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Want less stress and a cleaner house? Have lots of kids.

...and make them do all the work.

Okay, I’m being facetious…kind of.

Our family of 7 (myself, my husband and our five kids ages 3 – 14) spent most of the weekend going in and out of the house, relaxing, BBQ-ing and beach-going. As a result, we woke up to “lazy summer weekend syndrome” this morning: a huge pile of laundry, gritty piles of sand anywhere shoes and bathing-suit bottoms had been removed, stinky trash that should have been removed days earlier. I drove my oldest son to camp this morning, and spent most of the afternoon working.

By the time I faced down the dinner dishes, I felt defeated.

But then I remembered one thing most mothers of large families learn by necessity: our children are the family workforce.

So, willing my shoulders to stop slumping, I went to my children and said “Hey guys, I need a hand. Let’s whip the house into shape before bedtime, okay?”

And they all jumped into motion. 12-year-old Isaac, who has also assumed 14-year-old Jacob’s job of taking out the trash and doing the dishes while he’s at camp, vacuumed the living room, his little sister’s room, and even my bedroom rug. Eight-year-old William lined up the shoes by the front door and picked up random bits of paper trash strewn about the house. Six-year-old Owen tossed toys in bins and piled up dirty clothes.

Even three-year-old Clara helped by picking up puzzle pieces, though I think her exuberant version of the “clean-up song” annoyed, more than motivated, her brothers.

After twenty minutes of all of us pitching in, the house had somehow put itself to rights. Since I didn’t have to worry about the rest of it, I’d managed to sweep up the sand and give the bathrooms a quick once-over. And now that the kids are in bed, I can sink into my sofa with a glass of wine, the remote, and a relatively tidy house.

Moms of one or two kids often seem amazed that I’m able to function at all with my crew of five, let alone get anything done. But other moms of many I know understand that we’ve got it easy in a lot of ways.

Sure, we paid our dues when the biggest ones were very small, but we barely remember those days now and instead function in a world where we don’t always have to be the ones to: do the dishes, push the smaller kids on the swing, walk the dog, carry out the trash. And yes, the fact that I can run to the grocery store at noon without having to take my three-year-old is sheer magic.

Of course, all mothers – and especially moms of older kids – have a built-in workforce like I do.

But I’m not sure most of those who stopped at one or two kids take adequate advantage of their young family members. After all, I started out as a fairly typical American parent, wanting my kids to pull their weight, but not always sure how much to expect in an increasingly child-centric culture.

There was no pressing need to drop the hammer from day to day; even without their chipping in, I could still more or less manage (if grumpily). And frankly, expecting kids to pull their weight – and enforcing those rules day in and day out – is tough. When I had “just” the two kids, the daily tradeoff hardly seemed worth it: better to just do it myself than try to oversee a pair of rambunctious, clumsy pint-sized employees.

It was only when my third was born (my oldest were 4 and 6 at the time) and I realized that I would have to expect more of the older kids for sheer survival’s sake that I began asking my kids to step up. And step up they did, and have, if reluctantly at first.

Oh sure, there’s the bellyaching sometimes. My oldest tell me that they are the only ones of their friends who have to (fill in the blank.) Or, my favorite, coming from my teen son Jacob: “I just want a weekend to lay around once in a while!” (Tell me about it, son.) But when push comes to shove, they pitch in. They do what they’re asked.

The younger ones have never known differently. To them, chipping in around the house is just what members of a family do, so they do it mostly without complaint and always without defiance.

My kids aren’t perfect little workers. They sometimes cut corners and slack off, as, sometimes, do I. They don’t resemble the uber-industrious children of the Matsingenka tribe described in today’s New Yorker story entitled “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” They have been known to try to wheedle their way into extra allowance or a piece of candy in exchange for a chore. Sometimes they put me off “until the commercial” or “just a few minutes.”

In other words, they’re American children, and I am mostly OK with that, because ultimately they do what needs to be done.

Maybe not because they respect me any more than the average kid respects his mom, or because they’re less lazy than any other kid, but just because they’ve each been needed – in a real, concrete and obvious way – from a young age.

I think every human being wants to feel necessary. Even small children need a purpose, to feel as though their actions help people and make a difference. Helping out around the house – not in some made-up pretend “job” to stroke a small ego, but because Mom’s gonna lose it if those shoes don’t get lined up in the entryway – fills that need. Going by that logic, by requiring my kids to be useful I’m doing them a favor.

So if you want to have less stress, a cleaner house, and maybe even happier kids? Have a whole bunch of them.

Or if the large-family route isn’t for you, take a tip from what I wish I’d figured out earlier, and expect your family to help you: whether you’ve got a single toddler or a couple of teens.

Some gritty, exhausted, laundry-filled evening, you’ll be glad you did.

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