Note: I wrote this piece in 2009, when my boys were younger. By now they chop food for dinner, Isaiah can indeed use the hatchet and Simon and Isaiah have their own flocks of birds, and the sale of any eggs they raise. The general principles are still the same. We still don’t give allowances per se, but allow the children to do extra labor to earn money, over and above the chores they do simply because they live here. I found myself thinking about this book in the context of the discussion around the “Tiger Mother” book that advocates all of children’s attention be focused on purely academic achievement. Perhaps because I have a disabled child whose primary achievements will never be academic, and because my husband and I were academic achievers in some ways that still managed to get along doing other stuff, I’m skeptical – as you can see.I
‘m a mean Mom. By this I mean that I make my kids do chores. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t labor all day in sweat shops while I eat bon bons. But when my husband and I say, put the house in order, guess who is expected to help out? Besides cleaning up their own room, all my kids have other responsibilities.
Each of the children is responsible in part for helping to tend the menagerie – Asher feeds the cats and collects the eggs, Isaiah feeds the bunnies and brings them dandelions, and fills their water bottles. Eli feeds the dog and helps brush her, while Simon makes sure the goats have hay, water, minerals and baking soda at all times. Everyone helps get ready for the Sabbath, everyone helps haul wood and weed the garden, as well as do the big harvesting jobs.
Eli collects laundry and puts it in the baskets and loads the washer, Isaiah makes the kids’ beds and sets the table (and is awfully proprietary about everything once it is done – I think he may have gotten the tidiness gene that skipped his parents), Asher puts away towels and cloth napkins and helps hang the laundry, Simon wipes down the bathroom and gets the beverages. Once per week, each boy picks the meal, and helps cook it.
As they get older, they can do more – I’m sort of astonished by how much they alread do. Last week, Isaiah made a pan of cornbread all by himself, with only adult help with the hot pads, the oven controls and with reading the recipe. He just hit the 5 1/2 mark – I thought that was pretty good. Simon has already mastered chocolate chip cookies and making tomato sauce. We allow Simon and Eli to take turns with the hatchet, chopping kindling, with heavy supervision, and Isaiah has declared that he will start using the hatchet this year. These are words to strike fear into any mother’s heart – but also to fill it with a certain pride and delight.
By the standards of the past, my children get off awfully lightly. At 7, Simon is only allowed to use the hatchet with help – by the time he was seven a hundred years ago, my son would have been expected to keep the woodbox filled. I have no daughters, but had I, a 7 year old girl would have been able to tend the fire and produce a simple meal, as well as sew a fairly neat seam. Simon’s seams are graceless (we don’t do gendered division of labor here), and I won’t trust him with an axe or a fire – and for the latter two, I think that’s probably wise. And yet we never cease to remind ourselves that balancing keeping them safe and letting them be competent is a balancing act – too much on either side, and you tip.
I must admit that my children are both more willing and better workers than I was – although I think most of my memories come from adolescence, and I may find that my children’s willingness dries up somewhat then. I still remember the outrage I felt at my two step-mothers, both of whom rightly felt that since I made use of the household, I should do some of the work. “What do you mean I not only have to do *all* the dishes but wipe down the stove and counters too?” I remember that thought all too well. I take comfort in the fact that I probably wasn’t any more spoiled and callow than any other 13 year old, but still… I do not want my children to ever believe that toilets magically make themselves clean, that dinners simply appear, or that any part of life comes without honest effort. I was appalled to learn that my cousin, a teacher in a wealthy school district had been recently told that her students shouldn’t waste time cleaning up after themselves, because after all, they’d have “people” to do that for them when they grew up. Ugh!
That said, however, I understand why many well-intentioned parents just do everything themselves – quite honestly, a lot of times, it is much more annoying to train your child, as they say, up in the way he should go, than to just do it yourself. Add to that that we live in a culture that teaches us that education exists so that you don’t have to clean your own toilets or cook your own meals, and the culture that teaches competency to kids is in some danger of being lost – just as it is most needed.
One of the least-favorite things I’ve ever heard come out of my own mouth is: “I know you want to help me cook, but I just have to do this fast and you can’t help.” That this is sometimes the reality is not much consolation. But I have found that the time I invest in doing it with them, or even occasionally sneaking around fixing what they do is mostly worth it – I can see in my older kids the seeds of competence. That corn bread was really good. So were the cookies.
My kids still find helping appealing for the most part – they particularly love to be engaged in a collective process. For example, they love harvesting herbs and food – picking is a kid-appealing job. The younger ones will happily dig deep planting holes, and the older ones enjoy showing how much wood they can carry at once. In fact, every one of my sons enjoys proving his strength as much as I did at the same age. It takes some practice in schooling your face to watch a three year old first carry, then drag, then roll a log that is too big for him, and some practice to stop yourself from asking if he wants help, when he’s already said he doesn’t.
