Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why it's hard to let kids (and husbands) help

As I peruse the blogosphere I every once in a while come across articles encouraging me to get the kids involved in chores from a very early age. "Stop doing those things for them," they shout. "Kids have got to learn to work!" And like the downtrodden, Pinterest-abused Mommy I am, I bow my head in shame once again as I remember all the clothes I've folded, toys I've picked up, floors I've swept, and dishes I've dealt with and think "OK, I've got to do better!"
But then... there's real life!
Tonight I am getting my 20-month-old ready for bed and notice that, as per usual, the store of diapers in our room has been depleted. I'm trying not to wake the sleepy toddler any more than necessary, and my five year old son is on his way up the stairs. I stop him and say "Quick, go grab me some diapers." Happy to help, he heads down to the bathroom at the opposite end of the house and... nothing. I've got the baby entirely undressed, cleaned, and her PJ's half on, but still no diaper. I stick my head out and see my husband walking past. "Help James find the diapers!" I call. A minute later, James returns triumphant with a handful and I am able to complete my task. Success, right?!
Half an hour later I come down stairs and notice that the bathroom light is on, the cupboard where the diapers are usually stored is open, and the Costco-sized box of wipes is pulled out and on the floor. An empty wipes box is on the floor in the hall way. In the adjacent laundry room - which is where the new box of diapers was Actually hiding - that box is turned sideways so the closet won't close, there's a washrag jammed in the track, and both sliding doors are derailed. (This last bit was at least mostly my husband, who has about as much concern - at least in the heat of a search - for "neat" and "tidy" as any of the kids.)
Total amount of time "saved:" -5 minutes.

I risk elevating this little occurrence far beyond its actual importance by blogging about it. Nothing was broken and I rather exaggerate when claiming even 5 minutes for clean-up.  But it's indicative of the core problem with kids - even husbands - "helping" with the housework.

And yeah, it's mostly my fault. The bathroom cupboard Should contain diapers, and probably Shouldn't contain the giant box of wipes. But it's pretty disorganized and it wasn't even on my radar to proactively move the new box, or at least some portion thereof, into it. Similarly, I could probably assign someone like my son the chore of consistently replenishing the diaper stack in the bedroom. The laundry room closet isn't overstuffed, but there's always bits and pieces of recent loads on the floor, or rags that have escaped their box just waiting to get trapped on the rails.

But this is not a Martha Stewart house with a Good Housekeeping-worthy organizational system, and it never will be. It is only reasonable to expect that I will Always be the single person who actually knows where (nearly) everything is, and moreover can extract it without dislodging a shelf-worth of other things, which of course will Never actually be put back by the person who did the dislodging.

Cleaning is even worse: I recently spent at least 15 minutes coaching my son through a sweeping job that I would have completed in about 3. He was very frustrated by the end of it (or what I decided to let stand as the end), despite my best efforts at calm, informative direction.  There is no doubt in my mind that he will strongly resist the next time I ask him to do this chore.  Remembering back to my own childhood, I distinctly remember deciding to surprise my mother by cleaning the main bathroom while she was taking a nap. Having neither access to nor, I expect, inclination to use the cleaning chemicals, we "washed" the mirror using plain water and paper towels. I remember how hard she tried to be properly grateful...

Dishes? We eat most of our meals at an elevated breakfast bar. The kids can barely reach it, meaning any leftovers on their plates are likely to tip onto the floor if I ask them to clear them. They can also barely reach the sink, and I'm not thrilled at having them simply toss them in sight unseen. The dishwasher would be ideal - IF they could actually reach the sink to rinse before placing them inside and IF the thing didn't have an obstinate tendency to contain clean dishes at mealtimes. A step-stool at the kitchen sink would be a constant tripping hazard to yours truly; in fact I don't want one anywhere near the kitchen because it will be used and abused by the toddler!

What I'm getting at is that if and when one decides to get kids involved in the household chores, one must be fully committed to the larger goals of self-sufficient, willingly working children. And one must furthermore admit that these goals are - especially at the beginning - basically antithetical to the apparent goal of having a reasonably clean, well ordered house. They're two different projects that should not be confused with one another. Moreover, what sort of "help" can be tolerated is going to be very different from household to household based on your kids' ages, compliance, and abilities, and just as importantly, what you can stand to have done wrong.
While I Will be teaching my kids to sweep, vacuum, wash dishes and clean bathrooms, I'm also giving myself a "get out of guilt free" card as pertains to achieving these goals at any particular age. I'm not going to follow the chart and beat myself up every time I clear the table. And neither should you!

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