From John Paul II:
All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building day by day the communion of persons, making the family “a school of deeper humanity”: This happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.*
My mother is fond of telling this joke:
A woman and her son were visiting a new friend. They arrived in a limo. The chauffeur came around, opened the door, and carried the 9-year-old boy to the house. The friend, who was waiting to welcome them, asked the woman, “Oh my, is something wrong with your little boy? Can’t he walk?” The woman replied, “Thank God, we’re so rich he doesn’t have to.”
You see? We are so prosperous that we consider it a virtue that our children have nothing to do.
Little do we realize the damage we are doing with this crazy attitude — nothing less than sending yet another generation out into the world handicapped by incompetence in daily life. Not only is the family the ideal place for a child to learn to help others, relate to all sorts of people, and take responsibility for all sorts of things, it’s impossible for one person to do all that has to be done to keep a home running!
Interesting that we are always simultaneously doing it all and resenting our martyrdom.
Well, how about changing all that?
Now, you are going to have to do some thinking. My situation isn’t the same as yours. The family that has five girls before any boys is going to be doing things differently than the one with all boys. Only you know how things can work out. So think!
A fundamental opportunity for building such a communion is constituted by the educational exchange between parents and children, in which each gives and receives. By means of love, respect and obedience toward their parents, children offer their specific and irreplaceable contribution to the construction of an authentically human and Christian family.
They will be aided in this if parents exercise their unrenounceable authority as a true and proper “ministry,” that is, as a service to the human and Christian well-being of their children and in particular as a service aimed at helping them acquire a truly responsible freedom, and if parents maintain a living awareness of the “gift” they continually receive from their children.*
All very well, beautifully put.
But you know me. Let’s talk some practical secrets of what can be done and what to do. Chorewise, what exactly can a child’s contribution be?
Let’s look at some examples, very roughly by age.
1. Curtain climber. Ages 1-3 This little guy will follow you around and make things much, much worse. He pulls things off of shelves, then plows right over them. He grinds bagels into chairs. He eats kitty litter. Keep repeating, “My vocation is gestational in nature” and set your sights for the long distance. I once knew a woman who kept her 14-month-old child in a car seat at all times — and it wasn’t her first child! — to avoid dealing with this stage.
I’m not making that up. Auntie Leila didn’t know where to start.
The main thing is to develop a relationship with your baby such that you are responsive to him and he to you. This age is the time for teaching him to do things in order, rather than worrying about chores.
A two can put his underwear in the lights and his little jeans in the darks.
Your little ones can get up from the table and clear their place.
Washing hands after the toilet, lining up his trucks, tucking her dolls in their beds (I’m not very PC, am I?), clicking the cap on the toothpaste, putting pajamas in the drawer, getting the puzzles back on their shelf — these are “chore-prep” and plenty to work on for now. And then you give them a bowl of water and a rag and set them to washing the deck furniture. Make sure you call it their work!
2. I can do it by my SELF! Ages 2-4 Do you know why this stage drives you crazy? Because you have nothing for him to do. He feels like he’s not contributing. You think of a two-year-old as an eating, pooping machine that has to be taken from point A to point B. Maybe you carry him around all the time, sort of mindlessly pacifying him — you react rather than act — or you keep him buckled into his car seat — you just don’t respond at all.
He needs to become his own little self, and yes, that’s a bit messy. Put your silverware where he can reach it. Get him his own small broom and dustpan and a place to put them. Give him a damp dust cloth and teach him to wipe down the stairs. Let him fill the dog’s water bowl — you have a stool he can stand on to reach the sink, right? What’s the worst that can happen? Spilled water! If you can’t handle that, you need to get out more.
Seriously, just keep a stash of your demoted towels handy in a nearby cupboard, and don’t worry about it.
3. Actually surprisingly helpful. Ages 3-6
Start making a list of the things you would like to get to, but don’t have time because you have six children under the age of six, or two children and ill health, or whatever. You’d be surprised how many of them your children can do, if you would just grasp, once and for all, that it’s better to have it done by a five-year-old than not done at all.
Dusting, windex-ing, appliance-wiping, deck-sweeping, dishwasher unloading, towel folding, dog-feeding, egg-collecting — these are all things competently if awkwardly done by those approaching the age of reason. Just give them a tutorial, correct them a few times, and let ’em rip.
A lot of you who linked up on our “Reasonably Clean Welcome” post had issues with shoes at the door. A totally wonderful, perfectly suitable chore for a 4-year-old is straightening out the shoes! You know, a neat row of shoes by the door is a joy. No basket necessary! (Besides, a basket doesn’t really work, because the shoes get jumbled, and who has a basket big enough.) A terrible job for a Mom — a great job for someone lower down to the floor!
