Slacker housekeeping?

There’s nothing like reading a Laura Ingalls Wilder book to make me feel like a slacker.
"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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Blogger Contemplative Scholar said...

I love this! Thank you, Robin!

I appreciate this entire posting, and am especially struck by this: "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."

Connecting work explicitly with togetherness and mutual appreciation is brilliant!

11/25/2007 11:01 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Julie's put all the "Little House" episodes on our Netflix queue and watches them while trying to tackle the piles of laundry needing to be folded on our couches! (While I work two jobs (three? four? five?) and so reinforce gender roles). Our four year old is getting pretty good at some jobs (he loves putting the laundry down the chute) and despises others (it's a fight most nights to get him to clean up his toys), so this is a good post to read right about now.

11/25/2007 5:16 PM  
Blogger Jenell Williams Paris said...

I loved The Barn at the End of the World, and once had Mary Rose O'Reilley come speak in my class. She was wonderful, inspiring, and challenging. She said it was OK if I don't get much writing done while my children are little, and that was very life-giving for me. (Though I had brought her to class for my students, I hogged the question-and-answer time!)

I don't know what will happen as my boys grow up. They already follow their dad around when he works with tools, so I know they'll learn traditionally male chores. They don't pay much attention to the tedious, repetitive chores like laundry and cleaning, though I'm determined they learn that, too.

Great post!

11/25/2007 7:35 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Contemplative Scholar, thanks! Or you're welcome! Whichever seems appropriate to you. :-)

Martin, I hear you about the gender roles. It is a struggle to keep up the idea that the ministry I do is also "work," since I don't have an "office" to do it in, and I'm the one to pick up the kids from school and make dinner (almost) every night. I think what's important to me is that my husband clearly respects the work that I do as much as I respect the work that he does. That has to rub off somehow. And the division of who does what has changed over time and it will change again, I'm sure. I can't wait until there are four of us taking turns washing the dishes. Or maybe I will opt out of that completely some day, and instead be the only one who sweeps or something else that doesn't involve soapy water.

11/25/2007 7:37 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Jenell Paris comments on my blog! (I'm honored, really. If you haven't read her blog before, I recommend it highly.)

Jenell, I think it made a huge difference in my family that we were both daughters. If there had been a boy, my parents might have been much more gender-specific. As it was, if my dad wanted help, he had to teach his girls how to use a wrench.

In my house now, there are only sons. And by golly, they can fold and put away their own clothes. My best line? "Do you have too many clothes to put away? If so, I could give them to children who don't have enough." Which they know is a real possibility, because they've gone with me to give away things that were too small. I didn't start using that until they were about five though. Before that, I don't think it would have worked. It works best when their favorite shirt has just come out of the dryer.

11/25/2007 7:48 PM  
Blogger Su said...

Some rhetorical questions on the subject of threatening to give away kids' clothes if they don't fold them:

Who do the children's things belong to? Them, or their parents?

How would you feel if someone threatened to get rid of something of yours if you didn't maintain it to their standards?

Does using threats to get compliance build the kind of relationship you hope to have with your children?

11/25/2007 10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Robin, I like your post. But it looks like Martin got to it first. I'm not sure about the gender role thing TOO much. I do work outside the home and Martin DOES know how to use the washing machine (my own dad didn't know how to operate one until after my mom died in 2000). And Martin does the thankless bedtime ritual almost every night since I'm at work at that time. But he does take out the trash, change the cat litter, and mow. (Some gender roles just ain't worth fighting. What kinda loony do ya take me for?)

I actually think Theo is doing a good job with chores. For me he cleans up nicely (most of the time) and knows the ramifications if he doesn't (confiscation). And yes, he does love to have a "job"--a real job--and even asks for one sometimes. He's helped me dry dishes, retrieve items for me if I'm in a pinch, and he helps me cook (has a big stool in the kitchen and wears aprons, but he really does help and really is learning). He's also helped me weed, "planted" his own "garden" (ok, not really, he just picked a dandelion and planted it, and then tried to stake it up with a tomato stake), washed the car, and helped do the laundry (sort and put in washer/dryer or hang on line). At least half the time he soothes his brother by "reading" and singing to him at night. He has scrubbed the toilet/tub, fed the cat, "helped" grocery shop (with his own cart), put away groceries, and has raked leaves and collected sticks, among other things. I think that's not too bad for a just-barely-four-year-old. I certainly don't want any wussy-kids on my hands.

Oh, we don't have a dishwasher either, for better or for worse! (When we put in a new kitchen I just felt that the dishwasher created more work since I often had to re-wash dishes anyway, so I opted for a pull-out trash can instead.)

Thanks, Robin!

Oh, and a long PS to Quakermom:

Those questions may have been rhetorical, but I don't think so. I'll bite.

