Here is something to think about: what if our child-centered parenting culture creates adults who are too self-indulgent to child-centered parent themselves?
In other words, when we think about how our great grandmothers did it, with so much less in the way of household conveniences, is the answer that they were tougher, and also that they did less for their children, so in some ways it was not so demanding on them? I don’t mean to romanticize the pioneer days, after all, one of my great grandmothers didn’t get to raise her children because she died in the 1918 flu. But, my other great grandmothers, two of whom had as many children as I have, would have a good hard laugh about my complaints about my life being too difficult. I don’t think that they spent nearly as much time as I do adjusting swim goggles.
I have been thinking a lot about the advice that we can all take from JM’s inlaws, who said that a family is not two people serving the children, it is all of us serving each other. In the 21st century, this is a totally radical concept, but if we apply it, we can lighten our own loads a bit and also better prepare our children for lives of service.
For me, awareness of my own limits is one of the upsides of being often pregnant. “Chores” began in our house about 5 years ago when I couldn’t carry the laundry basket to the basement, so I asked my 6 year old to do it for me. With some sense of fairness, I decided that the 5 year old should empty the wastebaskets at the same time. We set up a routine for two nights a week, the nights that we did not have activities, and they did it after dinner.
Here’s the shocker — I had four children, ages 6, 5, and 3 year old twins, and I had never once, before that time, asked them to help in any way! It just had not occurred to me that they could or should. I was still buttoning all of their coats and tying all of their shoes! Is it any surprise that I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown?
A few years later, with two little ones needing supervised baths and four older ones still little enough to need bedtime stories, I enlisted help in getting the dishes cleaned up so that I would be free to read to them after the babies were in bed. Now we had a rotation for 4 – empty trash, gather laundry, clear table, do dishes. It took some training, but it has really paid off. My now seven year old can easily rinse the dishes, load and start the dishwasher and wipe down the kitchen counters. She does it without complaining because at this stage it is just part of what is expected of us.In this pregnancy, it became clear that I couldn’t keep up with the after-bedtime laundry routine which I have used for the first 10 years of parenthood. I trained the older 4 children to do their own laundry and assigned them a day. We are still in the stage where we need to follow up and remind to make sure that this task gets really done, but we are getting there. I have already “contracted” with my most responsible girl for a dollar a week to do the new baby’s laundry.
Another task that has gotten out of hand for us is grocery shopping. It would take me over an hour, and usually involved either a ton of stress or hired child care. Then, at the end of a unit on nutrition, I decided to take my kids to the store to spend time in the produce section talking about the fruits and vegetables. The next week, I tore off the produce part of my list and handed it to the older two (9 and 10), telling them to get their own cart and get all the produce. I went around the store with the others. Well, the twins (7) quickly wanted in on the action, so now I divide the list into several sections. One older child and one twin get the dairy, the others get the produce, and I take the little guys around for whatever dry goods are on the list.
IT TAKES 20 MINUTES! And there is no stress or fighting because they are all entertained by their work. We save money, because we really only buy what is on the list! Now, some time does go in to making the list, but that is not time with six kids at the crowded store. Plus, I am giving them life skills, because they know how to grocery shop, and they are eating better, because they have a sense of ownership over the project.
Just as I have been thinking about all of this, I read an article in the WSJ which shows me that the way that I was when my kids were tiny is totally common – doing everything for them and expecting little of them, seems to be the current American way to parent. If I had not had more babies coming, I am not sure I ever would have changed what I was doing. Now, I am sure that my children could be doing even more, and that some children do, and I am going to continue working on that with them. Of course we don’t expect our children to climb trees to pick the fruit for us, but at least they can pick apples from a pile and put them in the grocery cart!
Also, as I have said before, I think of this in two ways — there is the skill training (doing laundry, rinsing dishes), and there is the character/attitude training. I want my kids to have a pitch in sort of attitude, to look around them and say – what can I do to help?