Q.: I have three kids ages 8, 6 and 4. I need help solving the “pick up the playroom” dilemma. When an area in which they've been playing needs to be picked up and straightened, the 8-year-old always ends up doing all the work. The other two continue to play or just pretend to be helping. The oldest complains that it's not fair, and he's right. What can I do to ensure that they all do their share?
A.: This very common problem is the result of parents who think children are adults. One aspect of emotional adulthood (not to be confused with chronological adulthood) is the understanding that cooperation with others is usually necessary to accomplishing anything of value and, furthermore, that cooperation results in short- and long-term benefit to all concerned.
Children are not adults, which may seem self-evident but obviously is not. When siblings are assigned to the same task, it's typical that one or two siblings will do as little as possible while one — usually the oldest — does all the work. That's human nature, which is fundamentally irresponsible and always looking for the easy way out.
The solution to this problem is to rotate tasks among the kids.
Picking up the playroom is a good example. The first time it needs to be picked up, assign it to the oldest child. Send the other two kids elsewhere. The second time it needs straightening, assign it to the middle child. The youngest performs the next cleaning and then it's back to the oldest.
Voila! The job gets done and none of them complains that “it's not fair!” Or, they all complain, which, after all, is only fair.
Q.: I have a follow-up question. Let's say it's the middle child's turn and he holds everyone up by dawdling. What should I do then?
A.: I have an equally simple solution; furthermore, I've never heard of it failing. If a child plods through a task, taking, say, 30 minutes to do what can easily be done in five or 10 minutes, simply go in, pleasantly dismiss him (as if nothing is wrong) and do the job yourself.
Then, that evening, send him to bed immediately after dinner. It's important that you not warn him of this in advance or threaten him with it; simply do it. When he gets over his shock and asks why he has to go to bed so early, tell him that his inability to do the earlier task in a timely fashion tells you he's not getting enough sleep. So, you're going to help him with his sleep problem.
Then next time the playroom needs picking up, assign it to him again. When he points out that it's a sibling's turn, tell him that it is his turn until he does it quickly and properly. When he cries out that it's not fair, simply say, “I completely agree” and walk away.
My experience has been that two doses of that will cure the problem.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions at parentguru.com.