Children's things are the property of the parents at least until the children are old enough to care for them responsibly. It is OUR responsibility AS PARENTS to teach our children personal responsibility and accountability.

As an adult, if I do not properly care for the material things entrusted to my care then I should not have them. It does not matter how I would "feel." If we do not at least vigorously strive to succeed in teaching our children something as basic as personal responsibility then we are not doing our God-given parental duties and should be strung up by our toes. What kind of adults will they become if they fail to learn this? The prospect makes me tremble as I've seen the results in my own family--drug use, theft, prison, murder. No, I'm not kidding.

And yes indeed, sometimes children require threats in order to comply. They do not always understand the ramifications of their action/inaction. That is what makes them the children and us the grown-ups.

Yes I always strive to explain the reasons for things (to my four-year-old), but in the long run "because I told you so" is enough. It's called obedience, and it's what God expects from His children--us--even without explanation. We do not always understand His requirements and I guarantee my two-year old doesn't understand mine.

Children need to attempt to LOVINGLY comply and we as parents need to attempt to LOVINGLY rule, but have no doubt that rule is what we must do if we wish to teach our children well.

11/25/2007 11:44 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi, Quakermom, thanks for raising some good questions.

I don't see my question as a threat so much as pointing out a logical consequence. It's not an angry punishment, it's a choice. If it's too much work to take care of my stuff, I have too much stuff. This is one of my criteria for separating useful/needful things from clutter in general. I do want my children to learn this as well.

This is one of the other differences between my home and the Ingalls household. Laura got her first, and only "real doll" ever when she turned five. She may have had three dresses at a time when she was a child. My kids probably do have too many toys or clothes.

As to who things belong to, basically everything we own is held in trust for the use of our family, each according to his need, with greater responsibility accruing with increased ability. Each person who is old enough is responsible for getting his or her dirty clothes into the laundry basket and getting his or her clean clothes into his/her drawer.

If one of us has more than he/she needs or can use, then we'll find someone else who needs it. That may be a younger brother, or it may be someone outside of our family. And that is usually my responsibility to manage. I routinely go through their drawers and take out the things that are too small or have too many holes, at my sole discretion. I don't ask their permission.

When I have the time and patience, I do the sorting with them, in order to teach them what my criteria are for what fits, or what's too ratty looking. This relationship will change as my children get older, but for now, in the end, it's my decision.

I wouldn't have put it as strongly as Julie, but basically I agree with her point that being the parent means it is my responsibility to teach my children my expectations for their behavior and then to enforce the consequences.

I don't use idle or exaggerated threats. But I do try to give clear choices within the range of options that are acceptable to me.

Julie, that was a pretty good list for a four year old, I'd say. I should also give my husband credit for cleaning our bathrooms this weekend, handwashing the dishes that don't go in the dishwasher, and reading at bedtime. I'm not really worried that my children will grow up with outdated gender roles.

P.S. It always amazed me that my father knew how to FIX the washing machine, but not USE it.

11/26/2007 1:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is a great post! I like the idea of no one doing a chore on their own. Of course, with only three people in the family, one of whom is still under a year old, this isn't exactly feasible at the moment--but it's something to shoot for. I like the fact that you do get to have time to chat while doing manual labor-type chores. And I like the fact that you learn how to do stuff yourself. This means I have to know how to do it first, of course...

11/26/2007 2:00 AM  
Blogger grey said...

I loved your posting. In particular, I was taken by your comments about how your father can still knows how to build a house from scratch, and how you've done everything from cleaning toilets to pouring concrete stairs.

My father too is someone who is extraordinarily capable at manual labour, for all that it's not at all what he does for a living. I've learned some things from him, but I haven't had much chance to use them. (I did repair my washing machine yesterday though :) ). I agree that it's important for kids to do these things.

It's important, I think, to develop the confidence in yourself and your self-suffiency that these kinds of things, whether toilet-cleaning or building a shed, help develop. It gives you a sense of wider possibilities and ownership (in the sense of agency) over your world and helps you connect more directly with objects, body, and environment.

I'm in my 30s now, a single woman renting a house, and I wish I had done more of this kind of thing growing up. The sense of accomplishment in say, hanging a storm door, building a little terrace for my new compost bin, or fixing the toitlet is enormous. I take into my teaching life a growing sense that I am competent and resourceful, that I can handle what the world throws at me.

I do wish I could do chores in groups though!

Anyway, thanks!

11/26/2007 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post came at a good time for me, as I am once again feeling unbelievably overwhelmed by the work of my house.

