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Perspective: ‘Do you have help?’ Yes. They’re called my kids

I used to think if I just told them to do their chores, they would. I quickly learned I need a system — and I needed to be the example

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Teaching children how to work is as much about consistency as it is about completion.

Teaching children how to work is as much about consistency as it is about completion.

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I once found a very soggy and very dead mouse in my washing machine. The pile of towels had been sitting on the floor in the laundry room long enough for a mouse to get comfy — and then get unceremoniously shoved into the washer. Oops.

A friend told me she did laundry once a week and “got it all done” in a day. That was a foreign concept to me. You mean there is actually a realm where there are no dirty laundry piles waiting for their turn? Inconceivable.

Do you have help?

One of the questions I often get asked as the mom to a large family is if I had help. What they mean is, did we hire people to come in and help with cooking, cleaning and yard work. My answer to that is no. I did not hire help. But I did have help — and I trained them myself.

I mean, of course, my kids.

I had no well-thought-out plans about how to teach them, or how to get them to work. I tried a bazillion things. Once, I thought, if I just told them what to do, it would magically happen. I told them, for example, to get up early on Saturday morning and go weed the garden. You might see where this is going. I told them to go weed — while I slept in. Sure, mom.

Even writing those words makes me laugh at my own naiveté. I learned — shocker — that it worked better if I taught them by working with them. I began getting up earlier, getting myself ready for the day, then getting the kids up to go weed together.

Desperation leads to inspiration

Sometimes, I taught them new skills out of desperation. Remember the mouse? Well, the laundry was not only never-ending, it was also endlessly frustrating. I would wash and dry the clothes. Sometimes I would even fold them before putting them in the laundry baskets to go back to their rooms for the kids to put away.

And, sometimes the kids did put away clothes — at least the top layer. Then, the laundry baskets filled back up with wet, stinky clothes and as I put them in the washing machine, what did I find? The wet, stinky clothes had been put on top of the clean, folded clothes.

After the twenty-millionth time of losing my mind, we had a family night where everyone was taught how to separate laundry, how much detergent to add to the machine, which buttons to push and, just like that, my years as family laundress were over. The youngest at the time was about 8 years old. It’s been almost 20 years since that family night, but the kids still remember Mom teaching them how to do laundry.

For my part, I had no expectations of laundry perfection. If the kids asked for help, or had questions, I was happy to assist. Otherwise, they got to learn what happened if you wash your whites with a new red shirt. Or new blue jeans. They got to figure out what mildew smells like when the wet load sat in the machine for four days. And, they got to learn “laundry etiquette” that is so needed when sharing appliances. (No, you can’t throw your brother’s wet clothes on the ground.)

Iterate, learn, reiterate

The concept of learning through iteration isn’t just for business. We used it at home, too, trying to find a “chore” process that would work for us. I couldn’t do charts or chips as trackers — too much work for me. I tried carefully typing out expectations for each chore (sweep in the corners, not just the middle of the room) — they were ignored. They didn’t get an allowance for doing chores, it was simply part of being in a family.

What we ended up settling on — and it lasted for years — was a weekly job rotation, divided by age. Big, medium and little kids. The somewhat arbitrary age designation was largely divided by up to age 7, 8-12 and 13 and up. One issue that came up was not completing the weekly job(s) and then just sliding into the next week’s chores. So, we instituted a policy that the person who followed you in the rotation had to agree that the job was done before you passed if off. Otherwise, you had two jobs that week.

The little kids could unload the dishwasher and set the table. We put all the dishes in lower cupboards so they could reach them with mom’s help. They also swept the floor, pulled up the comforter on their beds (we stopped using top sheets long ago) and put away their toys.

The medium kids began doing their own laundry and learned to wash the dishes. When the dishwasher broke and we were broke, they learned to wash dishes by hand. Fond memories. Especially when Sunday dinners often required eight dishwasher-loads of dishes. They also washed counters, cleaned fridges and started taking care of the chickens in our backyard.

The older kids learned how to cook and were responsible for one meal a week. And, after too many meals of mac and cheese, I instituted the rule that you could not repeat a meal in a month. They made the menu, I bought the food and they made the meal, usually without help. They also learned how to change a tire, how to drive on snow and how to use deodorant.

Now, lest you think I had unique children who love to work and happily did all their chores, I did not. There was plenty of moaning and groaning and dragging of feet.

As adults, however, each of them has thanked me — sometimes profusely — for teaching them how to work.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.