How We Got Our Teen to Do a Major Un-Fun Chore Without Complaining
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
My husband had been asking our 14-year-old son for three days to pick up his Legos that have lived all over the basement floor for about a decade. The Legos literally intrude into Dad's home office space, and he's very patiently stepped over them for years. In fact, I think he's kind of a saint in this way. Dad has recently decided, however, that since the Legos don't get used much anymore, they need to go into storage.
Mark is playing video games on his computer in the morning. Dad comes home from grocery shopping, walks in, and announces without any preamble and a slight measure of irritation in his voice, "It's time to pick up your Legos."
Mark: (Complete silence)
Dad: (Repeats) Mark, it's time to pick up your Legos.
Mom: (Silently ROTFL inside my head because I know where this is going.)
Mark: I'm busy.
Dad: I've been telling you for three days and you need to get them picked up. I'm sick of looking at them.
I can see this situation is going to quickly escalate into frustration for both of them, and I'm completely regulated, so I waltz into the room and take over.
Mom: Mark, what is your plan for picking up the Legos?
Mark: (There is a slight pause while he considers this) Um, when I get home from day camp?
Mom: No, that won't work because your friend is coming over right after camp.
Mark: Okay, how about after he goes home?
Now I know that the later it gets, the less he's going to feel like doing a pretty major non-preferred activity of this magnitude, but it's his plan, so I'm going with it and asking what we should do if his plan doesn't work.
Mom: Okay, then what should Dad and I do if you don't end up doing it because Dad has been waiting three days for you to pick up your Legos?
Mark: I don't get to play video games for two weeks (he always jumps to some major punishment).
Mom: We're not looking to punish you. We just need to know what we can do to support you in getting started and seeing it through if you struggle. I know it's hard to start something this big and un-fun, especially late in the day after you've been to day camp for three hours and then had a friend over.
Mark: Okay, I don't get to play video games until it's finished.
Mom: I can go for that. Dad, does that sound okay to you?
Dad: (Just glad he didn't have to deal with it.) Sure!
Mark's friend comes over to play. When he is getting ready to leave, they talk about how as soon as the friend gets home, they are going to hop on a server and play video games remotely. I overhear this and remind Mark, "Don't forget that as soon as he leaves, you have to pick up your Legos."
Expecting major resistance and full-scale teenage attitude, I nearly fall out of my chair when Mark responds.
Mark: They're already picked up.
Mom: WHAAAAAAAAAT? How is that possible???
They decided to play some virtual reality games in the basement, probably tripping over Legos the whole time. Apparently, my husband came downstairs and decided he wanted the basement to himself. It is his home office area, so he told Mark and his friend they needed to go do something else. This sent Mark into bargaining mode.
Mark: What if we pick up the Legos now? Can we stay down here longer? (Mark suspects his friend will help because he wants to continue playing VR games, too, furthering Mark's motivation to get the task done while his friend is over so he can get some help).
Dad: (Recognizing a moment where motivation is unusually high and a reward that is easy to implement) Sure.
Friend: I'll help.
Mark and his friend proceed to pick up hundreds of Legos that have littered our basement floor for nearly a decade and then go back to playing VR games.
Let's break down what worked here:
We put Mark in control of his own plan for completing a seriously non-preferred task. This increases motivation, decreases anxiety, and helps build executive functioning skills, for example, planning, task initiation, and task persistence.
We expressed our concern for where his plan might be harder to execute than he expects and asked for a different plan. This helps improve his ability to problem-solve.
We asked how to support him if the task didn't get done, letting him determine his own consequence while not allowing the consequence to be unreasonably punitive.
Dad took advantage of an opportunity to give Mark a reward, something he really wanted (more time in the basement playing VR games) to get what we wanted (the Legos picked up).