To chore, I say.
Early this spring, Bee began campaigning for a fish.
Actually, nine, she says, for swimming together.
My hesitations were many. More responsibility for our kids often means more management for us, and with two kids, two dogs, two jobs, we were fresh out of any available management margin. She’d be on her own here. Could a four-year-old handle a chore with (slightly) higher stakes, a few literal mouths to feed?
Let me talk to your dad about it, I tell her.
Ken and I chatted through the importance of saying no to kids, but also the importance of saying yes. We talked about entitlement, about how it’s prone to running rampant in so many generations, of how it happens to be a particularly thorny issue in Bee’s own. We talk about ways in which she can earn her fish. We talk about our own pets and chores as kids, about how proud we were of the small responsibilities assigned to us and us alone. We talk about how diligently Bee feeds the dogs daily – her own chore – but certainly with a fair amount of grumbling attached.
And we decide: Yes to three fish. To earn them, she must learn to complete her current chore with a happy heart – no whining or complaining about feeding the dogs.
For how many days? Bee asks.
Ten in a row, I tell her, a number thrown out on a whim until she races off to the office, comes back with a self-made bubble chart: ten circles ready to be checked off.
The deal is sealed.
And this is how, on her fifth birthday, we walk into a fluorescent-lit pet store to tell the salesman yes, please, can you walk us to your starter tanks?
I know enough about modern parenting to know it’s far less modern than we think. When faced with a dilemma or decision, I am forever referencing the many mothers who have adventured before us – whether in books of years passed or chats with wise grandmothers. And so, when I think of chores, I think of an old poem that is oft-referenced in our own home, one that Bee and I have been memorizing for the summer – The Camel’s Hump by Rudyard Kipling:
The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.
Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump-
The hump that is black and blue!
We climb out of bed with a frouzly head,
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;
And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know’ there is one for you)
When we get the hump-
The hump that is black and blue!
The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;
And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump-
The horrible hump-
The hump that is black and blue!
I get it as well as you-oo-oo-
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo!
We all get hump-
Kiddies and grown-ups too!
And I suppose this is what I think of when I think of chores: the modeling, the showing, the leading. For my kids to understand the value of hard work, generous help, good attitudes – I must understand it first.
To see it in my kids tomorrow, they must see it in me today.
A few practical thoughts, then:
- “But it’s not my mess.”
One of our daily chores is to keep the main areas of the house (fairly) tidy. And while we absolutely encourage personal responsibility in our home, all kids tend to grumble and complain over cleaning up someone else’s mess. I combat this as much as possible by offering to help Bee clean up her messes when the job feels too overwhelming (a fort here, a craft gone rogue there). When she complains about picking up Scout’s toys in the living room or cleaning up after her playdates, I offer the gentle reminder that I’m often doing the same for her.
- Leave a place better than before.
Another everyday “chore” is the simple mentality that we can help others anytime, wherever we are. After playdates at someone else’s home, we can clean up any messes – regardless of who made them. If we see trash on the sidewalk, we can pick it up and throw it away. If we’re in our favorite small coffee shop and notice the toilet paper roll is empty, we can offer to replace it for the busy barista. (Note: this extends far past tangible help — leaving a place better than before sometimes just means offering a kind compliment or a few words of encouragement on your way out the door.)
- Read the room.
I’m often teaching Bee to ‘read the room,’ or to take the temperature of a situation. How does the room feel to you? Are you noticing the adults are in a deep conversation? Not the best time to ask a question. Is your friend’s baby brother getting ready for a nap? Not the best time to practice loud cartwheels. In doing this, we’re teaching Bee to be proactive and to see a need before it’s asked of her. This translates well when guests visit, as Bee’s “chore” is often filling and refilling of water glasses, or hanging someone’s coat or hat. By teaching her to notice each need, she can take full ownership over completing her chore all by herself.
- “You should be so proud of yourself.”
Instead of praising kids for helping others, I far prefer they learn pride in the work itself. There is a small difference in saying “I’m so proud of you” vs. “You should be so proud of yourself!” The former might train a child to rely on external rewards or praise to accomplish a goal, but the latter teaches one of the less noticeable gifts of hard work: that familiar swell of personal pride after a job well done.
- More freedom, more responsibility.
This one comes out of my mouth far more often than any of the above, and it’s the simple reminder that we are constantly growing into new roles, new chores, new ideas, new responsibilities. If Bee wants the freedom to play with kinetic sand in the dining room, she’s responsible for sweeping the grains from the rug. If Bee wants the freedom to play outside on the swing set, she’s responsible for remembering to wear her sun hat. The natural consequences are many here – if the responsibility goes ignored, the freedom is re-evaluated.
- Bonus > allowance.
We have many conversations about money management and can sometimes be seen on the floor in the living room playing bank and swapping coins. But for now, Bee is taught to do what is expected to help the house run smoothly without payment or an allowance – and instead, with quite a bit of verbal encouragement and notes of gratitude. On rare occasions, when she’s gone above and beyond her regular chores, I’ve snuck in a surprise treat into the dog food container or the drawer where she folds away her clothes – a simple bonus for a job well done.
Tell me, what’s your take on kids and chores? I’d love to hear! Plus, a few of my online pals are chatting through their own chore rhythms — enjoy a few other mothers’ perspectives right this way!: Jen, Kim, Catherine, Stacey & Alex.