Chore Wars: Take II . . . GAME ON!

I showed my son the Chore Wars site tonight, and he got all excited about it, so I guess we’re back on it! (Also, when I originally set up the account it was back in September, so it’s only been . . .  erm . . . six months or so since I last looked at it . . . So long, that I couldn’t remember what password my daughter had picked or even if I had done it for her, so I had to go through the rigamarole of resetting it for her, but I put the website on the home screen of the iPad and set the password on that. Ideally, she can go in on the iPad on her own every day and update her “adventure”.

The challenge now is to come up with a value for the virtual gold they might earn, or prizes for levelling up.

You see, neither of my children is particularly bribe-able. And believe me, I’m one to use incentives where I can, as advance positive-reinforcement. If something sweetens the pot a little, then swallowing some unpleasantness can be worth it. But my kids see right through the plan, particularly the 9 year old. If she doesn’t want to do something, then unless you threaten to empty her room of toys and books and games and everything fun, and also raise the voice somewhat, she won’t budge. So I’m not sure how she’s going to respond to Chore Wars, but there is a glimmer of hope: she is starting to understand the real value of money.

The other day, for example, as I was cleaning the living room, I found a couple of Canadian Tire “dollars” and she asked if she could have them for her wallet. I said, “Sure,” — because really, we have more than enough floating around at the moment, and hubby wasn’t home to claim them — and she got busy counting. (YAY MATH!) She was very pleased to have a whole FIFTEEN cents, at least until her brother reminded her that .15 basically buys you nothing in Canada, unless you can actually find an old-school penny candy store, and even in those, a single gummy or Swedish berry is going to be like .05 each. Mmm, three candies.

Sidebar: I remember when (showing my age here) my mom would give me some bottles to take back to the corner store, and I’d get to keep the change. I’d buy a chocolate bar and an Archie comic, or maybe some baggies of assorted candy and a True Story magazine, or maybe a small bottled Coke and a Tales from the Crypt comic, or maybe a pouch of shredded bubble gum and a Seventeen, and then my friends and I would meet up in the park or one of their bedrooms or the rec room or the beach and munch away, reading our comics / magazines / what-have-you . . . One time, I bought a Pep chocolate mint disc, and there was a whole extra half-disc inside! It was like finding treasure, I tell you!

So if I create some kind of exchange rate, or even value the “gold” at some currency we already use, that could be doable, but how do I feel about paying kids for chores that I don’t even get paid to do? We don’t give our children allowances, but when they need or want money for something important, like school milks or pizza day, or for a treat like poutine for a snack, freezies in the summer, or fresh craft materials at the dollar store — and if they’ve earned it by helping out in some way — then generally they receive what they need. And they don’t ask for more than that, I find. They neither request nor expect money on a regular basis, but nor do they jump into doing chores. And we their parents, feeling overwhelmed by working full time outside the house and the clutter generated by four sentient beings sharing a not-large space, we do the bare minimum and we get by, but with frustration and repeated vows or sweeping declarations to do better, without actually doing better.

No more, I say!

So how much might an average North American child earn for a chore? At one time, when my son was 9, I started to train him in running five blocks down to the video store to return a movie and pick one out for himself. I added in a few other simple tasks, and put their values as change, and very quickly, I found myself having to write down IOUs because he’d run me out of all of my coinage. That system was working through the summer until school started and I had to refocus my energy — I couldn’t keep track anymore, and with the changing demand on my income, I couldn’t afford to pay the kid! So I’d rather not get in that kind of situation again.

At the same time, I want the kids to apply the satisfaction of having done the work well, to aim for being proud of the cleaning and contribution. I’ve seen them do this, but it’s not regular, even with positive reinforcements and offers of rewards. With my daughter, I tried making chores lists connect to puzzle pieces, and every time she did a chore, she’d get the piece for her puzzle. When the puzzle was complete, she’d get the game or treat or whatever I’d written on the back. I learned that she’s very sneaky and cunning when she wants to be — she found the bag of puzzle pieces and was cheating at the game! With both kids, I’ve helped them clean their rooms or even done it for them just to give them a clean slate. But I recognize that I can’t be doing that anymore. I will give them a head start, but then it must be up to them to keep it going. And maybe Chore Wars will help.

But back to that money thing . . . The other part is that we already have plans to return to FanExpo in September of this year, and they’re going to want to bring their own spending money for that. If they’re earning money at home, it’s a good opportunity to learn about saving, delayed gratification, and banking practices. But I don’t want it to become exorbitantly expensive, either. Maybe I should just say each “gold piece” is worth $.01 and be done with it? If so, then for dusting, making a bed, and doing laundry, I would have earned a grand total of $.37. But with Chore Wars, I also get those coveted Experience Points. (Hey, actually, right now I have 102 gold pieces, and 136 XP!)

See, now I’m getting excited just over that stuff. So maybe actual, physical money doesn’t matter. Or maybe there should be a payout at the end of 30 days, in coin only, to make them see and touch the physical fruits of the labour, and practice those accounting skills. I can see Bridget getting excited over a little pile of shiny coins, but Jack? Hmm . . .

I’m overthinking it, I know. I tend to do that. But if I’m going to invest the time and energy into making this system work — into motivating my family and helping our household operate more effectively, then I want to see all possible reactions and have a response for them. I like having contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. I expect the worst but want the best. That way, if it falls apart, maybe I won’t be as let down as if I had put all of my hopes and dreams into a warm fuzzy ideal.

