Monday, February 15, 2010

Kids & chores: Why they should and why I should

As I read this article by my Globe West colleague, Taryn Plumb, I noted with some relief that most of the children cited in the story about household chores are older than mine, or at least older than my younger child. The article reassured me that maybe there’s still time for my 7- and 11-year-old to get with the program.

I admit I’ve been negligent when it comes to expecting my children to do regular household chores. It’s much more my fault than theirs. For one thing, as odd as it may sound to admit, I don’t feel like I need a lot of help. This may be the whiplash effect of being a self-employed full-time-at-home mom after two years of 9-to-5 out-of-the-house corporate employment, but I really don’t find it difficult to get most of the household chores done myself. I’m just grateful to have the time at home to do them.

Furthermore, the kids’ schedules aren’t always particularly conducive to household chores. My first thought upon reading the opening about the kids helping with the laundry every day was to wonder how they possibly have time for this before school…and then I read that they go to a private school where catching a bus or even arriving in time for the first bell is not necessarily a requirement of their school day, as it is in our household.

And even though I know setting the table is an excellent match for the skills of a 7-year-old like my daughter, there are a lot of days when I find the half-hour before dinner to be one of the most peaceful parts of the day, as I spend it by myself in the kitchen cooking, setting up and listening to NPR. Sure, I could call the kids down to help, but they’re doing their homework or playing, and I’m relishing the early-evening solitude.

But I know that’s not entirely the point. As the article says, having children do chores isn’t just about getting help with the work; it’s also about contributing to the children’s character development. And intellectually, I agree with this; I just have trouble coming up with recurring jobs for the kids that I consider both ideologically and pragmatically appropriate for them.

For example, we have pets because the kids wanted pets and love having them around, so I think pet-related chores are a perfect match ideologically for the kids. But unfortunately, that’s where the pragmatic part comes in. Though it makes sense intellectually to have Holly clean her guinea pig’s cage, I don’t feel that she has the manual dexterity or the sanitation standards to do a good job. It takes coordination to ensure that all the dirty shavings from the cage slide into the trash bag rather than all over the floor, and I’m generally squeamish about a child who needs to be reminded to wash her hands before snacks and meals being up to her elbows, or even her knuckles, in guinea pig waste.

I also don’t like the level of dissent that chores tend to generate in our household. My two children seldom argue with each other, but when they do, it’s almost always because I’ve asked them to unload the dishwasher or clear the table. Both of them prefer to unload the upper rack of the dishwasher rather than the lower rack, but since it’s not a task that needs to be done daily, they can never remember whose turn it is to have first choice, so they argue about it. When my husband tells them to clear the dinner table, with each expected to take half the tabletop, they furtively try to slide items onto the other person’s half to “even it out.”

In the end, though, I think the winning reason to give my kids work is so that they don’t reach adulthood having never done any household tasks. When I ask my son to clear dishes or set the table, a part of me is aware that I’m paving the way for a future household in which he’s an adult. Since I’ve already picked out several girls in his fifth grade class whom I’d be happy to see him settle down with, it’s fairly easy to picture them cursing me, as his mom, for never have expected him to do any work around the house. It’s a sobering thought, and it almost always keeps me from caving in when he complains about being asked to pitch in.

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