was supposed to do a task – it was all written in the chart in black and white (Arial 12 point actually).

Sure, it wasn’t where we thought we’d end up when we started charting this new course. But it was as ship shore a start as this family’s likely to make, and reducing our family stress level is nothing to throw the whole system overboard for.

Stay tuned for more…when we finally drop anchor, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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