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The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids This Holiday

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Excerpted from author Richard Melnick's "PARENTS WHO DON'T DO DISHES."

Do you go the extra mile because it makes you feel needed somehow or perhaps because it speaks to your identity as a "good parent"? Obviously, you provide for your kids because you love and care for them, but every day with your kids can also be a day to teach them independence and offer them the freedom to grow, to be creative and to learn to take responsibility for their own life. Your family is a laboratory. Feel free to experiment. You may want to start by considering what kind of behavior you are modeling and what kind of creatures are currently growing in the petri dish you call home.

On most days, I feel as though my boys and I are caught up in an unusual and extraordinarily loving domestic partnership -- a divine union of sovereign beings, a comedy of equals. I figure that they alone know their true blueprint for happiness. My most important job is to create a safe place where they can remember their divine imprint and allow it to bubble up without any drama from me.

I have discovered how to offer up suggestions that respect their sovereignty and, paradoxically, I may have an even greater influence on them because I offer my opinions respectfully. I've given up the idea that they'll always listen to me and I have confidence that they're capable of running their own lives.

As sovereigns, we have a trade agreement and a security pact, though mostly we have an emotional and spiritual treaty that allows us to feel safe, supported and free to be authentic. This is a two-way street, as I also let down my guard and share details of my life. I feel a sense of spaciousness and ease and don't feel like I have anything to hide or protect them from.

Happily, we cater to each other, but we don't feel responsible for each other's happiness -- and because of this healthy separation, we may be able to offer true compassion and consistent kindness. We avoid control and encourage personal responsibility. We are curious and get to know each other. We ask a lot of questions. We don't demand. We care for each other, laugh at each other, and have been having fun together for longer than I can remember. As Michael Franti wrote, "Everyone deserves music." Everyone has their own song to sing.

I find it helpful to consider every person their own individual country with their own boundaries, language, customs and culture, and that the supreme ruler of this divine sovereign territory is themself. By being diplomatic and considering others from a place of humility, you're able to develop and enjoy peaceful relations. You create the spaciousness to be compassionate without judgment or the need to fix anything.

My kids and I consider ourselves fellow students on the path of life, and even constructive criticism is unwelcome, a violation of the other's sovereignty. Unsolicited advice is generally received as criticism unless skillfully offered. This is the energetic fact of the matter.

Instead, ask for permission to give a suggestion: "May I give you my opinion on...?" This perspective slows you down a bit. And if they say no, sit with your own discomfort. You don't have the right to tell kids (or anybody!) what they "should think" or "need to do." And if you do receive permission to offer an opinion, it could be phrased as, "I think it would be to your benefit to..."

It seems like a no-brainer, and in my house all of these beautiful, wonderful, unintended consequences occurred as a result of practicing radical personal sovereignty and requiring service. They got it. They quickly figured out that it feels good to pitch-in. It feels good to take responsibility for one's life experience.

I told my kids that we're all individual carbon life forms, and in a cosmic sense, no more significant than the average insect buzzing about. And buzz as we may, every carbon life form must work to survive. If you're not willing to work to perpetuate your gift of life, then you're in for a rude awakening. If you feel entitled to life, you're going to be at odds with the dirty dishes in the sink and you're going to be at odds with everything else, including and especially yourself.

As kids do dishes, they'll see their reflection. If they wash with love, they'll feel peaceful. They may even wash with delirious ecstasy, maniacally devoted to the moment, anxious only to move on to the counters and floors. Or if they're uninspired by their soapy sink and wishing they weren't washing, they might suffer like a dog in the cold, and that's ok too. At the very least, they'll learn to manage their discomfort, building strength and resilience. Jackson reports that he occasionally washes while feeling a broad range of emotions -- anger that Josh and I don't do our share, desire for approval, to be in service, or sacred communion with the cups and plates that hold our daily bread (presumably his preferred approach). Josh scores points for honesty as he reports feeling "this sucks" while cleaning the kitchen, wondering what he might get out of me for doing it.

Why dishes? For starters, splashing around in the water is fun. It's an entry-level position. A 5-year-old can do it with your supervision and a 7-year-old can do it on their own. In some countries, kids herd sheep at the age of 5 and play an important role in the family's economic health. "Hey! How 'bout herding that pile of laundry?"

Your kids have the dexterity and intelligence to contribute. They are considerably more agile and smarter than your house pet. What they lack is training and focus. You'll be shocked by what they're capable of and the pleasure they may take in being helpful. Assign them tasks that YOU want done. All you have to do is train them properly, make an effort to keep them accountable, and tell them thanks every day, how much you appreciate all that they do. Ask them, "How does it feel to be so helpful and independent?" Tell them how good it makes you feel. Catch them being good.

You might explain how Daddy and Mommy work to provide for the family and that by doing dishes, folding laundry and helping out around the house, they are contributing and participating in an important way, too. They learn gratitude and appreciation for their good fortune, the food, warm clothes, their parents who love them and the innate satisfaction that comes from completing a job well done.

When they are actively engaged in the welfare of the household, kids align themselves with universal forces that celebrate gratitude and service. Doing dishes together may also provide a casual forum to discuss this 'n that.

I once even suggested to my boys, "If you're too little to get a job at the railroad to help pay the rent, you must find some other tribute. You might trade a goat or a hen. Or if you're a kid without a goat, you can provide a service." By aligning their habits with service and gratitude, their values will develop accordingly. It actually feels good to be helpful and express thanks. Eventually, they may cheerfully do just about any mundane task, which feels nice for everyone.

"Hey, would you mind feeding Mookie* and filling his water dish?"

* Mookie was a Portugese Water Dog that fully embraced our small town lifestyle and his days were replete with independent walkabouts, random belly rubs and a casual patrol for the as yet undiscovered, perfect porch for napping. Crested Butte is ripe with summer vacation renters and it was not unusual to get a phone call that started with, "Ummm... excuse me, but I think your dog is asleep on my sofa." Mookie was an unrepentant freeloader and the sole exception in our work to survive manifesto.