Of Children and Chores

Children in my family grew up with certain understandings: Dad gets the biggest piece of pie; don’t disturb Mom’s nap unless you need to go to the emergency room; Lawrence Welk is unavoidable.

We also obeyed a more universal decree: children do chores.

I admire parents who teach their children to work when it would be easier and faster to do the tasks themselves.

My siblings and I were reasonable about most parental requests, but we contested chores. We questioned their need, debated their equity, and dawdled about doing them.

imagesAs one of our assignments, Carolyn and I had to do the dinner dishes; one washed and rinsed while the other wiped and put away, alternating each night. She was a fastidious wiper, scrutinizing each item in the drainer and slamming it back into the dishwater if she found a smudge of gravy or spot of grease. I was a nervous wreck, pulling my hands from the water whenever she wound up for a throw and drenched by the tidal waves her force created.

When Barbara grew tall enough to reach the sink, Mom promoted Carolyn to cook’s helper, and my struggle changed. Every night with innocent eyes and infuriating calmness, Barbara insisted it was her turn to dry and wouldn’t back down no matter what I threatened. So we sometimes had to wrestle to resolve the dispute. Mom once entered the kitchen and found us locked in combat on the floor. She sighed and left.

One morning when Joel and I were visiting our grandchildren, a pitched battle over chores occurred. The task had changed; the fierceness of the exchange had not.

“No, Jack, you’re lying. I did it last time; you know I did. Mom, he’s lying; he’s a liar!” Jaynee pled her case with drama, indignation and tears: a teenager wronged.

images-1Jack fired back at top volume: “No, you didn’t, Jaynee; I did. I remember because you had to go to cheerleading practice. It’s true! I did it last. You’re the liar!” An easy-going 5th-grader with two older sisters, the boy knew how to counterpunch.

All this fuss because their mom told them she needed the dishwasher emptied—now.

My brother Bob, raising an abundant brood, once lamented that in an urban area, he had trouble devising meaningful work for his children.

“If I didn’t milk the cows, we had no milk. If I didn’t fill the coal bucket for the stove, Mom couldn’t cook. If I didn’t water the garden, our summer food supply died. What do I tell my children? If you don’t vacuum the living room, it won’t look nice? If you don’t mow the lawn, it will grow too long? They roll their eyes at me like I’m less than bright.”

images-2He solved his problem by procuring paper routes for his progeny. The older children took on afternoon and morning routes, pumping bikes around their quiet suburb, carefully placing papers on peoples’ porches. When they moved on to other jobs, their younger siblings took over.

They still tell stories about their experiences.

But they learned to work, as are Jaynee and Jack, as did I—one of the most important gifts a parent can give.

Have any thoughts about chores and children?
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