For my older children it's often the case where they don't want to fall afoul of the rules (and thus get in trouble) coupled with the "dishwasher" effect.
The Dishwasher Effect
They don't like to put their dirty dishes away. If they don't, however, there will be a consequence. So they put their dishes on the counter if there isn't a parent around. If there's a parent around, they'll ask if the dishwasher is dirty. We usually tell them to look themselves (ie, you already have the power to answer it yourself), but there's a problem:
They can't always tell if the dishwasher is dirty or not, even if looking. We drink mostly water in our house. We have a large family so the dishwasher is run almost twice a day, which means that the condition of the dishwasher can't be associated with time. We often use clean dishes directly from the dishwasher, so there may be a half full dishwasher of what appear to be clean dishes, but they might actually be dirty and without careful inspection it can be hard for a child to understand the state of the dishes.
So what should be a simple rule: "Put your dirty dishes away" appears to be a big, difficult to solve, problem for them.
Even if it's not difficult to solve, a seemingly simple rule may have a dozen other rules attached and it can be difficult to remember them all.
Requesting A Rules Check
The conversation will sometimes go like this in our house:
Son: May I play video games?
Parent: I don't know, can you?
Son: I think so.
Now at this point I can say, "Well, do according to your understanding." and then when I follow up with them later I will inevitably find something they failed to do. This makes both of us unhappy. But unraveling the rules turns out to be a significant challenge. The rules, at first glance, seem simple:
- Homework must be complete
- Chores muse be complete
- Bedroom must be clean
- Playroom must be clean
But if you dig in, there are nearly a dozen rules for each of the above, and any minor violation may result in a consequence. They can't easily determine if their homework is complete. As an adult it seems trivial, but it's not.
- Is there math homework? Is it done?
- Is there social studies homework? Is it done?
- Is there English homework? Is it done?
- Is there a long term project? Have I completed enough of it that I can consider myself up to date?
- Is there a test coming up? Do I need to study for it?
- What day is today, is there something specific I need to get ready for tomorrow?
There is, or should be, in theory, a stable checklist for each task. The bedroom isn't clean until all the toys and clothes are off the floor.
But then there are a number of exceptions on top of these dozens and dozens of rules. Is what the siblings are doing going to change the evaluation for the bedroom being clean? Is it fair for this child to be delayed from video games due to actions of a sibling preventing them from "checking off" all the rules (similar to sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk on a windy fall day).
Difficulty is Over Nine Thousaaaaand
If you have a checklist of four items, and those items don't cascade into any other items, and they are easy to evaluate, and there are no exceptions, then you may be justified in your frustration at having them evaluate the conditions each time.
But, even to a tween or teenager, these are not simple questions to answer, and depending on how strict your consequences are they may choose to have you evaluate them every time, rather than run the risk of forgetting task 1.a.III.
Consider a different approach, when they ask you to evaluate the rules:
Parent: If you aren't certain, I'm glad to help. Rather than discussing it verbally, though, since that hasn't worked in the past, I'd like you to write down the rules and then come back to me so we can review them together.
Child: Here are the rules (hands paper)
Parent: Ok, this [looks right|is missing X, Y and Z]. Now which rules do you already know the answer for - put a check mark next to them. ... Good. Now let's talk about the ones you aren't sure about. Sometimes it helps to break things down into smaller pieces. So let's take clean bedroom, since you aren't sure about it. Go ahead and write down the rules for a clean bedroom.
Child: Here are the rules(hands paper)
Eventually you will accomplish several things:
- They will have a list of your approved rules for a given activity
- You (and they) will explicitly recognize which ones they are having trouble evaluating
- You will teach them how to solve "big" problems by breaking them up
- You won't be sending the messages "You are all alone in this" or "I will always solve your problems for you."
- They will understand that while you are available to help them evaluate the rules, you won't actually do the work for them, and it may be less annoying for them to figure it out themselves than it will be to go through the process with you.
- They will see that you are consistent, and unlikely to make an exception or forget something, making it less profitable to take a chance and ask you when they already know the answer.