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By Bridget McNamara
Today my four year old is working. He has counted the eggs that his brother collected from the chicken coop and he has placed them gently into the carton that he found in the cabinet. He discovered his Lego guy with play-doh stuck in a cranny and, after I provided him with a bucket of warm water and a towel, he proceeded to gently bathe all of his Lego guys. In the yard he picked up every single stick he found and put it into a perfect little pile. He sprinkled gerbil food all over the cage so they could have fun looking for it instead of eating it the boring way—out of their dish.
Today my seven year old son is working. He crushed all the aluminum cans in the Ultimate Can Crusher that his dad installed in the garage. He ran around collecting our chickens to put them away when he saw a hawk in the sky above our yard. While he was there, he collected the eggs and deposited them on the kitchen table. He ran and got a towel when his sister spilled her water on the living room floor. He volunteered to help his little brother on the library computer so I could go to the adult section for a few minutes.
Today my nine year old daughter is working. She played My Little Pony with her little brother so I could do my yoga. She found crumbs in the silverware drawer, dumped out the entire contents, and organized it in a way I’m not even capable of. She helped me carry the groceries in from the car and took our rowdy dog down to the shoreline with her to get those puppy wiggles out.
They did all of these things either completely on their own or after my asking them kindly, one time. Each task they fulfilled, I thanked them simply and genuinely.
I don’t enforce chores in any way. They don’t earn a gold star if they do it and they don’t lose their Minecraft time if they don’t. And they are unceasingly helpful and considerate.
Something I’ve learned over the years is not to get hung up on someone helping me with the jobs that I think need to get done. Yes, I empty the dishwasher. I cook. I sweep the floors and do the laundry and pick up Legos a bajillion times a day. No one else scrubs the toilet and it’s a rare day when anyone goes near the dog pooper-scooper. But that’s okay with me. It really is.
It wasn’t always. I used to stomp around and feel overwhelmed and under appreciated. I used to interrupt whatever they were doing to help me and they would cry and stomp around just like me. We felt no joy in caring for our home or caring for one another. None of us felt the intrinsic value of being a helpful person because our ability to find joy in our tasks was completely clouded by guilt, resentment, and fear.
I simply changed my perspective and the entire energy of our home was lifted. My children are helpful and grateful. They do appreciate everything I do for them. I signed up for this job of caring for them and it’s completely unfair for me to do it begrudgingly.
I feel sad when I hear my friends talk about throwing their children’s toys away if they don’t clean them up. If someone did that to me, I’d have lost my sunglasses, car keys, and coffee mug a hundred times over. It feels less like guidance and more like revenge. “See what happens when you don’t follow my orders?” It hurts and it breaks a sacred trust. You can’t call it a natural consequence because, by definition, a natural consequence happens naturally. It cannot be enforced. I can’t think of one single real life situation where your belongings, from inside your house, disappear when they don’t get put back where they belong.
Let your children find the joy in the tasks that are important to them. Acknowledge the work they do. I promise if you look closely, you will see that they are working. I promise if you let them find the true value in doing the jobs that make the home and community run sufficiently, that over the years, the jobs that they do will evolve. Someday they will see the value in picking their shoes up, loading the dishwasher, and scrubbing the floor. The sooner you get out of their way, the sooner they will learn.
Until then, thank them for washing the Legos and crushing the cans.