When my family and I visited a friend at her home last summer, I marveled at the “job chart” she posted each morning for her five children. Even the youngest, at age 7, had a number of chores assigned. For the most part, it seemed they did them diligently and without too much complaining. Maybe they just knew they would lose any argument with their parents anyway.
Hmm, would a job chart work in my house, I wondered? Sure, my kids were asked to empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, pick-up after themselves (sort-of), that kind of thing.
But real jobs? Didn’t I have to do all that, or hire someone to do it? How could I ask my four little darlings to do the kinds of chores I did as a child: scrub floors and bathrooms, shovel a long driveway, cut the grass with a manual mower. Clearly these things had profoundly burdened me as a human being and I couldn’t dare ask my own precious little ones to do such work. The fact that I have rather fond memories of feeling — well, useful — as a child and took some pleasure in a job well done, and through it all, still liked my parents … that must have been brainwashing later imposed.
Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I wrote a book on parenting. My kids are already burdened. I may as well add the chores!”
So a few months ago I had a “family meeting” with the kids, age 12, 10, 7 and 5, and introduced the job chart, which now shows up about twice a week. (Notice I didn’t write about this at its inauguration. It’s kind of like a diet; if it bombs, you don’t want anyone to know about your failure.)
But so far, so good. There were arguments at first. “Mom! This isn’t fair. I have to do more than the little girls!” Well, yeah. (Socialism can only work in a family.) There were shoddily done jobs that had to be done over and over. For a while, it took me more time to supervise than it would have to do the work myself.
Flash forward a few months, and I marvel as the kids gather around the job chart — which they now brag about to their friends — sometimes even horse trading their jobs. What do you know? Rather than waste time fighting with me, they’ve for the most part figured out it’s easier to just get to work.
Emptying the dishwasher and garbage is till there. But now there’s more responsibility for cleaning the basement and bathrooms, vacuuming, laundry, dusting, some yard work and more. It turns out that even a 5-year-old can put a fitted sheet on a bed and straighten up the coatroom “cubbies.”
Sure, I still find myself doing a certain amount of “finishing” work, and I continue to have my own jobs, too. But everything seems a little tidier now. The kids aren’t quite as likely to throw clean clothes in a hamper just to get them off the floor. And occasionally I’ll overhear one child, anticipating clean-up duty, say to another, “Pick that up now!”
Look, I realize none of this is really that impressive. Anybody who grew up on a farm, or like I did in a middle-class suburb, is probably thinking, “Big deal.” They’re probably also thinking, “You wrote a book on parenting, and you are just figuring all this out now?”
OK. OK. Sometimes I’m a bit slow. But I also find that some of my contemporaries are quite surprised — shocked or envious, I can’t always tell — at the responsibilities my kids now have.
In any event, here’s what I’ve found makes this work for my kids: Letting them value a job done well, or as well done as they can do it, and appreciating working together for a common good. Making clear to them that not having to hire the occasional cleaning service, or doing so only rarely, means there is extra spending money for allowances or a Saturday matinee for the family.
It also means mom is just. … less stressed. And, boy, is there grace in that!
And it’s funny; just like when I was a kid, I continue to find genuine satisfaction in scrubbing and waxing the kitchen floor myself.
(Betsy Hart is the author of the forthcoming “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” E-mail her at letterstohart(at)comcast.net.)