Get to Work

A couple of months ago we decided it was time our children had some regular chores. Up to that point, we’d forced them to help out sporadically, usually with the same result: they’d grudgingly do what we asked badly, and we’d have to do it after them. This time we decided to insist that they contribute to their own maintenance. Normally I’d muck out their rooms once a year, when my husband took them on a Boy Scout family camping trip over Memorial Day weekend. I’d drag everything out from under their beds, and everything they’d jammed in their closets in the last 364 days, and get rid of the garbage and the cheap ass fucking carnival stuffed animals. You know the ones—shit like a stuffed banana made out of crappy polyester that, had they seen it in the garbage, they would declare their favorite stuffed animal ever and oh my god how could I be so cruel as to throw it out?!?!? You know, the one they didn’t even miss when I actually did throw it out over Memorial Day weekend last year? Yeah, that one.

That used to take me all three days of the long weekend, and it was painful. So now they were instructed that they were going to have to muck out their own rooms weekly, and I would get to spend Memorial Day weekend drinking Mai Tais and having my nails done or, you know, cleaning the rest of the house. I made up a checklist and printed out copies. Each one has the same thing on it: remove the sheet from your bed, take it and all dirty clothes to the laundry room, put a new sheet on the bed, pick up all stuffed animals, pick up and vacuum one room (living room, dining room, mudroom/kitchen or hall), and a couple of lines for ad hoc write-in stuff. Each item has a check box so they can keep track of what they’ve done. Chore time is around 9 a.m. on either Saturday or Sunday (sometimes their sporting events interfere with the Saturday window).

The first two or three weeks went pretty well. It was a new thing, and they felt a sense of accomplishment when they were done. Then the novelty wore off, and that sense of accomplishment wasn’t sufficient to counter the drudgery of actually doing the chores. Congratulations, kids: you’re now prepared for life. These days they go to their rooms, ostensibly to do their chores, but they whine and fight and do everything but pick up their rooms. I think they may actually drag stuff out and make a bigger mess. So we have to ride their asses and make sure they’re making progress. I say “we,” but I think we all know who “we” is. Because interestingly, there always seem to be several “outdoor” tasks that become super ultra high priority and require my husband’s immediate attention as soon as the kids are sent off to do their weekly jobs. But, you know, I get it—those cardboard boxes aren’t going to break themselves down, y’all.

And of course, I hear how mean I am. This weekend my insistence that they pick up and vacuum a single room on the main level was labeled “child abuse,” and “forced slave labor.” I was declared to be the meanest, worst mom ever. (Two superlatives at once; you can imagine my pride.) I pointed out that I do every other fucking thing—the laundry, the cooking, the bathrooms. I suggested that if they were so unhappy about vacuuming the living room, they were more than welcome to clean the toilets. This was met with eye rolls, of course. It’s their most highly developed skill.

I’ve tried a reward system, but it kind of backfired. One week I was planning to run some errands (interesting errands, not just the grocery store, so they all wanted to go) and I said I would take two kids along. Whoever finished first would get to come with me. Problem number one is that of course we only have one vacuum cleaner, so whoever got the vacuum first was going to finish first. Problem number two was that my daughter stopped working entirely, crawled under a blanket on the floor of her bedroom, and started crying. When I finally pried out of her why she was crying, it turned out that she really, really wanted to come with me, just to spend some time with Mommy. This is a radical change from even a couple of months ago, when I would be leaving the house in the morning and would say, “Do you want a hug and a kiss?” and she’d think about it for a second and go, “Nah.” So the fact that she wanted to come with me was odd (although not unwelcome), and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to finish in time to get her choice. Result: tears. So that kinda sucked (she got to go with me, even though she wasn’t the first one done).

These are tasks for which they do not get paid. I’ve had this debate with other parents, asking opinions on if they should get an allowance for maintenance work. I’m on the fence—I think about the “real world” that they’ll have to live in one day, and no one is going to give them a medal when they empty the fucking dishwasher and change their sheets. On the other hand, when you go to work you do get paid for your contribution to the overall success of the organization, and contributing to the success of the organization is what I’m asking them to do in this case. So for now they don’t get paid for making their beds and picking up their clothes, but they do for cleaning windows and dusting baseboards (I hate dusting baseboards, and they’re closer to the ground. They can do it, and I’ll give them a buck for it).

There is a downside to having them pull their own weight, and that is that I can’t get rid of the crap as easily. When I was doing it over Memorial Day weekends, I’d just dig everything out and make a big pile in the middle of the room. Then I’d pluck out the things that were just garbage, like all the stupid plastic slinkies from birthday party goody bags (have you read Kristin’s rant about goody bags? You should. Go ahead. I’ll wait), the aforementioned crap stuffed animals, random bits of unidentifiable toy (I don’t understand—I have some awareness of every toy that enters our house, one way or another, and yet I’m constantly finding little pieces of shit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before; how is this possible? And what the hell are they?), and other precious gems that they would clutch to their bosom and shriek in outrage if they thought I was even suggesting that we get rid of it. I’ll just have to go into stealth mode to get rid of whatever replaces the stuffed banana.


Foxy Wine Pocket said...

This is my dream too: "to spend Memorial Day weekend drinking Mai Tais and having my nails done or, you know, cleaning the rest of the house." Except not the last part.

Tracy said...

Exactly! Except actually, my Memorial Day weekend was disappointingly Mai Tai free, and there were no nails done either. But neither did I clean the house, so I'll call it a win.

Unknown said...

Love it. True: "I say “we,” but I think we all know who “we” is. Because interestingly, there always seem to be several “outdoor” tasks that become super ultra high priority and require my husband’s immediate attention as soon as the kids are sent off to do their weekly jobs."

My kids do chores, too. Of course they don't do them well, but they do them every week ao I figure eventually things will get cleaned.

Tracy said...

Right? Argh. And yeah, chores are definitely a "practice makes perfect" situation. Plus if I let them off for doing them badly, then I'm stuck doing it again myself. We're not going back there!

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