Hax: The tale of No. 1 and No. 2 Son

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • Updated: July 6, 2014 - 2:09 PM

Dear Carolyn: My 20-year-old son (Son 1) is a kid who has never given us any trouble with breaking rules, drinking, drugs, etc. He works full time when he’s home from college and is extremely responsible in his job. His money is his own, and he tries to save as much as possible.

Son 2 also recently started working full time for the summer. Our expectation is that everyone share the household chores.

We provide Son 1 with a vehicle and insurance, cellphone, plus a roof over his head and meals when he is at home. We are happy to provide these things, but also expect respect and cooperation in return.

Son 1 leaves his clothes and belongings wherever he happens to be — in the kitchen, the bathroom, the hallway, etc. He has never unpacked from coming home and our garage is still full of stuff from the dorm.

We have laid out our expectations, but he seems to feel that he can do the chores whenever he chooses, or apparently not at all. He says I am the only one getting stressed about housework not being done. This is not true because my husband gets angry and frustrated about this also.

Son 2 claims it is not fair that he has consequences when he doesn’t cooperate, although this rarely happens. Son 2 has also mentioned that his brother gets by without doing anything and he’s stuck doing more because he cooperates. We agree: unfair.

I have told Son 1 that if he cannot cooperate without constant reminders and nagging, he will have to make other living arrangements next summer. He claims this would be “kicking me out because I won’t clean a bathroom.” I say that “kicking him out” would be to give him 30 days to find other living arrangements, but we are giving him the opportunity to change his attitude.

At this point, what should we do? We feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Carolyn says: He’s a rock, but you’re no hard place.

He thinks he scored points with his “kicking me out because I won’t clean a bathroom” calculation — because you responded by quibbling over the definitions of “kicking out” vs. confronting the laugher at the heart of his argument. That validated his whine as legitimate.

The response he deserved to hear instead was this: “When you don’t clean a bathroom, your brother, father and I do it for you. So, yes, you’re being kicked out for not valuing our time and comfort as much as you do your own — your brother’s in particular. But call it what you will. You have X weeks to turn this around.” Don’t remind, nag, warn, badger or argue with him again. If he doesn’t start doing his share on his own, then follow through with the consequence by notifying him of it early next spring.

In the meantime, let him know that any belongings he deposits in common spaces stay right where they fall if you can stand it, or, if you can’t, get moved to a box in the garage. As is. When his last pair of socks ends up in there, he can fish them out — and wash them — himself.

This is as deeply as I recommend engaging. In fact, please think of these steps as calculated dis-engagement. You are his parents and you clearly have one more important lesson to teach (his future cohabitants beg you), but he’s also the product of many good lessons well-learned: He’s working hard, he’s saving, he’s not self-destructing at a crossroads where too many do. To hold the line on abandoned socks is necessary, but to declare war over them? That risks squandering an apparent 20-year run of goodwill.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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