Such a chore! Part 1: Why chores matter? (it’s more than a clean toilet)

This post is a follow-up to last week’s Intervention post and the art of raising children who pick-up after themselves. I intend to write a series on chores. Why it matters, how to get your kids to do it and finally, how to get you to get your kids to do it.

Many parents put chores in the “pick your battles” folio of parenting. Of course, we all believe that children should pitch-in and learn to pick-up after themselves. All those frustrated to find an empty box of cookies in the pantry say “Aye!” Wouldn’t it be nice if the child who finished the cookies had the wherewithal to throw away the box? And yet, how many of us – especially those with large families where suspects abound – will call our children to the kitchen and ask them to pick-up their trash? We are more likely to shake our heads, throw away the offending empty box and move-on. We too often chicken out of holding our children to a standard of participation in the family’s life and well-being commensurate to their age and abilities. It is, after all, easier and more time efficient to throw away the empty box (or clean the bathroom, pick-up the toys or vacuum the bedroom) than to go through the song and dance of asking our children to do it. This is where parents of large families are at an advantage: doing everything for everyone is no longer time efficient and forces us to go through the song and dance of demanding concrete results from our children. Cue violins.

In our family, chores are not just a way to get stuff off the floor they also have an important role to play in the broader picture of education. It reminds me of something I read from Marybeth Hicks (who, shameless plug, will be giving a talk in Ottawa on November 18. My friends are organizing the event. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling Rachel at 819.775.5429). She was saying (probably through Twitter), referring to her children and political awareness: “We’re raising taxpayers.” The idea is that we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults and we must always keep sight of the adults we want our children to become. My long-term vision for my children is to raise them – in the words of James Stenson, another parenting author and speaker — to become “competent, responsible, considerate, and generous men and women who are committed to live by principles of integrity.” Here’s why a chores routine matters for the big picture.

1. Responsibility. In our family, children are not expected merely to pick-up after themselves but to play a role in the day-to-day function of the family. Each one of the four older children has responsibilities that go beyond their self-interest. Are they shining beacons of altruism? I wish! I mean, not yet! I think the quotes they will remember best from their formative years will be “It’s not a contest” (when they say “But I set the table twice in a row!”); “I don’t care whose turn it is, I just need it done ” (When they say “But it’s so-and-so’s turn to set the table”); and “I just made supper for the whole family all by myself” (when they say “But I just set the table all by myself.”) In other words, cry me a river. Chores that directly affect others in the family include washing bathrooms, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, feeding the pets, taking out the trash. This type of chores emphasizes the team-work aspect of the family. Look at it as a two-wheeler bicycle: you have to keep moving to stay on it. Each member benefits from the family and each member has to pedal to keep it going.

2. Timeliness, or doing things in a timely fashion.  When we limit our expectations to asking the children to pick-up after themselves, we generally tend to leave them in charge of the timing. There is a time and place for displaying initiative and ownership. When the garbage truck is barreling down the street is not that time. Timeliness is important because children need to learn that some things need to be done when they need to be done, not when they feel like it — also known as their own sweet time, also known as whenever. When I pile-up clean laundry on my daughter’s desk and ask her to put it away, there is no loss of functionality for the family if she gets dressed off her desk for a week and does her homework in bed. On the other hand, when she doesn’t empty the dishwasher before leaving for school, I (the mother with two infants in a sling) feel it right away. How many chronically unemployed adults explain their job losses by pathos such as “I don’t work well with rules” or “My boss did not understand my way of working”? Your own sweet time or whenever may work for you but it won’t always work for others. Agreed?

3. Method. Garbage has to be taken out weekly. If you dust the upper shelves after the lower ones, you will have to redo the lower shelves. Dust before you vacuum. Vacuum before you wash the floors. Don’t use the same rag to clean the toilet then the taps. And if you do a lousy job, mom will make you do it again. By doing chores over and over again – and by being forced to do them well — children learn efficiency and the importance of method. They also learn that doing the job well a.s.a.p. gets the boss of their back.

4. Team work. Assuming your children work well together. If not, they’ll learn coping strategies for working with people they don’t like. Full disclosure: my children don’t work well together. This morning’s coping strategies included hurling insults and orders at each other. Hey, it’s a work in progress ok?

What if you agree with everything I write but are having a hard time making it happen in your family? My next English post will expose a few pitfalls of developing a family chores routine and how to avoid, or at least get around, them.