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How to Get Teens to Complete Homework and Chores

Do you find yourself getting sucked into a power struggle over homework and/or chores with your teenager? A lot of moms and dads tell me that this is one of their main, ongoing battles. If this is the case with you, you may have, for example, abandoned the statement, "Okay it's time for you to get off the computer and do your homework" ... because that request usually results in an argument.

Dealing with homework battles can be one of the most stressful things parents have to deal with while raising unruly, and often a responsible, teenagers. Unfortunately, too many parents take on more responsibility for homework than their child does. When this happens, it's the beginning of many years of homework battles. The teenager has learned that he can push off the responsibility for doing homework, and then his parents will take over. Not that the parents will literally complete the homework for the teenager, but they will nag, lecture, threaten, plead and beg -- all of which is a form of taking on too much responsibility for what is really the child's job.

It is certainly okay to help a teenager with a particular problem or sticking point. If he or she asks you a question about a particular problem or subject, then this form of assistance is acceptable because the teenager is just using the parent as an additional source of information -- not a crutch. But that's where the parent’s job starts and ends. Doing the work FOR the child, or begging and pleading the child to do the work, sends a very clear message that homework is a “shared responsibility.” But in reality, it's your teenager's job to go to school and to learn -- including completing homework. Your teen's teachers will be the judge of how correct or incorrect his or her work is. You are not responsible for the homework itself, but you are responsible for holding your child accountable. It's okay to make suggestions, but in the end, it is your teenager's responsibility to complete assignments, and it is the teacher's job to grade them.

Homework battles occur for many reasons. The main reason may be because your teenager would rather be playing video games, texting friends, watching TV, etc. -- anything other than opening the textbook. But no matter the reason, parents need to understand that nagging and pleading on the one end – or letting the teenager “off the hook” on the other end (to avoid an argument) – will just perpetuate the power struggles associated with homework. Rather than nagging, arguing – are just plain giving up – parents need to teach their child how to follow through on expectations ...how to be responsible for their own work ...and how to accept accountability. In other words, instead of working on a symptom of the teen’s irresponsible behavior (in this case, failure to complete homework), the parent should spend time and energy addressing the core problem (i.e., avoiding personal accountability, in general).

On that note, here is how parents can hold their child accountable and teach them to take responsibility for their own work in general, which should eventually translate to homework completion in particular:

1. Act as a role model, providing an example of what responsibility means (e.g., point out that you go to work every morning to contribute to the family's needs, or take your adolescent with you when you go to the bank to deposit money into a savings account).

2. Don’t argue, just focus on the obligation. If you argue or debate about your teen’s “excuses,” you’re simply encouraging her to come up with bigger and better ones. For example, if you say, "Why didn’t you complete your homework," you are really asking, "Why didn’t you fulfill your obligation?” When your teen says, “I forgot to bring my books home,” she’s really saying, “It’s not my fault that I didn’t fulfill my obligation.” You can respond by saying, “We’re not talking about whose fault it is, we’re talking about whose obligation it is.” In that way, you can shift the focus back onto your teen’s obligations, thus avoiding getting stuck in a disagreement about the nature of the excuse. If your teen makes excuses about her behavior, you can respond with, “We’re not talking about why you behaved that way, we’re talking about why you didn’t meet your obligation.”

3. Go slowly, gradually letting your teenager have more responsibility. Give her more responsibility in steps or increments (e.g., let her stay home by herself on a Saturday evening, then after she shows you that she can manage herself, allow her to babysit her younger siblings.

4. Point out irresponsible behaviors – and the consequences of acting in these ways. An impressionable adolescent may see “responsibility-free” celebrities as role models. Take the destructive behaviors that the tabloids expose and use the opportunities to show your adolescent what NOT to do. Initiate an open discussion when your adolescent sees, hears or talks about irresponsible celebrity behaviors (e.g., a young singer trashing a hotel room and not paying for the damages). Ask him what he thinks of the behavior and how the celebrity could act in a more responsible manner.

