At age 40, I know myself pretty well — I’m talkative, empathetic, and inquisitive. But I’m also lazy.
I’m not particularly proud about this last adjective, but I have to admit it’s an accurate description of how I turned out. And like anyone who’s easily met their health insurance deductible in a therapist’s office, I have a theory about how it happened — and a plan for ensuring I don’t pass it on to my young kids.
Naturally, I blame my parents, who gave me no chores or household responsibilities as a child, colorful job wheel or not. I did zero loads of laundry, swept nary a floor, and never fetched a newspaper on a cold day. No dishes, no garbage duty, no pet care. My mom grew up in the 1940s in the south, with a doctor father, a homemaker mother — and a full-time housekeeper. So when it came time to raise her own children, she simply didn’t have a model to follow and she found it easier and faster to do everything herself.
Now, as an adult, when I do a sink full of dishes or mop the floor, I still feel like I deserve a massive pat on the back, as opposed to it being something you …just … do. Because you eat; because you live in a home; because you have to clean up after yourself. I also hate to cook, because even basic cooking necessitates some washing, cutting, and prep. Not interested. Too lazy. But my kids don’t starve — when we’re not ordering delivery food, they get quick, easy, healthy meals that I can make in one pot and without a recipe card. (We do have a biweekly housekeeper who does deep cleaning.)
However, being a lazy mom has become problematic. My kids, 2 and 6, have started making fun of my tendencies and, what’s worse, I see them starting to mimic my behavior — expecting others to pick up after them and groaning at even the smallest tasks. My husband grew up in a home where he was expected to pitch in much more, and finds my upbringing crazy. He’s determined that, when it comes to this matter, our kids will take after his side of the family, not mine.
So I’ve decided that my children will have chores. While I have no intention of Cinderella-ing them into their own weekly therapy sessions, I do want them to get used to elbow grease and know how to do laundry well before they head off to college. I want them to understand that being part of a household means doing your part, whether or not they enjoy it. Research supports my efforts: One study conducted at the University of Minnesota found that young adults who started doing chores around ages 3 or 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, attain academic and career success, and be self-sufficient, compared to those who didn’t start helping out at home until they were teens.
Of course, one of the first things I need to do is to not call them chores, according to Jessica Lahey, author of the book The Gift of Failure. “That [word] implies something bad, and these are just household responsibilities,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. But Lahey questions my theory that simply habituating my kids to household tasks will lead to them finding them less heinous. What is key, she says, is that they “understand that they are doing these things because it’s part of the family structure and good for everyone’s welfare.”
Of course, it’s not entirely that easy to simply dole out tasks. A large part of me cringes at the thought of my 6-year-old unloading the dishwasher. (Cue sounds of plates shattering.) And I suspect that my own mother had a similar anxiety.
In order to avoid the “ugh, it’s easier and faster if I just do it…” trap, “think about your end goal here,” says Lahey. “You might have to tolerate some messes here and there while kids work out the kinks. To help your child become competent at something, you do have to allow them to screw up a few times.” Broken dishes and all.
Besides, your kids may surprise you, says Lahey, in that they will probably like to work. “Decades ago, kids used to contribute to the family finances at a fairly early age,” she says. “It’s only in modern times that we’ve denied them a sense of purpose in the family.”
What’s more, chores help kids see the consequences of their actions — or inactions. So, for example, instead of swooping in to pick up juice boxes off the couch before there’s a sticky spill, make it clear that kids will be wholly responsible for cleaning up. “Trust me, they will be more careful about spills once they have to mop up the mess,” says Lahey.
And you can put your kids to work quite a bit earlier than you might think. Lahey says toddlers or preschoolers can help stuff laundry into the washing machine or hamper, put clothes in drawers, and clean up their toys. My 6-year-old is likely capable of unloading the dishwasher, sorting and folding laundry, sweeping, vacuuming, as well as everyday tasks like making her bed and feeding the cats.
So in the end, it’s not just that I want to try to raise kids who aren’t lazy — it’s that I want my kids to have learned all the skills and tools they’ll need to glide into adulthood without fear or loathing. I want them to feel pride in doing work — whether that work is hard or easy, menial or dignified.
Maybe that’s a lot to ask of a construction-paper job wheel (I’m totally making one), but in an effort to make it clear that we’re all in this together, I’ll definitely be adding my own name to the list of participants.
(Photo: Liz Krieger)