Having a child not follow through on a task can be very frustrating for both parent and child. We find ourselves devolving into a nagging beast, always on the child or teen’s case to get the job done, and our kid feels like all we ever do is complain about what he has or hasn’t done. This mom wants to know how to motivate her teen to complete chores, but my answer encompasses much more than that.

Q: Our son will not complete any chore he asked to do. He will start a chore, such as cleaning the fish tanks or horse stalls after being told many times but he doesn’t complete it thoroughly after being told over and over how to do it. He just doesn’t seem to care about anything and no consequence affects him. He just says, “My bad.” He has destroyed several tools, even a John Deere Gator we use on the farm because he so rough with it and hasn’t taken care of it. We’ve made it off limits but will catch him riding it without permission. We’ve already taken away electronics and cancelled all outside activities (except his team sport) and he doesn’t seem to care. 

A: You don’t say how old your son is, but based on your other questions submitted, I’m going to guess he’s a teenager. It is frustrating that your son is not completing chores and ruining expensive equipment. His uncaring attitude could mean that he’s given up hope of pleasing you (frustration coupled with a critical parent could equal giving up completely), he’s lost that vital connection with his parents (so doesn’t feel loved and appreciated not for what he does but because he’s your son and part of the family), or there’s something else going on (as in he needs more guidance or hands-on help).

Since I don’t know which of those three is causing the underlying attitude problem, here are my general suggestions for each. If he’s given up hope, let him pick from a list which chores he wants to do. Make it clear how many he has to do, but let him choose. Give him as much freedom in completing the chore as possible, with end times instead of start times (such as, “You must feed the fish each day by 7 p.m.” rather than “Feed the fish at 8 a.m. each day.”).

Whichever chores he picks, write down all the steps needed and what you expect the completed chore to look like. It could be that you’re assuming too much and haven’t been clear as to your expectations, which can cause frustration, miscommunication, etc. Go over those steps with him prior to the chore, then let him take it from there. No one likes to be micromanaged, so give him another chance to get it right. Don’t criticize how he does the chore each time he does it—a spot check every once in a while should work just as well.

It also might be that you’ve lost the connection with your son, making your relationship more strained. When we feel loved and appreciated for who we are, we want to please and serve those who love us. Try to re-establish that connection with him. No matter what he does, he should feel that his parents love him.

His uncaring attitude could mean that he’s given up hope of pleasing you (frustration coupled with a critical parent could equal giving up completely), he’s lost that vital connection with his parents (so doesn’t feel loved and appreciated not for what he does but because he’s your son and part of the family), or there’s something else going on (as in he needs more guidance or hands-on help).

See if there’s something else going on that’s hampering his ability to contribute to the family upkeep. Is there trouble at school? Other stresses in his life? Does he need assistance in executive function (prioritizing and task completion, for example)? Figure out with him if there’s an issue that’s spilling over into chores, etc.

You can also ask him to come up with a solution to the problem. Sit him down and say that you’re tired of nagging him—isn’t he tired of you nagging him? How would he like you not to nag him about chores again? Then he needs to write down three or four ways he’s going to solve the chore problem. Don’t offer your own solutions, but let him come up with ideas. Ask him to pick one and give it a try. After a few days, reconvene and ask him how his first idea is working out. Does it need tweaking? Again, less talking, more listening and letting him problem-solve. Repeat until he arrives at a workable solution.

I’ve given you a lot to think about, but I hope that you’ll see there are many possibilities beyond continued punishment to correct this situation that doesn’t involve coddling your son or allowing him to not do chores.