Up to now, we’ve not paid allowance – they children have tzedakah (charity) money to give away, but other than the occasional windfall from family, they don’t have their own money. But we’ve decided to add on earning chores, which can be paid for in either cash or in popsicle sticks (the home currency) to be redeemed at yard sales, or in our “home store.” These will be larger jobs that, hopefully, actually save Mom and Dad work, or contribute to our well being, like weeding a whole garden bed (or more if you are bigger), tidying your room, herding the goats into the back field to graze, entertaining a brother who needs supervision or stacking a certain amount of wood.
Besides the competence, I want my children to have a full sense of what it means to be a participant in any human relationship – whether a nuclear family or a larger community. And a whole lot of that is work. I want them to have a sense of the whole range of work – the annoying jobs that no one likes that have to be done, and are better done cheerfully and with grace, the jobs that become pleasures as you do them, the work that can be integrated with play, the work that takes all your attention, the work that earns them money, the work that does not. I want them to balance remunerative and subsistence labor, because most of us need to find such a balance.
There is an ongoing debate among parents about whether chores should be done for pay, or because you are a member of the household. My thinking is that it is no bad thing to work for pay from early on – but that I also don’t want my kids to expect to be paid for every contribution. So one of the things I do when we are doing the chores is try and point out (as often as I can without being boring or pedantic) how useful these skills are or will be to them, or how these skills potentially invest them in the farm as a whole. So, for example, I point out that the wood they split for kindling keeps them warm, but also that our neighbor, a young man in his late teens, makes a fairly good income over the years selling firewood that he cuts after school on his father’s land. I point out that when they are older, they too could cut wood, and that the work might keep them warm, and help their family stay warm, or might make them some money. The same is true of baking, mending, milking or cleaning – these are jobs that can be either subsistence labor or a source of income. My middle children are already starting to build a source of income in their own poultry flock, subsidized by parents.
My favorite of Joel Salatin’s many excellent books is his _Family Friendly Farming_ book, where he makes the point that if we want to keep our children down on the farm, we must help them find ways to envision themselves as having a viable future there – that means everything from teaching them the work itself to helping them start businesses of their own to treating them as apprentices and junior partners in the shared family agricultural project. I suspect this is good advice for most families, not just farming ones. Fostering as much competence and independence in children as possible, is, I think a tool for making viable and connected futures, not just on the farm, but in the home.
The idea that children’s proper work was making good grades, and achieving at sports, and that parents should handle household labor is an artifact of a period of long economic growth, but also an artifact of times when families were not expected to stay together, when the right and proper order of things was that children should grow up, move out, go to college and then start their own place somewhere else. But that model is not fully viable in the face of our collective reality, and I think teaching our children to be competent at home carries with it, not an insistence on proximity, but preparation for it to move back to our lives.
Right now, due to our economic crisis, millions of high school and college graduates and students have no summer job or post school work available, have returned home, after living their whole lives in places where “work” was something you did outside of home. Making space in the home to share the subsistence work we’re all going to need is part of preparing for the future. For the millions of unemployed who see themselves as not contributing anything, we must revalue subsistence labor. That begins at the very beginning – at how we teach our kids about the value of their share of the household work.
I realize that it is a long step from Isaiah’s pan of cornbread, or Eli’s starting the washer to them producing their own crops, managing their own household (or a portion of mine), raising their own livestock or starting up their own businesses. And I realize that by the time they are men, things will be different and it is possible (I don’t think likely, but possible) that we will have shifted back into another mode. But it is a step, I think – that is, the things are linked contiguously – they are getting a sense of what work is, and how work will be the way they spend their lives. I hope they will learn to enjoy working, to get through the parts of every job that are drudgery, to delight in the parts that are engaging, and to enjoy working together with others.
I sometimes run into people who advise against making children do particular kinds of work because their parents made them do it, and they hated it. They had to weed the garden or carry wood, scrub the toilet or do the shopping, and the injustice of that shaped forever their relationship to that work. I admit, I sort of identify – my sister and I had to share the dishwashing chores, and I still rather dislike doing dishes, more than 20 years later. On the other hand, I have yet to find a way to compel magical elves to do the dishes for me, and so I do them.
When people tell me that their mother made them weed the garden and thus, for 30 years, they never touched dirt, it makes me think that the problem was not the cruelty of their parents but the lack of ubiquity of gardens, that is, that had their most-hated job been something they had no choice but to suck up and do, they’d have gotten over their repression much faster and been the better for it.
That said, I’m fully expecting my children to write a tell-all book someday about me. My prayer is that the very worst thing that will be said about me (unlikely, but a girl can hope, right?) is that she made her sons pull weeds, wash clothes, cook dinner and get down and dirty, keeping house with their parents.