"My husband doesn't think his kids should do chores when they visit on their weekends here."
--Sue, wife of Mark and stepmom to 2 boys
The topic of chores can be a breaking point for some stepcouples. This may seem like an overly dramatic statement, but I've seen it be the source of frustration and never ending arguments for some stepfamilies.
I understand the frustration. Mark wants to make sure the limited time he has with his kids is full of fun. He doesn't want to be nagging them about taking out the garbage or cleaning their room, he wants to be making the most of every minute he has with them.
On the other hand, Sue is feeling like the maid when the boys come over. They leave the table after dinner without helping to clean up. Their room is full of half used water bottles and wrappers from snacks. It aggravates her when her typically clean house is a mess when her stepkids move in for their weekends.
Let me clarify that Sue enjoys her stepsons. They all spend time hiking, hanging out and watching college football games. Sue attends as many of the boys' soccer games as her work schedule allows. She says her house feels like a home when the boys arrive, but then it feels like a frat house after just a few days of them being there.
Mark, Sue and I had a long talk about their vision and expectations of family time together. While they shared similar ideas, we saw some differences in how they each thought this time "should" go and we began to dig deeper.
As I do with all my clients, I talked with each of them about their own childhood experiences and expectations, focusing on chores with Mark and Sue. Things were very different in each of their homes and this led to some important insight regarding why they were fighting so much.
Eventually the three of us worked through issues and negotiated out the "sticky" points. Mark and Sue worked together to form new family rules which respected both his need for fun with the boys and her need to have the house remain clean. Talking through their different visions and values helped them form a stronger foundation for their newly formed family.
The takeaways from their discussions included the very important reasons why stepkids should have chores. While I believe all kids should have chores, it's particularly important to work through this issue for stepfamilies because...
1. It unifies the family unit
When everyone pitches in to help out, it brings the family closer together. Everyone is part of the team effort to get things done.
2. It reduces the chance of resentment.
Stepparents, like Sue, who end up having to do all the cleanup may feel resentment towards their stepchildren. Despite having loving feelings towards her stepkids, Sue felt irritated by their arrival because she knew it was the start of more cleaning on her part.
3. It builds their self-esteem
I know kids will deny this point but I promise you that kids who have chores gain a sense of belonging and importance as part of the family. They take pride in having an important role in the family and understand their participation is helpful to everyone in the family.
Bonus tip: When there are siblings who live full-time in the home while others come and go, the expectation of everyone pitching in will reduce sibling resentment and fighting. It reminds the stepkids they are not a "visitor" with special rights but rather another member of the family.
Of course having the kids accept and follow new rules can take time and patience. For Sue and Mark family, we developed a gradual pathway to implementing new rules. There is a strategic process for this that will help resolve issues within the family without the kids forming a rebellion. My goal is to help each parent work through this in a way that is unique and a best fit for their family.
The bottom line is that everyone needs to contribute to make things flow well in the family. When everyone is clear about expectations and the family values, it helps bring the family together to say "In our family..." and follow through on the desired behaviors.
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