I will say that our family does hire someone to come in and clean, not because we deem cleaning unimportant, but again because of the all-mighty schedule. Both my husband and I work full-time, and if we tried to add a full, thorough housecleaning onto our schedule, one of two things would happen: 1) we would never get to it, and the house would be completely condemned by the board of health, or 2) we would never have any time with our children (not to mention each other) that didn't involve chores. No, it's not ideal, and it does illustrate to me that our life is not as balanced as it could be, but for now, it is the sword we are carrying. And having the cleaning person come in does not excuse any of us from picking up our things, or running the vaccuum if a room needs it, etc.

One thing I did recently was have my girls (7 and 5) help me fold laundry (I know this is something I should have been doing long before this, but because of the vagueries of our schedule, most of the time that I spend folding laundry is after they are asleep). Anyway, I noticed that my 7 yo ran rings around the 5 yo in terms of how MUCH laundry she folded, but the 5 yo was much neater about it, and really took the care to do it well, whereas the 7 yo basically rushed through the job. It was interesting to me to see their personalities emerge again, this time within the context of a mundane chore.

Thanks again, for this. You have given me much to think about, and a possible way to do it differently.


11/26/2007 10:26 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

When I was reading about the Amish, I found out that they choose not to use technology not because they think it's inherently bad, but because dependence on technology decreases dependence on family and community. It creates the illusion that we are independent creatures who don't need each other for survival.

11/26/2007 5:09 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Cherice, maybe the first chore to teach your child is to feed himself. After that, you might find it's just as much fun to throw the blocks into the box as it is to throw them out.

Grey, you might be interested in Contemplative Scholar's related post on doing work together. She's thinking about maybe hosting a "grading party" for other teachers to do this time- consuming chore together.

Mia, the technical aspects of folding laundry made it much more interesting to my older son. When I was letting him be sloppy, he didn't care. But making precise edges appealed to the same part of him that likes to make paper airplanes.

Allison, thanks for the reminder about that reasoning of the Amish. I remember reading about that in Scott Savage's book A Plain Life: Walking My Belief.

Everyone, thank you for sharing your stories. One of the points of feminist theory and Quaker theology alike that never ceases to amaze me is how educational and inspiring it is to tell each other our stories. I am not alone. You are not alone. In the mundane or the mystical.

11/26/2007 10:57 PM  
Blogger Laurie Chase Kruczek said...

My three-year-old loves to wash windows and help clean the floor. She refuses to put away her toys. I am thinking your comments on challenging kids is what is relevent in our immediate lives. Thank you for helping me figure that one out!

Laurie PS this is some excellent writing, Robin.

11/27/2007 7:46 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Laurie, thank you. Good luck with three year olds in general. They are so cute and so complicated.

Ok, true confession, I have been thinking about trying to submit an article like this to a magazine. You know, actually get paid for writing. But I don't really know how to get into that. Any advice would be fabulous. You can leave a comment here or email me at the address in my profile.

11/27/2007 4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Robin, this is fun to talk about. The way I have approached housework with my two younger children (5 and 2) is to start them when they're young with things they can do, not just things I want done.

I was much less thoughtful in my approach when my now 8 year old was a toddler and spent a lot of the early years of his life 'modeling' and trying to entice him to 'help' me. He's had some catching up to do over the past 4 years...

So, even though I am not very concerned about dusting, one of my 2 year old's chores is dusting the furniture in her room and our living room with a fluffy duster on a stick. She can really *do* this job, so it is a good one for her. She is learning how to start the job and continue until it is done, all the way to going outside to "sake out de dust!" Her other daily chores are to wipe the breakfast table down with a rag and soapy water (with me and my 8 year old), scrub the main floor bathroom floor (with my 8 year old), and make her bed.

My 5 year old's daily list includes vacuuming under his dad's chair in the living room, vacuuming under the dining table, swishing all our toilet bowls with the toilet brush, scrubbing the upstairs bathroom floor (with me), make his bed (with the 8 year old, they share), tidy up his laundry and bring it to the washer, and to conduct an inspection of the state of the floors in the rest of the house so he can give me a report of how they're doing.

My 8 year old's jobs are to clean the mirrors and the front door sidelight, wipe down the outside of the main-floor toilet, scrub the bathroom floor and include his little sister in doing that, dry the table after we've wiped it down, put away the vacuum for the 5 year old, make his bed, tidy his laundry and the floor of their room, and to refill our water bottles and make sure each of the children has a full change of clothes in their backpacks.

We spend half an hour to 45 minutes getting those things done.

In addition to teaching the work, I want to help develop attitudes about the work. One aspect of this is making sure none of us dawdle over it, which is why I have the loose time limit. Another is having some of the chores be joint activities. I'm also trying to demystify some of it, which is why we scrub around the toilets daily, something I never imagined I would do! But if you do this daily, it never gets very dirty, a child-strength effort is fine, and it feels like no big deal to them.

