The Help

The Help March 14, 2012

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?

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  • Liz

    I think this is so true, and so important. And it definitely applies no matter the size of your family. All kids need to learn responsibility. We have been starting small with our 3yo, e.g. by having him help set the table, go pick out and put on his (velcro) sneakers in the morning before school, and hang up his jacket on the hook and put his shoes back in the basket when he comes home. He is still at age where helping is fun, so we are trying to capitalize on that to make it part of our family routine.

  • In my research on vocation, I came across some great work on vocation and family by a theologian (Bonnie Miller-McLemore) who promotes the idea of a “pitch-in” family. She had three boys, and as she and her husband negotiated the balance between both of their professional callings and their vocation to be parents, they realized that they needed the whole family to “pitch in” to keep things going well at home. But along the way she came to see this as deeply vocational for the child as well: part of the child’s vocation is the call to participate in their roles and responsibilities as a family member. Growing into this calling from a young age means learning to share one’s gifts as abilities and understanding grows. And this also opens up the child to hear God’s calling as well – through other people, through the gifts they’ve given to share, through the needs of their world around them. I love this idea of the “pitch-in” family, and even as a new mother, I see how my son responds positively to the idea that he can help out around our home. Montessori methods affirm this as well.

  • Bethany “B-mama”

    Yes, yes, yes!!! I totally embrace this idea, MA. Thank you for showing me practical ways to get my children involved in household tasks. I love the idea of instilling in them the mentality–“what can I do to help?” Yes!! Now, I just have to foster it… Starting young is key. I’m hoping to sit down with the kids before the baby is born and talk through our “new” roles as support staff. But even down to caring for coats and shoes and bags, etc., helping to clean common areas, sweep, etc. all goes toward encouraging this idea.

    Question: How do your kids see their contribution in relationship to allowance? If we tie $ to the jobs, is it really about pitching in? My oldest will take the external motivation and run with it, but I fear his intent will be self-seeking. How do you avoid this?

  • maryalice

    My kids do not get an allowance, but we do use a sticker chart for school work and new habits. For example, as each subject is finished, they can put up a sticker. Each sticker is worth 5 cents or 5 minutes on the computer. Not all chores go on the sticker chart, but when I am working a new task, like washing hands before meals, they can put up a sticker ONLY if they do the task without being asked. The older kids are saving up for things like new bikes, so 5 cents at a time it takes forever. This money gets used up quickly come baseball season when they want to buy a ring pop at the concession stand every night.

    We also “hire” the kids for bigger jobs which are sort of outside of general service to the family. For example, yesterday I shouted out – who will take down the Christmas lights for a dollar? Two big kids split this job, and I paid both of them — best $2 I have spent in a long time. My oldest earns $10 for mowing the lawn, but he couldn’t earn it until he could do the entire task by himself – I am not paying you if I have to come out there and restart the mower every 10 minutes. He works HARD for this money. I think I will pay for some babysitting when they are old enough (if you have to stay in for a night and do the work that I would have hired a sitter for, I will pay you, but if I am just going to the grocery store and you are staying home while someone watches Elmo, I don’t think I will pay for that).

    I hired Holly (9) to clean out our hand-me-down closet and paid her $30 for the job, it was a pretty big job. In the past I have hired neighborhood kids for that, so I figured that was fair. She wants a more regular job, like Peter has the lawn mowing, so in the summer I might hire her to do the new baby’s laundry.

    A friend pays Mary (7) to care for her rabbit when she is out of town, and Mary is very responsible with this job.

    Lastly, I should say that all of this money exists only on paper — we have found it incredibly frustrating to watch kids lose money, so now it is all on the chart, and if they want to buy something when we are out, they just deduct it when we get home.

    Money does not work as a motivator for all of my kids, they seem to have different temperaments with regard to work.

  • Annie

    I think the key in having children take responsibility is having a clear routine and structure. One box, the same box, in the same place, for shoes. A play room with limited toys that are always put back in the same box and put back on the same shelf. A clear spot for the laundry basket, etc. My 2 year old daughter knows where things belong, and gets them/puts them back herself: shoes, dishes (on a low, accessible shelf), books, toys. She puts her clothes in the hamper every night. A place for everything and everything in its place. It takes patience at the beginning; obviously, we can do everything for them in 1/3 the time it takes them to do it themselves! But the payoff is in the long run. In fact, unsupervised, she cleaned up her entire playroom the other day, and got it mostly right. It’s awesome!

  • maryalice

    We have melamine dishes on a low shelf, too, and that is a huge help. I take a Montessori approach to some of this stuff — if you want them to fully participate, the household needs to be the right size for them! Also, my mom has a great small shark vacuum which my kids can handle easily.

  • Fantastic post, Mary Alice! I am lucky that our little one is a helper. She loves to clean and help put the laundry away and I hope I’m just part of her regular day and that she carries it forward through life with her.

  • klkl

    My 4.5yo is really excited to have jobs and my 2.5yo wants them too because of his big brother. They take great pride in having tasks and accomplishing them. We don’t use any allowance or stickers, maybe when they are older…right now their accomplishment and “job” identity is enough motivation most of the time.
    I came across a list of Age appropriate responsibilities that has helped me to teach them to do more on their own. Its in the back of Good Sons Don’t Just Happen by Catherine Musco Garcia-Prats. If you look on Amazon you can see those pages, they are toward the end.
    Just wanted to take the opportunity to also thank you ladies for writing your blog and sharing part of you and your life with your readers. I wish I could express how many of your posts have touched me in a very profound way. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  • Mary

    Chores Without Wars is a great book with ideas of how to implement chores (she calls them “family contributions) with children. Also with allowance, we give our kids allowance, but it is completely separate from chores. We help them set aside some for saving, some for spending and we use it to teach financial responsibility.

  • I love the color of the wall they are painting — matches the blog background!

  • Kellie “Red”

    I didn’t have time to comment yesterday, but I couldn’t agree more. My kids are very involved with laundry, bath-time rountine, after-meal clean-up, breakfast prep., cleaning floors, trash, and recycling. Their allowance is tied to their “productivity!” In fact, we just gave Charlie a raise because he was so diligent with chores. We talk a lot about pitching in and doing what you are asked to do when you are asked to do it. Now how I wish they could drive each other around to activities, because unfortunately there isn’t any help for mom on that front and I’m becoming a taxi service!

  • maryalice

    I find that the taxi-ing is my least favorite part of this stage of motherhood, I am going to have to get used to it because I have 7 more years until my oldest can drive. For a city child, it is so different, because you can be on your own for transportation starting around age 10.

  • maryalice

    Also, because you have trained them to do this, you can really lean on them in a pinch, which is important — when Dad is out of town and mom is exhausted from the baby, to be able to ask someone to make breakfast and get the little ones dressed is a huge help, you wouldn’t want to put a heavy burden on them everyday, but if they are capable and trained, they can rely on you. I know a little girl, maybe 10, who did the family laundry for several months while her mother was on bedrest. I think that she was happy to help. Kids generations ago would have done this, and so much more, and while I don’t pine for the days of child labor, I do think we could enlist their help more than we do, and it would even be good for them!

  • Catherine

    We have standard daily chores for our children (8, 6, 4, and 4) that they are not paid for–dishes, feeding pets, making beds, etc. Then we have “extra chores” charts where they can earn a sticker worth 10 cents–these are for non-daily chores like vacuuming, cleaning windows, simple baking, etc (the bigger the chore, the more stickers it earns). We pay them for the week’s work on Sunday afternoons. I agree it’s annoying when they lose their money, but they really love having those little coins clinking around in their piggy banks!