Husband and I like to teach our children autonomy so that they can handle doing chores on their own, and, mostly, so that we can have a break from the array of chores plaguing us: washing the dishes, cleaning the bathrooms, taking out the trash, sweeping the floors, mowing the lawn, wiping the table and counters, dusting. All of these chores will be delegated, eventually, and Husband and I will live like the king and queen we are.
But first we have to pay a price.
The problem with autonomy—which children love, by the way—is that before you can actually achieve real and complete autonomy, you have to go through this time period I like to call “Pleasant Practice.” The adverb there is sarcastic.
Here’s what autonomy looks like during Pleasant Practice:
The 4-year-old, who is tasked with wiping the table, will wipe all the crumbs onto the floor, which the 6-year-old is trying to sweep, so the 6-year-old complains the entire time about how he just swept there and can we please make his brother stop wiping food onto the floor, because he’s already asked and his brother keeps doing it and it’s making it really difficult to finish sweeping the floor.
Another 4-year-old, who is tasked with washing the dishes, will pretend he’s washing them but really is just using this “do the dishes” time as an opportunity to get off the bench where he sits for dinner and swing around sharp knives that, to be clear, Mama already had in their proper place inside the dishwasher but that he just had to take out because they’re “in the wrong place.”
The 9-year-old can be found usually pretending he is sick, especially if he is tasked with sweeping the floors this week. No one likes sweeping the floors, but he likes it the absolute least. In three weeks of being tasked with doing it, he’s evaded it twenty times. And that means that he’s been paying us to do it with his own hard-earned money—because a rule in our house is that if you want to skip your chores, you can pay someone to do it for you. I now have twenty dollars I didn’t have before, which means I might be able to go buy myself a right shoe.
The 7-year-old will complain that he always has to do the trash and why does no one else ever have to do the trash, and can he please have a break because his birthday was five months ago and we forgot to give him a day off his chores (no, we didn’t.). Which means all his other brothers will remind us about their birthdays and how we also didn’t give them a day off, either (we did.).
The 6-year-old will then be found smacking the wiping-the-table 4-year-old with the back of the broom, because every time he runs the broom across a square on the floor, another heap of mashed up carrots comes crashing down onto the floor again, because, apparently, the 4-year-old has not quite grasped the Brush It Into Your Hand technique his daddy went over in excruciating detail before handing the sponge back to him. What he’s really doing is trying to wipe off the table as fast as he can so he can be free to terrorize the bathroom, which he will most definitely do when Mama’s trying to wrestle a butcher knife out of the hands of his twin brother. Perfect opportunity provided in this Pleasant Practice.
The 9-year-old, who is this week assigned to wiping down the counters and cabinets, has, by this time, decided to join the fun. He sprays cleaner all over the counters, and no amount of sopping up and wringing out the sponge will soak up that pool. We have to bring in the help of beach towels.
Here’s what we have at the end of Pleasant Practice:
The trash is accidentally dumped out because the one on trash duty tried to pull the bag out of the can and then set it on the floor to tie it, but before he could actually tie it, gravity took hold of it and toppled it on its side. Now there’s a lot of whining and complaining about picking up all that trash on the floor. I can’t help it. Trash is gross. And when all that’s done, there’s a gaping hole in the bag, because Trash Man drags it, instead of carrying it, out to the curb. At least he can find his way home again.
There are significant places that have been missed in the sweeping of the floor, including under the table. Sweeper Man says his arms aren’t long enough to get under the table, and, besides, he thought he’d leave a little to feed the ants.
Plates and bowls and cups look haphazardly arranged in the dishwasher, in no particular order or place.
The counters are still sopping.
And my hand sticks to the table when I foolishly test its cleanliness.
By the time chores are over, Husband and I will often ask each other, “Why do we do this again?” But the answer is simple. We have this fight and undergo this challenge every day because what chores do for kids is they show them they are part of a team, that they are expected to contribute to the current of our family life, and that they can do hard things with enough practice.
Not to mention these are life skills. They need to know how to wash dishes and wipe tables and sweep the floor. That means we have to take the time to teach them and let them practice in their own way.
And, eventually, our role in Pleasant Practice will no longer be needed, and we will, instead, be watching while they clean the kitchen after dinner.
At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trying to mop up some old mildewed strawberries from the floor because they took out another trash bag and it ripped in their still-novice hands and now I’m left with an even bigger mess to clean up.
One day I’m sure I’ll be glad.