Let’s be clear. This is not about getting the job done quickly or well. Contrary to what The Cure’s front man Robert Smith croons, boys do cry. It’s Saturday morning. The scrambled eggs are cold, half-eaten. Sponge Bob has ended. Time for chores.
It’s a chore to come up with a list of chores that will give kids a sense of accomplishment, while also accomplishing more good than harm. Here’s mine, divided into subcategories:
Fill the Following:
· salt and grated cheese shakers
· olive oil bottles (EVOO and the cheap blend)
· dish soap, Windex, and napkin dispensers
· bird feeder
· honey pot
· pepper mill
· coffee table
· banister spindles
Feed/water/brush/play with dog
· Roll rugs
· Water plants
· Sharpen pencils
· Empty wastepaper baskets
· Pick up chess pieces from floor and reset board
Outdoor chores stand apart from Saturday morning routine and command extra compensation. These include but are not limited to:
· Sweeping the sidewalk
· Cleaning out the car
· Washing the car
· Picking up identifiable garbage
Sometimes I even make extra work just to give them work. I crumple Post-Its and drop them to the floor throughout the week. Come Saturday, the little one picks up these bits with purpose and adds them to the recycling bin.
The conversation starts something like this…
Me: “Time to do chores.”
Boy #1: (as if he’d taken one straight to the diaphragm): “Uuuugghhh!!”
Boy #2: “No, No, NO….”
Me: “That’s the deal kids.”
Boy #2: “That’s NOT the deal and stop making fun of me! Mean Mommy!!”
…then it devolves into negotiation:
Boy #2: “I will only do the easiest chores in the world.”
Me: “Of course, easy-peezy lemon-squeezy. Here, clean the piano.”
I hand him a dingy washcloth, a survivor from my eldest’s infancy, made soft by years of wiping both ends of babies. He wraps the rag around his pointer and swipes down on each piano key, working from low to high, whining all the way up the scales. I place a reward at the last note: a strawberry Sour Power Straw. No chemical missing. (Cleaning the piano counts as practicing, btw.)
My husband thinks it’s good moral training for children to clean their bedrooms, but picking up the personal space of a ten-year-old requires intense parental supervision. I stick to overseeing the glug-glugging of oil pouring from 3-liter cans through funnels into narrow-necked bottles.
“Pick up your room” my husband commands. Boy #1 jumps on his bed and starts flipping through a graphic novel. I step in: “C’mon, you know where everything goes: socks and underwear in the hamper, everything else on top. Check your pockets!” Laundry is a tyranny. I sniff over jeans, shirts, sweaters, hoping to get another wear out of everything that doesn’t touch genitals or toes. Spot cleaning is the answer to tyrants. He lifts the hamper lid, wads up his Hanes, and gets one off. 3 points. The socks miss. We go through old homework, recycling everything except the most adorable. I point to the wadded Kleenex, dotting the rolling hills of his green bedspread, like dandelions in a summer meadow. “I’m not touching your snot rags. In the can please.”
Done dusting the piano and chewing on his reward, Boy #2 plants his flag on the living room rug and claims his turf: GIs, tanks, planes, Playmobil, Beyblades, Lego, chess men – “Go away Mommy, I want to play.” I do so gladly. My husband also plants his flag: “Clean up your toys NOW.” The expected reply follows: “Go away Daddy, I’m still playing with them.” All of them. I’ve heard some disciplined parents have trained their kids to put one game away before the next is pulled out. My solution is to walk away, leaving this set-up for days, disturbing it only when company comes calling, and then not always. When I do eventually pick-up—to run the vac, for example—Boy #2 puts away exactly 3 Pokemon cards, two fighter jets and one knight. I get on all fours and scoop the rest, marching the Roman Legion, gladiators and hungry lions back to the Coliseum. I do leave the Monopoly money strewn wantonly down the staircase. I enjoy the extravagance of it.
Why do we bother? I ask myself, cupping peppercorns on the kitchen table that missed the mill by a mile. Saturday morning chores are an agony we all endure, ending mercifully when parents dole out gold dollar coins, like Sochi medals, culled for this purpose from the metro card vending machine. Boy #2 runs for his piggy bank, dumps the contents onto the living room rug and starts counting, factoring in this inflow. At this rate, Boy #1 reasons, he is light years away from possessing Play Station 4. He leaves the coin on the table.
Long ago I gave up preaching cooperation and working for the family good. This is not a common goal. A tidy household is my goal, moral toning, my husband’s. These ideals just don’t wash with the boyz. So that’s not why. I bother because this is a gender thing. My husband does wash pots without prompting and gets into corners when he vacuums, but I’m the one the boys see from 3-9pm, in constant motion, unloading and reloading the dishwasher, shaking out rugs, and stooping over toilets, feeling sorry for myself: “I hold the advanced degree in this family, why am I the only one who cleans toilets?? I’m hardly the worst offender here!!” Shoveling corn flakes and watching Tom & Jerry, the boys only seem oblivious to me washing down the walls of fridge. They get the message: moms and dads both clean, but moms clean more. And so long as mom jumps in to squirt toothpaste, and zip flys, little progress is made. And whose fault is that?
This is not the right model now and it will not be a sustainable arrangement with their gal pals when they reach manhood. Many little girls do seem to carry the dominant pink glitter gene, but none are born with housekeeping chromosomes. I was as bad as my boys when mom rolled out the Electrolux. Flashback #1: me on the stairs, victimized as I vacuum the runner, one step at a time, with a cumbersome wand and a canister too large to fit on a step, dangling by its hose instead, 4 steps below. Flashback #2: I toss my clothes on the floor until I get my first apartment, my first job, my first suit and my first dry cleaning bill: $8 bucks, a fortune in 1989. I hang that sucker hounds tooth up after that.
It’s also about competency. I bother because my boys are knuckleheads and I want them to know the gift of self-confidence borne from a job well done. The tween is challenged to lace his chucker boots and cut his own T-bone. Last week he even topped himself, slipping from the classroom to the restroom soon after the Pledge. He’d put his jeans on backwards and needed to redress. How the hell do you do that and not notice?
It’s 10 o’clock. The chore boys have earned their golden dollars. The house is no worse for wear. I hope we have planted the seeds of self-reliance and respect for domestic drudgery, formerly-known-as-womens’ work. Time will tell. In the meantime, we have delayed weekend video gaming for an hour.