They say that with great power comes great responsibility. They say that you need pay for your privileges by fulfilling your responsibilities. And don’t they also say something about how the reason people have kids is so that they don’t have to do the dishes every night?
This past summer, as I’ve been experimenting with letting my 7-year-old have a little bit more freedom — to go get the mail all by himself, to ride his bike longer distances, and to stay home by himself for short periods of time — it occurred to me that if he’s old enough to do those things, he’s also old enough to pitch in a little bit more around the house.
This is not to say that he hasn’t been cleaning up books and toys for years now, because he has. Both “Saturday chores” and a nightly clean-up session are a thing in our home and he is an active participant.
But, as I said, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, and with a summer focused on teaching him to be more independent, it seemed appropriate that he should also be able to independently make himself a sandwich and wash his own dishes.
I’m not going to lie, I had my reservations about this project. I imagined lots of whining and fighting and failed attempts. But I was been pleasantly surprised at nearly every turn and learned a few things that I’d like to pass along:
1. Don’t get in your own way.
I can wash 10 dishes to every one that he washes. I can whip up half a dozen sandwiches with the peanut butter spread smoothly and evenly without tearing a single slice of the bread, and it takes me about two seconds to fold the same pair of pants that he spends 30 seconds on. It was tough let go of that efficiency, but once I realized that even if it takes him 10 minutes to wash dishes I could have cleaned in three, that’s 10 minutes I have to do something else.
2. Teaching doesn’t have to take all day.
I dragged my feet on teaching a couple of tasks, thinking it would be a long drawn-out process that would seriously interrupt the flow of my day. When I finally stopped procrastinating and taught the kid how to slice my homemade bread, it took about a minute and segued smoothly into lunchtime – he sliced the bread, I spread the peanut butter, he did the jam, sandwiches were made in record time. Passing chores off to someone else doesn’t have to take all day, but dreading it can.
3. Keep things fair to keep the peace.
The one part of our independence lessons that went about as I expected were the protests that it wasn’t fair he had to help clean up while his little brother got to play. The only thing to do was to bring the young one into the act. Now he sweeps the floor under the table after dinner while his big brother washes dishes. And mom and dad sit back and relax look on adoringly only pin-ball between two tasks instead of three.
4. Sometimes, one sentence is all it takes.
It had been over a year since we’d given our son responsibility over his clothes: deciding what needed to be laundered and put in the basket and what was clean enough for a second wearing and could be nicely folded and put back in the drawer. And it had been almost as long since we enforced it. But it turns out all I had to do was say, “Where do your clothes go?” when he put his pajamas on each night and suddenly there are no more clothes lying around for me to pick up. (Bonus: my 4-year-old and 2-year-old wanted in on the fun and now everybody at least tries to take care of their clothes.)
5. Keep the “scaffolding” around just in case.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, “scaffolding” is a way to provide strength and guidance in a new situation until a child is familiar enough to handle it himself. After my son performed brilliantly in his first attempt to slice the bread, I thought he didn’t need me any more. But I soon realized that even though the knife didn’t make him nervous and he had the slicing stroke down pat, he still needed some guidance to get it straight. I know he’ll become more coordinated with experience, but I may still jump in to guide his hand if needed.
6. “Chores” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
I anticipated some reluctance on his part when I broached the subject of learning to do more chores, so I had a little speech prepared to sway him into giving it a go. Fortunately/unfortunately, I can’t reproduce that speech for you because I never had to give it. He surprised me by saying, “Okay,” and coming right over every time I told him I wanted to teach him something new.
He has continued to shock me by reminding me that it’s his job to do the dishes when I’ve been too lazy to mention it. And he absolutely stunned me one night when, during our nightly family prayer, he asked Heavenly Father to help him get better at washing the dishes.
So maybe he doesn’t love it, but he also isn’t praying to never have to do it again. I’ll take it.
It’s still too early to call a victory in the battle to keep the house clean without no whining and no nagging – we’ve only been doing this for a few weeks, after all, and there are still plenty of years ahead for them to get lazy and forgetful. But it isn’t too early to call the whole experience a victory. I started this summer with a kid who seemed to be teetering on the ridge between “little” and “big,” who had the desire but not the knowledge. He wanted more freedom and responsibility, and I, hesitantly, gave it to him.
It wasn’t always smooth, but we worked together and so far it has felt like a gift to both of us — not just because he gets to ride his bike more or I have fewer dishes to wash, but because we get to see what happens when we teach and trust and learn and listen to each other.
Photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt