Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Parenting: Avoid Becoming a Garbage House

 A good friend posted something on facebook today about sitting in front of the TV with kids and how it might not be the typical thing they do, but today might just be the day for it. It reminded me of a lovely neighbor, she used to tell me that letting your kids watch TV was better than beating them! It always made me laugh. I also wrote about her here: 

One of the things that seems to get lost in the whirlwind of family life in our busy generation is the old fashioned idea of chores. We go from school to soccer to choir to the grocery store and then have to stop for new soccer socks and the presentation board for the science project. And there sits the laundry. And the dishes, and forget the dusting, and the vacuuming. Those are just not happening.

Well, there are some families with one or two clean freak types who always have a neat home with orderly shoes lined up in an actual closet by the front door and neatly arranged towels in the powder room. And there are people who have finally figured out how to budget things just right so that they have help cleaning every week or twice a month. I have a friend who splits her time between being my kind of family, one of the less-neat types and a clean freak. She says that the dishes all have to be done twice a month, before Merry Maids come.

I love that.

We’ve come a long way since the early messy family days. When our oldest was a toddler we lived in a townhouse apartment. Our little balcony butted right up to our neighbor’s balcony. A nice family moved in a few months after we did. The mom was another stay-at-home mom, so we got to know each other. It was the kind of neighbor that you really could say “There’s a mouse in my kitchen, can I bring the baby over so I can catch it!” and of course, you could. Of course.

Well, this friendship got to be pretty close, so much so that she got to see my apartment as it actually looked. You know, piles and crumbs and laundry and just messiness. One day, she pulled up her britches and said “do you want me to teach you how to clean your house?” I already adored her, so I wasn’t upset, just grateful! She admitted to being a recovering messy person, and told me how you had to just start in one corner and go back to that same corner, and just keep going. Get three bags, one for garbage, one for putting away later and one for giving away and fill ‘em up.

Oh I was thankful. In a few months, I was a confirmed clean freak. I’ve swung from messier to neater over the years but never gotten that far again.

As my kids grew and their messes grew, I realized they could do more that just get up from the table after dinner, say “thanks mom” and go off to play legos. Hey, if you can create a huge lego monster with integrated legs and wings, then you can sure as heck unload the dishwasher.

But it took my going to work full-time to really get things moving.

For years my husband had worked for an airline, and we’d been able to fly for free. When we moved to Seattle, it was for a job that didn’t have flight benefits. We booked one flight that we had to pay for, and that was it. It was expensive to fly! Spoiled rotten, that’s what we’d been, but still, we wanted our flight benefits.

When jobs opened up in the Seattle reservation office of an airline, I applied. Yes, I’d have to work full time swing shift and homeschool three kids, yes I’d have to pass a month long class that was harder than any college course I’d ever had, yes I’d have to survive monitored calls and a four month probation with no absences. But so what? We needed to fly for free.

The trick was, working this much, I wasn’t able to do anything else. Anything. No shopping, no laundry, no cleaning, no errands. I could manage none of it. But my husband is craftier than I am. And he’s an engineer. He wasn’t going to work full time and take on all of that, either. So, he taught the kids how to do things, real things.

Each child was assigned a portion of the dishwasher that was theirs to unload, it was height based then, dependent on which shelves you could reach to put things away. And he showed them how to load the dishwasher carefully so you didn’t drip a big gooey line of dirty water onto the floor. I probably should remember to ask him to show me how to do that, someday.

They learned how to wipe down the kitchen table and catch the crumbs in their palm. He even instituted a “first pass” and a “second pass” for washing up the table, so anything missed the first time would be caught the second. Everyone learned how to pack up the leftovers from dinner and even how to make a lunch for yourself for the next day out of the left-overs.

The children learned how to pull all the kitchen chairs into the family room so the kitchen floor could be swept well, and there was an on going battle over just who’s turn it was to sweep, which was deemed the worst job of all.

Laundry became a big, boy-energy filled event. All the clean laundry was dumped on the master bed in a big huge pile. Each person manned one corner of the bed and then you threw a person’s clothes at them… well, you were supposed to throw it toward the corner they were manning. What seemed to happen based on the piles of laundry that I found behind the bed and well beyond the corners was that you whipped the laundry as hard as you could at the person it belonged to. But it worked, and all the boys learned how to fold their shirts and sort their socks and do the real work.

Still, a few years later now, the chores are a shared job in our family. Thankfully I don’t work full-time swing shift any longer, but there is still a lot to do. We’ve all got busy days and busy nights. But we don’t really have chores. There is no specific thing that each of us has that we each have to do. We have constant work that we all need to do, and for the most part with just a little bit of nagging and cajoling, it gets done.

It doesn’t seem to me that we get the same pushback here in our house that other families do. Sure, there is whining. And there are guilt trips, and general griping. But we seem to approach the work as a group. I guess it’s kind of like “hey this is something we have to do, it’s not fun, it’s not exciting, but when it’s over, well then we can get on with what we really want to do.”

The trick, I think, is to really think of your children as people. From day one know that they are full-on thinking, feeling, absolutely whole beings, and that of course no one on the planet wants to do the laundry. No one. It’s a bummer. But if we find some fun in the work, and remember that we’re lucky to be able to do it with these people that we love, well, then, it’s not so bad.

What we do now that all the boys are perfectly capable of each doing any house work that needs to be done is to put on a “family blitz”. We each take on a piece of the work, put on some loud music and we take on the job. Someone dusts all the wood, someone all the glass. Someone else vacuums, and someone else picks up all the house detritus before it gets sucked up. Someone moves furniture around and finally we have the big dash where we hide all the things that didn’t get properly put away in the closet.

The blitz clean is a group effort, we’re all pulling together, there is no yelling, except in a comical “Laurel and Hardy” kind of way, and we have a kind of clean house most of the time. The chores aren’t really chores. It’s just the stuff our family has to get done.

It’s been years since we lived by that kind neighbor who finally taught me how to clean my house, and we’ve come a long way. I try to invite friends over when things are not perfect so they will know that I really trust them, and when I book a church family to host a dinner or a class, I always ask them to have the house look at least a little lived in. Why not? It’s how things are for almost all of us a great deal of the time. And it makes the kids feel so much more at home if there’s a little clutter around and the toys are comfortably scattered through the house. And isn’t that what we’re all craving? That feeling of home? Yep, it is, it sure is. 

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