5. Set clear expectations around work in general, for example chores, picking up after one's self, personal hygiene, as well as homework. Let your teenager know that you expect him to get the work done, get it done on time, and to the best of his ability. As you do this, be sure to pay attention to this important point: REWARD EFFORT as much as you do positive outcomes. This is a critical tactic here. Your child is not always going to meet your expectations to the extent that you would like. But if he makes an attempt, that should be rewarded in the form of acknowledgment and praise. For example, you ask your teenage son to clean up his room. When you go in to inspect, it doesn't meet your standards, but it looks 75% better than it did before he cleaned up. Take that 75% and run with it! And say something like, "You did a great job of getting your dirty clothes rounded up and put in the laundry basket. That's you being responsible."

6. When teens focus on excuses, moms and dads need to focus on responsibility. Of course, some excuses are valid, and the responsibility for knowing how to sort that out rests with the mother or father. But too many excuses are just that (i.e., thoughts teenagers use to excuse themselves from not meeting their responsibilities). When those are raised in a conversation where a teen wants to shift the focus away from the responsibility and onto the excuse, moms and dads have to shift it back from excuse and onto the matter at hand (i.e., the teen’s responsibility).

7. As an adolescent, your son or daughter is becoming increasingly more able to think in both abstract and rational ways. This means that your teen is developing his or her own moral code and way of thinking that is different from yours. Encourage this autonomy-seeking behavior. You want your teen to become totally independent at some point.

8. Remember that a teenager is not finished developing yet. She is on a huge learning curve. If she was a little kid and just beginning to walk, would you turn her loose in a crowd and let people knock her around, or would you be there to provide safety and structure? Of course, the latter. As a teenager, she is similar to a young child entering the grown-up world. Letting her toddle into adulthood without a safety net could be very dangerous. Many adolescents try to justify their actions with comments such as, “I want it, so I should have it,” or “All my friends are doing it, so I should be able to do it.” But, it is the parent’s job not to ignore this kind of faulty thinking. Part of the safety net is teaching a teenager why this thinking will not get her where she wants to be in life.

9. Teach your adolescent how to manage money in a responsible way. Provide him with an allowance if he isn't old enough to have an after-school job. Explain that he needs to use this money to buy the "extras" (e.g., video games, apps for his cell phone, etc.). Ask him to make a monthly budget. If your adolescent spends all of his allotment, don't give in and offer extra cash. Instead, suggest that he do extra chores around the house to earn money for what he wants.

10. When establishing rules and routines around chores, homework, etc., try to match your help with what is most needed. Some kids need hands-on guidance to complete tasks, while others are more self-directed and just need the parent’s occasional monitoring.

11. When possible, establish "flexible times" for completion of work, and post these times on the refrigerator. What I mean by "flexible times" is to give your teenager a window of opportunity to complete certain tasks. For example, let's say you have set aside 30 minutes to complete homework. But that 30 minutes of homework can be done any time between 4 PM and 7 PM. Your teenager gets to pick the "exact time" that he or she can do homework, as long as it falls within that two-hour window. The same concept could apply to chores. For example, if it is your teenager's job to take out the trash and feed the dog, then he or she has the choice of doing that anytime between 3:30 PM and 5:30 PM. In this way, it has been established that your teenager has certain work to do, and that work needs to be done within a certain time-frame – but he or she still gets to pick the exact time that the job is undertaken.

12. When you formally develop a set of expectations for your adolescent, you begin to set him up for success in meeting those expectations. That’s a crucial step in learning to handle obligations. Below are just a few suggested expectations for adolescents (pick a few and add-on as your adolescent is able to handle more obligations): 
  • Cleaning her room (e.g., vacuuming, dusting, etc.) weekly (with some parental help, if needed)
  • Completing homework
  • Doing a daily household chore (e.g., cleaning the dinner dishes, straightening the family room, swiping down the bathroom, etc.)
  • Having useful daily habits (e.g., making his bed, picking up his room, etc.)
  • Helping with the weekly household chores (e.g., mowing the lawn)
  • Making sure the gas gauge in the car does not go below a quarter of a tank
  • Making plans with friends and giving you all of the necessary information
  • Managing an allowance 
  • Marking special dates and plans on the family calendar or planner 
  • Taking phone messages and putting them where someone will see them

Adolescents are on the threshold of becoming grown-ups. Even though your adolescent doesn't have to deal with all the challenges of adulthood (e.g., balancing a full-time job, paying a mortgage, etc.), he can learn what it means to be responsible. During adolescence, your teenager is gaining independence, trying new activities, and meeting new challenges. Take advantage of these opportunities to teach him a lesson or two on taking responsibility for his own behaviors, actions, and future.

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