"Mother always flew. She never sat down in the daytime, except at the loom or spinning wheel… After mother and the girls washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen, they brought their handwork into the dining room.” (Farmer Boy)So why can’t I even wash my own dishes every night? Laura’s mother probably couldn’t have slept in the same house with the piles of laundry that seem to live around here.
But what really amazes me are the children: Almanzo, in Farmer Boy, seems to spend all his time wishing he didn’t have to go to school so he could stay home and plant pumpkins or haul timber or shear sheep. My children seem to think that brushing their own teeth is just too big of a chore, much less walking two miles to school or carrying wood or water. I’m guessing that some of the difference is in the selective memory of the author, but some of it is in the nature of the chores themselves and some of it is just how manual work is viewed nowadays.
For example, one of my own children, who once upon a time would rather throw himself on the floor and cry than make his own bed, was really excited when I first said it was his job to empty the dishwasher. One reason: it seemed like real grown up stuff. Handling sharp knives! Carrying glass! The novelty has of course worn off. But I learned something. My child doesn’t really complain about things that are hard; he complains about the things he thinks are too easy, too babyish, not important enough. Even Almanzo didn’t like having to stay in the house and polish the stove. So, note to self: keep looking for harder things for them to do – the challenge is part of the attraction.
Next, I have to share with them the chores that I think are really important. Notice there are two parts to that: working together and work that matters. In Mary Rose O’Reilley’s funny and profound book, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, she quotes a farmer she knows as saying, “How does a man talk to his boys if they don’t do chores together?” O’Reilley actually got rid of her dishwasher so she and her teenaged children would have to stand around for a while each night, one washing and one drying. She says her kids weren’t happy about it, but they did actually spend more time together. Another Quaker family I know with three boys, ages 10-15, has instituted a policy that no one should do a chore alone. Then everyone knows how much work there is and none of it takes as long or feels as thankless.
The other part is feeling like the work you do really means something. Almanzo knew, and his parents reminded him, that if they didn’t hoe the corn or milk the cows or patch the quilts that their family would literally suffer. Not putting your toys back in the box doesn’t quite have the same impact.
So what are the right chores for our modern children to do if we don’t have a backyard of forty acres to plow? One answer is to look at what are the chores that we think are important to do. Do we mow the little bit of lawn that we have? Do we clean our own bathrooms? Do we participate in the manual work that is still required to make even our modern homes run smoothly? Or do we hire that work out, deeming it too unimportant?
What if a child development expert told us that one of the most important things you can do for your children is to teach them the basics of home maintenance, like replacing a button or scrubbing a bathtub? What if an expert said that it would keep our kids off drugs, build their self-esteem by developing real competencies, save money and develop healthier bodies and relationships for the whole family? I’m not actually an expert, but I’d like to play one in this essay, and I really do believe all of that.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t idealize manual work. It’s hard. It’s boring sometimes. It hurts sometimes. A favorite anecdote in my own family is one my father told me when I was about sixteen.
When my father was sixteen, his father got him an apprenticeship in the carpentry trade. My dad was actually too young and still in high school, but my grandfather pulled a few strings and worked out a deal where my dad could do his apprenticeship in the summers and afterschool, so that when he graduated he’d be ready to get a real job – a pretty good paying one in the Bay Area in the early 50’s. So my dad starts in and he’s a teenager and not so enamored of school, so it was going all right. But when you’re swinging a hammer all day long, you’re naturally going to miss the nail a few times and sometimes you’re going to hit your thumb. And that got him to thinking. His father’s thumbnails were always black and permanently flat. My dad realized that he could spend the rest of his life flattening his thumbs or he could go back to school and spend the rest of his life flattening his backside, and he thought that would be a whole lot easier, so he did. And so did I.
Nonetheless, he still knows how to build a house from scratch. As I was growing up, manual work was just something you had to do. You didn’t have to like it – and believe me, I complained plenty. But they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay someone else to do something we could do. I learned how to make a cake and clean a toilet. I knew how to split and stack firewood. I helped fix cars and plumbing and pour concrete stairs. And these are all useful skills. But if I don’t use them, I can’t teach my kids. Which brings me back to my slacker housekeeping. If I want my child to respect manual labor, to understand the real sweat and skinned knuckles that go into making civilization, he has to do some. And so do I.
Douglas Steere, author of Work and Contemplation, was for many years in charge of the AFSC youth workcamps. He said that people were always trying to change the schedule. In order to fit in some additional thing, they would want to shorten the work part of the day. But Steere always insisted that the work part last eight hours. First of all, so that the people they were helping would recognize what they were doing as work. But also because it is in that last two or three hours that real learning sets in. Only then do you understand what it really takes to do the jobs usually done by poor people. Then you ask yourself seriously, "why did I come here?" and "why am I doing this?" Then you learn how much strength and endurance you really have. None of which you ever get to if you just come out and do a project for a couple of hours and think, “that’s not so bad, it was kind of fun.”
So am I suggesting that our six-year-olds should be chopping firewood for eight hours everyday? No. But I am recommitting myself to doing the life-supporting housework with my children that will challenge their muscles or coordination or brains, or all three, and trust them to do it to the best of their ability.
I would love it if it weren’t true when they inevitably say, “I’m the only one who has to do this.” So let’s share this parenting challenge. What chores/schedules work best for you? What’s the funniest excuse you’ve ever heard? What’s your favorite "learning moment"?
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