I’ve done the cranky-mom thing in order to push kids to get things done, and nobody likes it, its effectiveness is questionable, and I don’t like who I am when that happens. I have to be grumpy enough in the classroom in order to convince, cajole, guide, press, lead, model, and inspire kids — when I get home, my energy for that routine is just about gone. So Chore Wars, I really hope that this will work for us. And within a reasonably quick passage of time.

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Paper Routine — my entry to the CBC Canada Writes Short Story Contest

Excerpt:

“You’re such a good girl.”

He used to think that it was funny, in a bitter-sweet kind of way. I was sixteen, or it was my birthday, and I had never been kissed. Never had a boyfriend. I didn’t wear makeup, and my usual outfit consisted of a baggy sweatshirt and torn blue jeans.
I was sixteen, and I had a newspaper route.
That was how I met him.
He would come out of his garage to see me, the old man, or from the side door of his brick bungalow. I would pull up to the house on my bike, open the painted door to the old milk box, painted pale yellow to match the trim around the doors and window, and inevitably, he would come out. Sometimes, I saw him watching for me from the kitchen window.

“If you ever have a fight with your parents and you need a place to stay…”

I had decided on the newspaper route two years earlier. It seemed like an easy way to make some spending money, while getting exercise. The only downside was meeting the deadline every day, and delivering admail every second Friday. Otherwise, it was an easy gig. Aside from the odd grumpy dog, or the embarrassment of seeing someone my age who clearly wondered what the hell I was doing delivering newspapers when I should be shoveling burgers or peddling clothing like others in their teens, I liked it.
It was my half hour, or more, of peace after school each day. Time to daydream, as I walked down the four block route. I had a residential road with many retirees, like him, who had beautiful gardens and well-kept homes. The better ones were on the east side, facing the lake. They often had docks, and maybe one or two had beaches. I would imagine owning one of them, but I could never decide whether it would be better to back onto water, or onto the bike trail that ran along the old railway to the west. The bushes were high enough that those backyards had privacy, but I knew there were pools back there.

“Why don’t you bring your friends over for a pool party? I’m not going to try anything, you know. You probably think I’m some kind of dirty old man. But I’m not.”

He was lonely. I could see it in his eyes. The stoop of his shoulders under the brown cardigan, or the grey. He had a sense of the dramatic, too, which I enjoyed, in a way. The way he would stand in his garage, perfectly still, as the wide metal door slowly levered open in one big piece. Or, how he would slowly open the door as I popped the newspaper in the mailbox. His back would straighten as he smiled at me. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, but neither did I feel threatened. We’d chat. His eyes would light up as he asked about my day. And I would move on after an appropriate interval. I had made a lonely old man feel better.

“What are you doing biking in the rain? Put your bike in here, I’ll drive you.”

I knew my boundaries. The first few times he offered to drive me down the block, I politely declined. But there came a day, one early spring, when the clear sky turned to sleet, and with freezing hands and damp hair I accepted the ride. After that, when the weather was bad, allowing the old man to chauffeur me became a relief. Not often, but enough. My parents thought it was sweet.

“I really like talking to you. You make me feel young again.”

I no longer remember our exact conversations, but I remember his house. There was a billiard table in the basement. The kitchen had yellow cupboards, and the living room was tastefully decorated, very clean, and there were doilies. He was married. His wife, he’d told me, had not been affectionate toward him in years. I knew, somehow, that this was not something an old man should be sharing with a young girl.
But, being polite, I said nothing.

“I’m going to miss you, you know.”

Tall, gangly, my body often felt more boyish than feminine. I’m not sure when I allowed him to give me a hug. It might have been as simple as a squeeze on my shoulder when he gave me my bi-weekly newspaper money. Certainly, when I got my driver’s license. But when I made my last delivery before a week’s break, while I went on a field trip to the States, he hugged me tightly. I knew I had a place in his lonely world and that I made him happy.
I shouldn’t have accepted his next offer.
I knew I shouldn’t have, that my parents would not have approved and would still be shocked that I did.
Sixteen years old, never been kissed. I was greedy for the world.
One of my customers on that route had been an Olympic boxer; he’d shown me his gold medal, in pride of place on a glass shelf in his professionally appointed basement exercise room.
One of my customers caught me talking to myself as I daydreamed aloud, but aside from a raised eyebrow, never bothered me about this curious habit.
One of my customers offered me five hundred dollars to take on my field trip.
Five hundred dollars.

The old man drove me to his bank, my bicycle left safely in his garage, and as I stood by his side, withdrew the money in the form of traveller’s cheques. So I could have a comfortable, enjoyable trip. I didn’t need it. It was a gift.

“I can’t keep this.”

Wary of neighbours, not wanting anyone to think the wrong thing, the old man had never closed the door while we were inside. How could I take this money? I knew it was not the right thing to do, but still, I kept it.
In truth, having the extra money, which I had not earned and did not deserve, made my trip much easier. I didn’t have to worry about keeping enough aside for each meal. I was able to buy souvenirs. I bought him a small hanging ornament made of painted clay, and a hook to display it. It was a little thank you to him.

He laughed when I gave it to him.

He had tears in his eyes when he gave it back, some time later.

Was it weeks?

“I can’t keep this,” he told me, softly. His hands trembled as he gently placed the ornament I had bought for him, using the money he’d given me, into my palm and closed my fingers over it. “I look at it, and it makes me…want you.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I let him talk.