Fatherly Advice: Put Your Kids On The Clock

toddler brushing teeth
flickr / Sean T Evans

It would start innocently enough. I would be watching TV in the living room with my family — I Love Lucy, most likely — when someone (other than me) would realize they forgot something they wanted in another room. Maybe the house phone, maybe a snack, maybe some laundry my mom wanted to fold while Lucy tried once again to force her way into show business. It didn’t really matter. Whatever it was, whoever it was for, the result was always the same: make Blake do it.

There were a number of reasons why I was the natural choice for these annoying, menial tasks, but the most obvious was  that I was the youngest of four siblings. This put me at the bottom of the pecking order, and, as a 5-year-old with three older siblings, that also meant that much of my reality could be instantly shaped by whatever my family told me.

But even at my most impressionable, I was savvy enough to recognize poorly constructed logic when it was right in front of me. Santa, for instance, never made much sense to me, and I pieced together the fact that the presents I received on Christmas morning were actually from my mom and dad long before my older sister did. In that same vein, I would not stop watching TV to go grab someone’s miscellaneous stuff from the other room simply because they asked. I did it because I was well manipulated.

While clever for my age, I was no match for the combined intellect of my entire family. And so, they quickly zeroed on my naive psyche and found a way to get me to do their bidding with enthusiasm. How? Like most young kids, especially youngest siblings, I loved making everything a competition. And I really loved being the celebrated center of attention. So, my family figured out a way to stroke my ego and manipulate my competitive streak to their advantage by simply challenging me to get whatever item they wanted as quickly as possible. And to ensure my motivation was as high as possible, they would make it a race against the clock.

Being given the chance to be timed was music to my tiny ears. I would literally leap at the opportunity. I would dash through the house, frantically searching for the remote or whatever MacGuffin that was suddenly the key to glory. Once located, I would rush back as fast as possible, determined to set a new personal best and impress my parents and siblings with my otherworldly speed. They would happily play the part, cheering me on and celebrating the fact that I beat my previous record by one second. I was a champion, the Batman of my suburban home, and secretly began hoping that someone would call on me to be the hero once again.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that my family, of course, was never actually timing me. Instead, they spent most of my absence trying to remember my previous “record” so that they could ensure that I could narrowly beat it. But did I dwell on this betrayal, wondering how my family could do such a thing to me for so many of my formative years? Of course not. Realizing the whole thing was nothing but a sham did not affect my fond memories of running around the house, and finish my own quest. Motivation is one hell of a drug, and this silly game motivated me to work hard and find pride in my results. It was also fun and made the rest of my family’s lives a little bit easier. A real win-win. Who cares if it was a lie?

So time your kid. Make remote-grabbing a competition. Is it manipulation? Sure, but what’s wrong with a little benevolent manipulation? You’re going to make them do chores anyway because chores are an important part of childhood. So why not add a twist to it that makes them happy and learn that work can be enjoyable. After all, competition is fun. It makes the most boring things addicting. Washing the dishes becomes an awesome game. So does teeth brushing or bed-making. It may sound dumb, but it’s going to sound a lot less dumb to your kid than having to set the table or make their bed. Give it a try, and one day your kid might end up thanking you for being so desperate to not have to get up and grab something from the other room.

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