Willie had this job at our house for quite a while. Once I was taking Rosie (who was maybe 12) to buy new shoes. He really took a stand! “No! I wefuse! She has too many shoes aweady!” Turns out that he was struggling to keep up with her supply, which of course included soccer cleats, dress shoes, sneakers, and probably one other pair. Poor Will! We took pity on him and made her take a few up to her room.
4. Indispensable. Ages 6-12
If you’ve been patient and clever, you will now have an actual work force on your hands, one you can’t do without. Let’s remember that Ralph Moody was herding cows solo at the age of 8. That’s why I keep telling you to read that book (Little Britches)! Nothing your children could possibly do would match that for danger and loneliness, I’m guessing, so quit making life so easy for them.
Stop babying your kids! Here’s what my nine-year-olds could do: a load of laundry (not their own personal loads, I really don’t believe in that; for one thing, it leaves you to handle the rest of the laundry by yourself if they do all of theirs, but there are other reasons as well — rather, they can do every step in the process of the family’s laundry), the bathroom, the dishes, vacuum the den, watching their baby sister or brother, get the trash out of the car, make lunch.
Here’s what an 11-year-old can do: mow the lawn (but please not fill the gas tank, it’s really too dangerous, and I’m all for kids doing dangerous things, but we have to draw the line at severe burns or death), mop the kitchen floor, head up a car-cleaning team, get a room sparkling from top to bottom. After this, you will be knowing what your kids can do. They will be surprising you with their skills.
And of course, once that child’s feet reach the floor, he should always be carrying something for you, getting something for you, and generally not being a leech on society.
If there is one thing that makes me weep for our times, it’s the sight of some poor woman staggering under a load like a packhorse, while her children whine about how they don’t want to be there/don’t want to leave/are hungry. Even a kid in a stroller can hold his own sand toy.
If a task demands a safety lesson, make sure it has been given and absorbed. Make sure they understand that a machine is not magic. I can still hear my engineer-father’s voice in my head: “Don’t force it!”
Inspect the job until it’s done to your satisfaction.
And occasionally, do it yourself.
Two reasons: 1) Usually (not always!) you really do a better job, and if you don’t put yourself in the rotation, your house will suffer for it; and 2) Sometimes they do need a break, and you build trust and model kindness by showing yourself understanding when an unexpected opportunity comes up or they are feeling sick or tired.
It’s good to be merciful; you will know when the right moment is to let up on your demands.
Now, let’s remember a few things. Some astonishingly small children are dexterous and interactive. Their focus is close up. They delight in order and repetition. Some children have large movements and interests. Their horizon seems so very far away, and it’s hard to reel them in.
So don’t compare one child with another. Above all, don’t read blogs and wonder why your kids don’t do everything you read about. There’s always next year. I’m convinced that there is a much wider margin than we are told for what constitutes appropriate behavior. I once gave this advice to a friend with two rambunctious boys: Stop listening to your friend with one sweet tea-partying, page-coloring girl! I’m sure she’s a nice lady, but she has no idea what she’s talking about!
Oh, and one more thing, which is what John Paul is saying in the quote below, essentially. Don’t think I’m saying that the goal is for everyone to be behaving perfectly! Expect imperfection!
Meltdowns happen, even Mama-meltdowns (No! Really? Who knew?). Yelling isn’t the worst thing. You don’t want to be yelling constantly, of course, but sometimes your children sometimes need you to yell, because their bad behavior has to do with your excessive talking and misplaced patience.
And honestly, sometimes you (and I) deserve to be yelled at, let’s admit it. (What could I do that would make my kid want to yell at me? What about this: She’s on her way to doing what I told her to do, and I tell her to do something else! I’m not even listening to myself!) No. The worst thing is a tense, overly-bright covering-up of the sorry fact that no one is helping anyone else. You’ll need anti-depressants for sure if you keep that up.
Family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice. It requires, in fact, a ready and generous openness of each and all to understanding, to forbearance, to pardon, to reconciliation.
There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion: Hence there arise the many and varied forms of division in family life. But, at the same time, every family is called by the God of peace to have the joyous and renewing experience of “reconciliation,” that is, communion re-established, unity restored.
In particular, participation in the sacrament of reconciliation and in the banquet of the one body of Christ offers to the Christian family the grace and the responsibility of overcoming every division and of moving toward the fullness of communion willed by God, responding in this way to the ardent desire of the Lord: “that they may be one.”*
*These quotes are from Familiaris Consortio, Papal Exhortation on the Family by John Paul II.