I asked my eldest daughter, Zoe, if she would be willing to help me out. I threw open the doors to the front hall closet and showed her a disaster zone of overflowing sports equipment, mismatched mittens and winter boots mixed in with summer sandals.
“You have such a knack for organizing, would you be willing to tackle the closet for us?” I asked.
She was thrilled! She worked diligently until she was ready for the big reveal. She beamed with pride as she flung open the doors, “VOILA!”
She gave me a tour of her work, showing me how she created a basket for placing mitts, and how we each now had our own section for our possessions. Frankly, I was blown away.
She took her responsibility seriously. Just as I was sharing my appreciation for what she had created, her sister came by and saw the closet make-over. She broke into tears, saying “why does she get all the jobs?”
You know you are doing chores right when your kids are complaining they don’t get enough of them! Let me tell you how I got that magic happening in my home, so you can do it, too.
It starts with a shift in our attitudes about kids and housework.
We have very old-fashioned attitudes about kids and chores. Mostly, we treat our children as unskilled, free labour who must do the most basic, mundane, uncreative and largely janitorial jobs -- setting and clearing the table, washing dishes, taking the trash out, cleaning the litter box, walking the dog and the inevitable poop scooping. No wonder they feel like peons doing the grunt work that parents don’t want to do!
What if, instead, you saw your children as being valuable contributors who have strengths, talents and skills that could be used to help the family?
What if you took a team approach to making the house function better, rather than a dictatorial role of giving out orders to underlings?
This is really an application of the truism that children will act cooperatively and contribute their help to others if we first establish two conditions:
1. They must feel a sense of affiliation or belonging to the group they are helping (a family, a classroom, a sports team, etc.)
2. They have to feel respected, not demeaned.
Now imagine you didn’t think of housework as such a nasty chore. What if instead, you actually valued it. You might even see caring for your home and family as joyful!
Think about it, why do we find it so lovely to make a batch of cookies with our kids, but we disdain laundry?
What if you whistled while you worked? Your parental attitudes are infectious, and if you love what you are doing, you will inspire people to join in -- flies to honey. It’s all in your attitude.
Monks use mindfulness practices when they wash their bowl after eating. They are slow and methodical, giving appreciation and gratitude for the food they have eaten.
I had a similar spiritual experience when I moved back home to take care of my mother in her last months as she was dying of cancer. When I did the dishes after a meal there, I was so grateful that I could eat while she could only sip Ensure.
I washed the windows so she could see the trees outside from her bed where she was constrained in her final days. I was so grateful to be able to see the trees any time I wanted and for years to come.
All acts of cleaning my house now are acts of gratitude for being alive, for loving my life and appreciating the days I have been given. That attitude just stuck.
I am not the first to see how cleaning can be an expression of love. The wildly popular “5 Languages of Love” by Gary Chapman identifies acts of service as one way that people show their love and affection for another.
Anyone who has helped someone build a deck or move into an new apartment knows that hard work together can be bonding. Let your children know that when they help, you feel their caring.
We often give kids chores to do alone, but children are aching to spend time with their parents and doing chores together is a great way to mentor them. Try cleaning the garage or folding laundry together and see if you both enjoy it more.
My daughter Zoe enjoyed the closet job because she got to be creative. She was allowed to do it her way. Often chores are very prescriptive. Children would be more excited about setting the table if they could pick the napkins, make a centre piece, assign seating. Cooking dinner would be fun if they could pick the meal everyone was served.
I heard of one family that played a home version of a cooking show where they would assign “mystery ingredients” and challenge each other to come up with dinner using those items. They elevated the mundane to playful and fun!
Growing up, my children did have a chore list and they were expected to sign up for a few jobs on the list each week. They picked from the list and rotated jobs regularly. As they got busy with extra-curricular activities and part-time jobs, it worked better to post jobs that weren't time sensitive, like dusting instead of dishes.
Giving choice, rotating of jobs and providing flexible and wide time frames all helped alleviate the feeling of being a mere servant. Appreciating all they did to help the family was motivating, too, no pay required.
Give it a try and see if you can’t create some of the conditions necessary to inspire your children’s desire to pitch in! Sure, they might be suspicious and hesitant at first, but hang in there and with time, you’ll begin to see change. I promise.