How best to train the next generation of activists? Give them chores

There it was, right next to our places at the breakfast table every Saturday morning. On top of clumpy oatmeal and disgusting miso, we also had to choke down the weekend chore list. There would be no fun and games, no excursions, no relaxation until all the items written out in Mom’s perfect handwriting were completed. It could take an hour; it could take all day, our choice.

They weren’t the worst chores in the world — sweeping the stairs, emptying the trash all through the house, tidying our room. Sometimes, we dragged our feet and tried to negotiate our way out of these chores, but mostly my brother and I rushed through them as fast as possible or turned them into games. Sweeping the steps with our bottoms instead of a rag was fun. So was playing three story catch with the bathroom trash — we’d argue over who was the tosser and who stood down in the backyard trying to catch the bag. It was more fun to toss and the tosser was less likely to get in trouble too. Sometimes, the wind caught the trash bags and there would be no catch, that was always hilarious.

In addition to these independent, haphazardly completed chores, we had to do a lot of helping out. “Come work with me,” Dad would say, and “No thanks” was not an option. We helped him wash the car (no soap, no hose, just lots of elbow grease), chop and stack wood, change the car’s oil (we were small and so he’d send us under the car to unscrew things so he didn’t have to jack the car up).

Dad seemed to enjoy making these chores as hard as possible, as I recall. We did own a vacuum, but he thought that sweeping the rugs in our basement living spaces with a broom was better. It was quieter, but it was also so much more work. The rug itself was a chore – small square rug samples of different textures and colors glued to the cement floor. The glue was always failing in the humid basement, and so another chore was re-gluing the rugs. He’d squeeze wood glue, and we’d smear it around the back of the rug and the floor and then find a stack of books to weigh it down for a while. “Give it a sit,” he’d say, and my brother and I would perch our bottoms on top of stacks of mystery novels and religious polemics. We’d press the glue into the ground, smiling at each other like mad clowns who could not believe their luck (Dad let us sit down, ha ha). Then we’d ruin it by being too silly and loud, and he’d send us off on the next chore.

Here is an interesting statistic: In a 2014 Braun Research survey of 1,001 U.S. adults, 82 percent reported having regular chores growing up, but only 28 percent said that they required chores of their own children. Is this some kind of proof that kids today are lazy, or is it more a reflection on the grown ups?

Making kids do chores is hard work. Harder than the chores themselves, most of the time.

“Pick up this mess, Seamus,” I tell my three-year-old son. He is sitting on the sofa — naked — surrounded by library books and the clothes he has taken off. There are more library books piled on the floor along with princess dresses and stuffed animals. Somewhere in this pile is an upended bowl of goldfish too.

“It happens, Mama,” he says. “Messes just happen.”

“Right, Seamus. Messes happen and then neatness happens because we clean up.”

“In a minute, Mama.”

Now, I have a choice: To give him a minute and see what happens or insist that it happens right now — threatening, storming and incentivizing. I could also start cleaning and make it look so fun that he is irresistibly drawn to participating. The children’s literature on chores says that the third option is the best. They say: Make the work collective, make it fun, make it part of family together time.

But I have already cleaned this exact mess up three times today, and I don’t feel like making it fun. He’s lucky that I don’t own a magic wand because I feel like making it all disappear so there are no library books, no clothes and no goldfish ever again. I feel like a three year old does not need to take off all his clothes and throw books on the floor to have a good time.

So, I storm and threaten and count. Oh, he loves it when I count.

“Count, Mama, count,” he’ll say, which is infuriating, sassy and hard not to laugh at.

“Nothing else is happening until this mess is cleaned up,” I say.

Oops. Now, I have done it. Match point, and it goes to Seamus. He is perfectly happy, he doesn’t need anything else to happen today. I am the one who needs other things to happen. It is my to do list, errands and desire to not come home later to a pile of books on the floor that is pushing this clean-up party. Fail!

“Come help me,” I say as I rush around picking up books and sweeping up goldfish and making a neat pile of his clothes. He watches.

“Put your clothes on, Seamus.” He waits.

“I need help, Mama. Help me, please.” The children’s literature says that a three-and-a-half-year old should be able to dress himself in simple clothes (the only kind he wears). But that takes forever, and I am out of patience (and he said please). I give in completely.

Ron Lieber, the New York Times “Your Money” columnist, wrote “The Opposite of Spoiled.” He says that kids “are capable of so much more than we allow them to do, mostly because we aren’t patient enough to give them the chance to take on new tasks and do them wrong a few times before getting the hang of it.” Oops. My bad.

I have to keep at it. I have to get better. Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, completed a longitudinal study in 2002 that followed 84 children across four periods in their lives — in preschool, around ages 10 and 15, and in their mid-20s. Here are her findings: “Young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.” Yes, working with my dad, getting that list from my mom, those dreary hours spent dusting, sweeping, unscrewing, stacking, emptying, and so much more were the key to my many successes as an adult.

We are trying. Seamus’s older sister is nine. We share responsibility for Rosena with her mom, and the big girl lives with us half the time. She responds really well to “the clean up is a game” ploy. Turn music up loud, give her a time limit and she is a greased lightening clean up machine. She also sets and clears the table, puts away her laundry and is game for projects like reorganizing the mud room. “I love working with you, Frida. It is so much fun,” she tells me as we restack the milk crates for the 150 pairs of shoes needed to keep five individuals from slumping around barefoot and rehang the 400 coats, vests, jackets and slickers without which we can be neither warm nor dry nor fashion forward.

Rosena’s good nature and generous spirit gives me hope that her slothful little brother will wise up and be helpful. He worships the backs of her heels, so that’s a good sign. And when big sister peer pressure doesn’t help, I can sometimes garner his cooperation by invoking his goddess — Ms. A, his preschool teacher. “Would Ms. A like that you are not helping clean up?” I’ll ask. He looks around the room to make sure she is not watching before he scurries to put the stuffed animals back in their basket. “Ms. A says I am a good helper,” he says. “I am, right Mama?” Gotcha!

My dad would have loved to hear me say something similar as we stacked firewood or scrubbed out the inside of the garbage cans, but I don’t think I ever did. Rosena and I finish putting everyone’s hats, mittens and scarves back in their overflowing bins.

The children’s literature is worried about a new generation of kids coming up who are not capable, not independent, not empathetic, and not even a little helpful. They say it starts with chores, with learning how to work together, learning that work is part of life. I am worried too — not just about the state of my house, but the state of our world.

I never would have admitted it to him, but I did love working with my dad. I learned so much in the process — and not just how to do all the things we did together. I learned a key life lesson: “Leave things better than you found them.” It works on bedrooms, kitchens and the inside of trash cans, but it works on a bigger scale too. With your time and effort, make a dent on the big messes like racism and white supremacy, a nuclear-armed war-making state, an anti-human economic system and a wasteful culture. I want to raise kids who care enough to not just clean up their own little (and not so little) messes, but also tackle all these bigger messes. So, it means being a little more patient, a little more tolerant and a little more fun in helping the kids do their chores.

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