Even though much of our work as Executive Function coaches focuses on helping students and adults work more effectively, you may be surprised to learn that we get a fair amount of questions during our presentations and talks that relate to managing a household, as well. And why not? After all, we use skills such as time management, emotion regulation, planning, and persistence in our everyday lives, too - not just when a report is due to the boss or a teacher. We took a few minutes to chat with author and CEO Michael Delman to find out how an Executive Function expert applies his knowledge to his own family life.
Why are household responsibilities such a source of conflict? Why can’t everyone just agree and get it done?
MD: I focus on two main reasons for the conflict. First of all, the work itself is kind of a pain. People generally aren’t clamoring for the opportunity to do the dishes or cut the dogs’ nails. Second, we all want to be treated fairly but we tend to feel like we’re the ones doing more - simply because we are more aware of what we are doing than what others are doing.
What challenges came up with your family?
MD: My kids are perfect. I don’t understand the question. (Just kidding!) The challenge of chores and pets has been a big one. My younger daughter desperately wanted a dog for years - but my wife was opposed. Not an uncommon situation, right? Instead of letting her have what she wanted just because she wanted it or simply saying no, my wife and I had our daughter work for the money to get the dog and do all the research into where we’d get it and how best to care for it. It took her a few years, but she succeeded - of course, then we had to deliver on our agreement. The thing was, we failed to get specific ahead of time in some ways which led to tension once we had the dog. We did pretty well with establishing our expectations for nighttime dog needs, but we didn’t anticipate some issues, such as how often to walk the dog. A particularly vexing issue was how to deal with the puppy needing to be near someone in the afternoon when my daughter was supposed to be focused on her homework, and I needed to work. Nobody wanted to be distracted from their work, and somebody needed to be with the puppy.
How did you manage those challenges?
MD: When glitches like that came up, we had to sit down and negotiate how to work them through. It turned out that when my daughter put her headphones on during homework time, she could tune out the puppy noises and work at the kitchen table just as she always did.
Why do you say “negotiate”?
MD: Parenting involves leadership, and good leaders want the ongoing relationship, respect, and buy-in more than they want just obedience or admiration. Negotiating with your children doesn’t imply they have equal say - it does mean that it’s best to take their views into account and look for win-win solutions.
Is it harder if the parent and/or the child has ADHD?
MD: Absolutely. If our kids have ADHD, they may make a promise that they intend to keep but immediately forget. If we have ADHD, we may forget that we asked them! And, of course, it’s easier for us to blame them for forgetting than to set up a system. And having a system is half the solution. The other half is doing it right now before you forget. An example of a system would be to have a magnet on the dishwasher that says CLEAN on one side and DIRTY on the other, so you know whether to add more dishes or empty what’s in there first. That works for us. In fact, I just relied on that system today! Another would be to set a deadline for when dishes get started - not completed but started - and perhaps to allow your kid to listen to Netflix while doing that if it works for them or at least to rock out to music.They’re doing something for the family, so the kitchen is temporarily their space. In addition, we have to be role models. We can be imperfect role models, but when we do mess up (e.g. we get too easily frustrated or are late picking our kids up), we have to own it - and apologize.
What do you do when your idea of being “done” with a chore doesn’t look like theirs?
MD: We tend to make two errors: assuming a kid can complete a task exactly the way we would do it or giving up and saying “Fine, I’ll just do it myself.” For the first problem, they likely need to be explicitly taught how to do it, whether it’s folding towels or making a bed. Here’s where pictures can help - you provide a concrete model or reference to help your kid know what “done” looks like. And if there are several steps to the task, show what each step looks like along the way. Better to start slow and make gradual progress than to expect too much and get failure. With the second scenario, where we just give up and tackle it ourselves - probably with some expressed frustration as well - this task becomes a trigger. It’s going to produce stress just bringing it up and, for us, even thinking about bringing it up. We start to attribute it to an attitude - being stubborn or selfish - and then it’s a big tear in the relationship. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - now they oppose it just because they’re mad at us. One way that cycle can be avoided is negotiating the “when” for a task and asking, “Is there anything you need from me to make sure this gets done when you agreed to?”
Can you walk us through a typical friction point: cleaning their bedroom?
MD: When you think about it from an Executive Function perspective, there are good reasons why some kids resist this task and feel stuck. First of all, if a child has trouble with getting work started in the first place, they may not have a way to launch themselves into the task. This is a great time to use our 5-Minute Goal strategy: set a timer and just work on it for 5 minutes. When the timer rings, it’s often the case that a child will be on a roll and continue for a while longer. For a kid who has trouble with organization and planning, they may need to approach the task by categories, such as putting away clothing first or getting things off the floor first. For a child who may find the task too boring, make a game out of it - maybe compete against you to clean 10 items off the floor, for example. And just as I mentioned earlier, a photo of what “done” looks like can help them self-monitor and assess their own progress. Taking that photo together afterward can also provide a nice reference point to the sense of teamwork that you had in completing the task.
Just as kids benefit from seeing what “done” looks like at home, they also benefit from models for how to judge whether they are done with a school assignment or how to keep their desk or backpack organized. When your child contributes to the well-being of your household through chores (and following models of how to do them), they are also gaining an opportunity to build Executive Function skills that will benefit them in school and beyond.
Photo credit: Rachel Krompinger
Looking for more tips to help your child develop Executive Function skills? Michael Delman's popular book features almost 50 step-by-step tools that you can use with your child to help them become more effective. Download a book excerpt below to learn more.