Possible subtle housework coercion

“When our children get the message that we are going to feel upset if they don’t help us tidy up, they are highly likely to help under coercion even if that is not our intention or wish. So it is worth thinking about whether maybe we have been inadvertently making our children responsible for our happiness, and thereby coercing them to help with the housework.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 12th January 1999

“Is it coercive to ask for help around the house…”


“(maybe saying ‘This mess on the table is really getting to me and it would be cleaned up a lot faster if I had some help)?’”

There is nothing wrong with the content of the explanation you give here, but it might still be coercive, depending on the tone of voice and the history leading up to this request. I suppose it really depends on what is in your mind when you ask this (for your children will know this). Is it really a suggestion, intended to give them an option that they may or may not wish to take up, or is it a disguised command?

“there are usually multiple projects on our big table sometimes piled thrice high). This is usually what I say and usually everyone pitches in and helps… so, I don’t really have a family conflict with it. I just wonder if I am somehow forcing my kids to do this by making them feel responsible for my well-being (like I will be perturbed if they don’t do it). I grew up with a mother who used guilt to make me do things and I just feel that something is wrong with the way I am stating things. I don’t have any stated consequences if they don’t do it… but maybe there are consequences hidden in there.”

This is a good approach. It is well worth being aware of the possibility that there might be some subtle coercion under the surface. It might be, as you suggest, that although you do not make any overt threats, you convey the threat that you will be upset with them, or whatever, if they do not help you. Or perhaps they just prefer to tidy away their things rather than have you do it. I’d guess that if they always start cleaning up when you say that, there is some element of coercion, because otherwise one would expect them at least sometimes (if not often) to be busy doing other things and to not want to stop what they are doing to clean the table. You could ask them, explaining your concern as you have explained it here.

If they say that they do feel pressured, then you’ll know that there has been coercion. If they say that they don’t, then there may or may not be. For example, it might be that they do not yet feel able to risk saying that there has been, or that, like the self-sacrificial parent who has “suppressed” knowledge that she is self-sacrificing, they are not consciously aware of it yet.

If you do feel bothered by the mess on the table, it might be worth your trying to become aware of your theory that “it is time” to tidy the table before you are in a coerced/coercive state of mind about it. Then, when it occurs to you that one more project will make the table mess level too much for your comfort levels, you can start tidying away the three abandoned projects while having a nice conversation with the person who is starting project number four. Or perhaps the project directors whose projects lie abandoned will want to remove them or tidy them away themselves. Ask them. If the three earlier project directors are unavailable but do not want their projects tidied away, perhaps you or they can move them elsewhere?

I deeply sympathise with those for whom housework feels like a form of torture. I used to feel like that myself. One of the things that helped me was to time how long it takes to do the dishes, or clean the table, or tidy the house from top to bottom, or whatever task it is that loomed so large in my mind. Discovering that actually, it all takes very little time indeed (it is amazing how much tidying you can do during an ad break, for example) really helped me.

Secondly, remember that all that ghastly resentment and stress and battles with children is not just horribly unpleasant and destructive in so many ways, but also takes much more time than actually doing the cleaning yourself! As I said, I feel tired just thinking about going through the stress Barbara Coloroso in effect advocates, when she advocates getting the child to take out the trash even if it would be quicker and easier to do it yourself.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘Possible subtle housework coercion’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/possible-subtle-housework-coercion

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