At one of this year’s first summer travel baseball games, before the 100+ degree real-feel heat wave, before accepting 4:30 or 9:30 dinnertime as normal, before logging hundreds of miles on my minivan so the boys could play on some rural New Jersey field called “Cornhusks,” that is to say, while I was still looking forward to summer sports and feeling buoyed by the mid-June warmth that allowed me to experience a night game without the Northface I virtually never left my home without, I was talking to a friend where we’d planted ourselves near the right field line about how to get our kids to be more independent. She has two and we have five, and none of them, from what I can tell, feels the smallest temptation to pitch in when they see us whirl around them, vacuuming or sweeping or putting things away…things that have most likely been purchased for them. I often arrive home from the supermarket to a vibrant wiffle ball game in my front yard, including anywhere from two to six kids. During (my) trip after trip from the car to the house with those maddeningly small grocery store bags, they watch, they swing, they run, sometimes they say hi, but no one comes to help.
My guess is you’re thinking one of three things: I feel your pain; sorry sucka, my kids are power washing the house; or you (meaning me) brought this on yourself. I definitely agree with the third point; I’m just not sure how I got here. I was one of those moms who said I’d never, well, take your pick: indulge in the insanity of travel sports; over-schedule my kids; get caught up in keeping up with everyone who has the latest gadget or rubber band inspired bracelet toy; or, and I didn’t see this one coming, succumb to a teenager with a fast-growing shoe size who wants only custom designed Nike’s. I feel like it would all be okay, or maybe some of it would be passable, if at least these adults-in-training carried some of their substantial weight around the house. I am now shorter than three of our five children, with the youngest about to take me as well. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re coordinated and they have brains and compassion. They need to put these considerable assets to work – for us, for them, for their future partners, for society – wiping the table and windexing the mirrors.
We have a beautiful chart in our kitchen pantry. It lists household chores of varying degrees of difficulty (let’s be honest, though…we don’t even have laundry on there, let alone anything as taxing as mowing the lawn or washing cars), and there are clothespins with each child’s name. We were in a nice groove for a while, rotating the pins from chore to chore, shifting everyone every day to give them a taste of what it feels like to hold a sponge, straighten up a den or run a vacuum. Then, at some point, we derailed. As the school year was ending, I decided we could use the homework-less summer to step it back up. If the kids were about to spend more time lying around the house, they might as well help keep it tidy.
Here it is, late July, over a month since school ended, and other than having the kids clear their places at the table and occasionally get rid of their crumbs (I think I pushed that issue twice), we’re back in prehis-chore-ic times, where they lounge and we dust around them. Why are we so complacent? Are we in braindead summer mode, needing a break from needling them to do this and that? Is it some indefensible desire to spare our kids the menial labor that we were spared (or that we suffered through)? Are we afraid to surrender control…happier just doing it ourselves? I know I’m not just letting myself down. I’m letting them down. Chores are good for them – I’ve heard it from a zillion therapists, read it in a zillion books. Chores make people feel like worthy contributors and valued, capable members of a family.
This summer, I’m having trouble doing anything productive, to say nothing of mounting a chore offensive. I’m tired. Case in point: I had that kids-should-be-more-independent conversation with my friend when it was still technically spring, and I’m just writing about it now. She gave me a great idea, though. When she’s preparing her sons to leave the house in the morning she asks them to go through their checklist. I loved this. I said, “I can come up with a great checklist,” but she blew my mind when she said she doesn’t give them the list; they have to come up it themselves. This is higher order thinking. Not only do they have to secure what they need, they have to know what they need. That’s when I realized how far off the self-sufficient slope I’d slipped. Here I was, happy that they wipe their own butts and tackle a shower. I hadn’t dreamed such greater expectation was possible.
I used to look forward to how I would whip my future children into shape – physically, academically, emotionally: home-based military and etiquette school. On some things I stand firm, but when it comes to chores, I’ve gone soft. I’ve become my mother, racing around with laundry baskets while the kids watch Josie and the Pussycats and ask what there is to eat. I’ve fed my kids a lot of really fresh fish, but I need to teach them how to hook their own and reel ‘em in. There’s still a little bit of summer and even less baseball left, so maybe now’s my chance.