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The Hammer Comes Down

September 23, 2012 — Leave a comment

There’s a great episode of Modern Family that opens with the Dunphy kids cleaning the kitchen… because Claire overheard them say they were bored. They discover that admitting to boredom in range of mom’s hearing has consequences.

It works the same here. Don’t ever let this long-distance dad hear the answer “nothin much” when I ask “What’d you do this weekend?” Not when there’s a backload of unfinished tasks stacked up like planes over LaGuardia on a foggy night.

Shortly after Mtuseni started college, I began paying him a monthly allowance once I realized that his family wasn’t covering daily expenses. Like any kid, it’s important that he earn the allowance. Since he can’t come here and wash my car, he has a variety of tasks such as writing blog posts or answering interview questions or making LinkedIn contacts. Mostly, the tasks are designed to advance his development and, at this stage, prepare him for finding an internship. And he always has an easy out of sending me photos from his phone; they help me tell his story on the blog, are important to the upcoming book — and I just like to see that he’s healthy and doing well.

Yet almost every month getting him to do these tasks is like pulling teeth. He always waits til the last minute and needs reminding, and sometimes the work is half-assed and paired with excuses and rationalizations.

In the course of regular interactions, I’ll ask Mtuseni to do other simple things. Like call the dentist I tracked down for him. Or write a new LinkedIn profile. Or send me weekly status reports of his grades so we don’t get drama-filled, near-fail situations like last term. “Ok,” he says. “Will do.” And these things are never done.

I know recent research has shown a developmental issue in the brains of late teen boys that limits cognitive capacity for tasks like memory and logic. But with Mtuseni lately, I’ve been wondering if the bad car accident he was in at 13 rattled his brain too much. It’s pathological! And driving me insane.

Positive reinforcement — offering allowance bonuses for extra tasks — was never effective; he could barely do the standard tasks. I’ve been reticent to take the opposite approach and dock him pay when work isn’t done; he really does need every rand. But my being loose with the allowance and letting tasks slide every month has diminished the only leverage I have with him. Dad has cried wolf too many times, and my little lamb has become complacent.

But a few days ago, he told me he went to see The Avengers, and it was expensive with popcorn and soda. Yeah, no kidding! That’s why I haven’t bought food at the cinema in 15 years (something about an 8,000 percent profit margin on popcorn just rubs me the wrong way). And given that my own discretionary spending has been curtailed to virtually nothing so I can afford his tuition and expenses and gifts and dental care (if he ever makes the damn appointment!)… well, he can learn a hard financial lesson about accountability and deal with the consequences.

So I told Mtuseni today that this week starts a new allowance structure — with various missed tasks resulting in specific deductions from the base amount. If he doesn’t step up, he’s going to have a very lean October.

Your teenage years are over, buddy. Welcome to the decade of learning responsibility.

Somehow I think Claire Dunphy would approve.

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