The last straw for Kay Wills Wyma was the day she drove her teenage son through an affluent Dallas neighbourhood and he asked her which car she thought he’d look best in: the Maserati, the Lexus or the Porsche. Wyma fought back the nausea. “What planet are you on!?” she snapped.
Her son’s sense of entitlement had reached ludicrous proportions, and a big part of the problem, she realized, was the way she’d been raising all five of her children to be unacquainted with hard work.
Wyma, who has an M.B.A. and worked for then-vice-president Dan Quayle at the White House, left her career to be a stay-at-home mom and took on all the household chores, doing the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and even her kids’ homework from time to time. A self-confessed “enabler,” Wyma says on the phone from Texas that she was raising “serve-me kids,” and it was time to change her parenting approach from “I love you, so let me make life easy for you” to “I love you, so I’m going to make you work.”
Wyma introduced her kids to a vast new plan, which she chronicles in her book, Cleaning House: A Mom’s 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement. Each month, her kids learned how to perform a new task, everything from cleaning the toilet bowl to buying groceries and cooking dinner.
The first month, her kids started making their beds and keeping their rooms tidy. As an incentive, Wyma placed a plastic box filled with 30 one-dollar bills in each kid’s room. If she found clothes on the floor on her daily inspection, she took a dollar. The strategy worked brilliantly, but it took some getting used to. The first time she saw an unmade bed, she found herself making excuses for the child and had to force herself to take the money. At the end of each month, the kids were allowed to keep whatever remained in the box. No money could be spent until the month was up.
Parents who shower their kids with accolades and race in to solve their kids’ problems send the unspoken message, “I’ll do it for you because you can’t” and “No sense in your trying because I can do it faster and better,” writes Wyma. But kids who do chores see the fruits of their labour; they’re encouraged to work harder and do more. For instance, the month she introduced “kitchen patrol,” her eight-year-old son threw a tantrum when he heard he’d have to shop for groceries.
At the store, Wyma turned it into a game. “You tell me which [butter] is the best deal and how much money we can save by buying the one on sale.” Her son loved it, but what really floored her was the change at home. “Gone was my slow-walking sourpuss; welcome home super-helpful kitchen boy. He cleared the table, gathered ingredients and emptied the dishwasher. I’m not kidding!” Her daughters, meanwhile, “hovered, itching for an opportunity to get involved.” That night, her son cooked the entire family a meal of chicken, rice and black beans, then cleaned up and did the dishes. “He genuinely wanted to do it all and he was so proud of himself!” writes Wyma.
She reminds parents that introducing kids to chores is easier when they’re young. She confesses she lost patience with her teenage son the day she asked him to pump gas. “Yes, you. Get. Out. Of. The. Car. Go. Inside.” Her son paid the cashier and lumbered back to the car. She shouted at him through the window, “Unscrew the cap!” He unscrewed the cap and asked if he could get back in the car. “No! Take the handle and put it in the car!” “Huh?” “Take the handle and put it in the car! Push the regular button.” “Huh?” “Push the regular button.” It wasn’t how she envisioned teaching him. “Yet again,” she writes, “if I wasn’t such an enabler, he might’ve learned a few years ago how to pump gas.”
These days, with the experiment over, Wyma’s kids still complain but they still pitch in, she says. “When I saw all the great benefits unveil themselves, our experiment moved beyond an exercise to a way of life. I really do believe they can do anything they put their minds to.”