Editor's note: This week, we welcome guest blogger Dr. Nicole Robinson, a pediatric neuropsychologist serving children, adolescents and families in the New York and New Jersey areas through her Staten Island based private practice. Read her complete bio below.
It’s been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. A wise author once added to that list: dishes and laundry. There are some household tasks that can seem unending, and keeping your home reasonably neat and well-organized can feel especially challenging if you or your co-habitants struggle with attention, memory, planning or organizational skills. Take heart, because when it comes to dilemmas of this variety, creative solutions abound to help your child cooperate with chores.
Tip #1: Prioritize
Some battles just aren’t worth fighting. But in parenting, how do we choose when to maintain a limit, and when to let things go? While giving kids a pass on all responsibilities would be a disservice to their personal development; it is important to recognize when something is simply out of reach for the present time. In my work with children and families as a pediatric neuropsychologist, I typically recommend first addressing issues with potential impact on health or safety. For example, if items like shoes or books are left in places that create a fall hazard, or if dental hygiene is ignored so long that cavities start to develop, it may be time to work more intensively toward a resolution. If on the other hand, you find something unpleasant to look at – say, for example, books left out on a table or a growing pile of laundry in the corner – you may want to hold off on tackling that concern until more pressing issues have been resolved. Depending upon your own need for order and the particular difficulties faced within your home, you can determine where your family would best begin.
Tip #2: Break it down
Once you’ve identified the first task you intend to tackle, ask yourself whether direct instruction has been provided. We can sometimes take for granted that many kids do not intuitively, or by incidental observation, learn how to complete household tasks. If you haven’t done so already, teach and model required steps in a sequential fashion. With teenagers, co-creating a written checklist on paper or via an app may be more welcome. Once you feel comfortable that expectations are well understood, consider whether the needed cognitive skills are well-developed. Many families struggle to understand why a bright child cannot complete a seemingly simple task; but even mundane activities can have many more components than we realize. Is there attention to detail required? Is this attention visual in nature? Are there multiple steps that could, for example, present a problem for someone who struggles with sequencing or task completion? Is the child willfully refusing to complete the task, or are they simply having trouble remembering to do it? Is the task interesting? Think together about ways the task can be made more engaging (e.g. playing music, turning the activity into a contest). As long as your understanding of the problem is incomplete, chances are good that any attempts at change will prove inadequate. If, on the other hand, you can determine where the process breaks down, your ability to effect lasting change in a positive way can be much greater. Consider your child’s inner assets and include these in creating a solution.
Tip #3: Bend, don’t break
I am a firm believer that children learn by example. With that being said, how can we expect kids to demonstrate skills that we have not yet mastered? Flexibility is among the most important tools that we can model, particularly when executive function weaknesses are at play. When applied to household tasks, this may mean trading out towel bars for hooks so that messy folding is no longer an issue. It can mean negotiating the time of day when the dishwasher gets emptied, allowing for a messy room when company is not around, or accepting imperfection in any number of ways. If you’ve tried all of the options outlined above and progress eludes you, it may be time to forego a stalled mission in favor of one with greater odds for success, at least until your child has time to further develop required skills.
Flexibility can also be applied to the inner timeline most parents create for their children – however conscious or unconscious. Rigid expectations can create unintended pressure for everyone involved (and if you’ve ever tried to potty train a child in time for preschool, you know what I mean). While it would be ideal for our offspring to be fully independent in all areas by the time they fly the nest, this may not be a realistic proposition. Increasing your awareness of your own expectations, and making a shift to setting goals on an individual level can alleviate much of this burden. And by practicing flexibility, we not only minimize unnecessary conflict; we create opportunities to teach creative problem solving – which some might argue is a much more valuable life skill than knowing how to keep a tidy room.
Tip #4: Set the stage for success
There are a number of practical systems that can be put into place in order to make any household run more smoothly. Apps abound for creating a family calendar with checklists and to-do lists that can keep everyone on track. Are there baskets, containers, or other organizers that can be purchased – or even repurposed from another area of your home? Can you color code items (e.g. papers, folders, bins, boxes) so that things that belong together can be easily identified? Try placing reminders in prominent places. Some people find it helpful to leave a note in the same place each day, while others rely on change to keep them paying attention. Can you write on the bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker? Hang a nag board (list of incomplete chores that must be finished before requests are granted) in the kitchen? Have fun in trying out ways to keep your family on track.
Tip #5: Remember what counts
We can wipe up spills; teach a child how to properly sort laundry; eventually find items that go missing; but it is far more challenging to mend a damaged relationship. While few parents set out to create conflict or emotional distance with their children, everyday life can sometimes put us in a direction we did not intend to go. When children feel unsupported or constantly nagged, they can make less-willing participants in household operations, not to mention more distant players in family life. To assume the role of supportive teacher or coach, guiding your child toward personal success one step at a time, can allow for progress without detachment. In maintaining a mindset of compassion toward yourself and your child, you can anticipate – and forgive – the inevitable bumps in the road, and continue to be allies in what will always be a work in progress.
Dr. Nicole Robinson is a pediatric neuropsychologist serving children, adolescents and families in the New York and New Jersey areas through her Staten Island based private practice. Dr. Robinson provides pediatric neuropsychological assessment, play therapy and psychotherapy. Her practice is distinguished in offering school-based observations, participation in school-based meetings and impartial hearings, and consultation regarding educational planning, as well as one-on-one parent support and guidance. Before earning a Doctor of Psychology degree in School and Clinical Child Psychology and a Master of Science in Education from Pace University; as well as a Master of Arts Degree in Developmental Psychology from the University of Connecticut, Dr. Robinson began her career as a preschool teacher in regular and special education. She is an active member of the American Psychological Association, New York State and Richmond County Psychological Associations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.