Outside of chore time I work a lot on habits --they all clear their own dish from the table and scrape it after eating, they all put away their clean folded clothes, they have to hang up their coats and put away their shoes, and pick up their toys (all this requires a lot of reminding, of course).

Like you, Robin, and Julie, I have matter-of-factly explained that if they care about an item, part of caring about it is to use it properly and put it away, too. It seemed to make perfect sense to them. I am not legalistic about it, but I do bring up the subject before I'm going to vacuum, or any time the floor is looking kind of bumpy. A few weeks ago we did the "Do you have too many toys?" experiment and told them to go through each room of the house, identify everything that was theirs, and put it away. They were amazed how quickly they could do it, and we have seen less resistance to picking up toys since.

I want to train their awareness too, and their eyes, to see what needs to be done. That one's pretty hard, though :). With my 2 and 5 year old, I talk about shiny and beautiful and smooth. My older son is into germs, so we talk about that, also how keeping the house neat gives us a more peaceful state of mind.

I had never been much of a housekeeper, but the desire to teach my children, plus the fact that we are often home all day because we homeschool has changed that. Home is really our home base and it feels very important to have a pleasant environment.

I see the ability to work and serve as much more important than spelling and multiplication, and I want to give this part of our family life the attention it deserves. It has been a long process for me, though, because it is so easy to just do the absolute minimum.

11/28/2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger Craig Barnett said...

I've got a photo somewhere of my daughter, age 2, very proudly doing the washing-up... Her all-time favourite job now though (age 6) is when we visit some friends who have a small farm - she's out of bed and straight outside to collect the eggs and feed the animals. Last time before we visited we were discussing what to pack and asked her what toys she wanted. 'I don't need toys,' she answered, 'I won't have time to play, I've got the animals to look after!'
Light & love,

11/29/2007 6:28 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hannah P.,
That is a wonderful description of the way you have organized your housework into your family life.

I think the question of how to train their eyes to see what needs to be done is really important, and not at all obvious.

Long story: At my children's school a few years ago, I was at a meeting of the parents' association diversity committee. We were talking about how to talk about racism and poverty with a diverse but fairly privileged group of children. I remembered that the head of school had explained once about the difference between her new Quaker school and the other schools where she had taught. Her example was that in this school, if she pointed out some paper crumpled on the floor, kids would jump to be the one to put it in the recycling bin. At other schools, the reaction would have been to say, "I didn't leave it there. It's not my garbage." I said that this illustrated one way to teach privileged children about these difficult facts of our society. We can say, "No, you didn't create poverty and no, racism is not your fault, but you can still be part of fixing the problem. We all have the responsibility to take care of each other." I think it's a good start to teach children to take care of their concrete physical surroundings as we're teaching them to take care of more abstract things like other people's feelings.

Craig, that is a great story. My parents have a small orchard. I've stopped packing toys for trips to see them, other than for the car ride. Who needs toys when you have sticks and rocks and trees to climb? And a grandpa who needs help stacking firewood and painting the shed?

11/29/2007 1:00 PM  
Blogger Laurie Chase Kruczek said...

We live on an orchard, but the kids are a little young to be doing too much just yet. But part of the reason we moved to the country is to give them that sense of purpose: taking care of the animals, helping with the garden, etc. I would hate to see my children fixated on video games and electric toys all the time. Experiencing nature always brings me closer to God, so I'm hoping it will also have the same effect on our girls.

SUBMIT THIS STORY (or one like it) ROBIN!



11/29/2007 10:08 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Sullivan said...


I really like this post. It makes me think back to when I was younger and why I would complain when asked to clean. When Grace and I got old enough and guests would come we would take a day out of our summer to do 20 minute pushes to clean. The whole family would stop doing whatever for 20 minutes and we would clean the whole house in one day. 20 minutes of cleaning and 10 or 20 minutes of playing a family game.

I really enjoyed cleaning the house with everyone even if I was cleaning the bathtub(least favorite job) while mom was vacuuming because I new everyone was putting in their time.

I also am intrigued in the manual labor part of this because I learned all of my manual labor fixing things from living at Quaker Center. If mom had to fix something I would follow along sometimes it would be David that I went to work with. I really liked learning how to build things. I always looked forward to workcamp so that I could learn how to build a deck or the other large project of the week.

I would suggest taking the kids to workcamp for at least a day because it is so awesome.


11/30/2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Rebecca, this year we went to one day of Sierra Friends Center workcamp, and the year before to a couple days of Ben Lomond Quaker Center workcamp. You're right, it is good, if only for the sense that we're not the only ones doing this.

My kids' school recently suggested that parents pull up a chair and a paperwork chore (like balancing the checkbook) while their kids are doing homework - precisely so that the whole family sees each other doing their work at the same time, whatever it may be.

12/02/2007 12:15 AM  

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