About a month ago, I made a list. Empty waste cans. Sort whites. Scrub toilets. Clean bedrooms. Unload dishwasher. Dismantle the stockpile of shoes in the utility room that had recently begun to rival the pile of laundry.
There were about ten chores total. Next to each of the items, I drew a square. I placed the list on the kitchen counter and gave Small, Medium and Large, my 9-, 11- and 13-year-old daughters, the following instructions: These things need to happen today. When the task is completed, put your initials in the box. I won’t say I’m keeping track of whose initials I see and whose I don’t — I paused here for effect and punctuated the decree with “the look” — but everyone should pitch in. And nobody does anything even remotely entertaining until it’s all done.
This wasn’t the first time I had tried to establish a system for getting my girls to help out more with the housework.
“What do I get if I do the most things?” Small asked, her competitive juices already flowing. What she wanted to hear: “Twenty bucks!” What mommy said: “You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you were a great help to our family.” Not exactly what she had in mind.
I took a different tack. “When your friends visit, you can say, ‘See, my house isn’t a pit anymore. You should tell your mom how nice it looks!’” Still nothing.
In the meantime, Medium and Large had already scrambled off to their rooms, presumably to clean them. Around here, the girls reason that if they can get out of my sight line and engage in some worthwhile activity (homework, reading, or practicing piano, for example) the threat of housework will be eliminated. They come by it honestly. The truth is, around here, the grownups also reason that if we can engage in some worthwhile activity (cutting the grass, washing the Car, or working on parenting magazine, for example) at least the opportunity for housework will disappear.
“Can you see the floor yet?” I called upstairs to my daughters. No response. “Do you need haz-mat suits?”
“Just finishing some homework,” Large called back to me. Ahhhhhh, the homework excuse. Brilliant! And oft-used, especially since the advent of a more rigorous middle school workload. In fact, lately the homework excuse had become even more effective than… “I was just going outside to play,” Medium said, as she blew by me on the steps.
Small, bless her heart, was busy scrubbing toilets.
“What homework?” I inquired of Large. It was June for crying out loud. Was this summer reading already? I knew she was a conscientious student, but come on… “It’s community service,” came the reply. Community service – even more brilliant! It’s homework in service to others: thirty hours of time, energy, and talent to serve a variety of non-profit organizations, schools, and people who cannot serve themselves. Don’t get me wrong. I love community service. The kids keep logs, get signatures from supervising adults, and record their experiences. The program is one of the best things going about our middle school. The culture of our elementary school, too, is one of volunteerism. It’s a system that works. And the excuses work, too.
Would I insist that Large empty waste cans when she’s organizing a free soccer clinic for under-served youth? Probably not. Should I demand that Medium unload the dishwasher when she’s busy making signs for the charity LemonAid stand she’ll work this month? Unlikely. Hmmm. Could I turn my own home into a community service project and solicit volunteer cleaners from area middle schools? Now that’s an idea. Whether or not we get our house in shape this summer remains to be seen, but I am relatively sure of this: All three of my daughters will make the world we live in a better place. Now if I could just get them to make their beds.