"I hate this job!" yelled my 5-year-old daughter, Sally. I'd told her to empty the bedroom wastebaskets, and she was coming down the stairs with the trash in a huge plastic bag. On each step, she'd pause and yell something like, "I hate this stupid, dumb, shut-up, stupid garbage!" It was her way of cursing.
On some steps she couldn't think of anything to say and would just roar like a pirate in pain: "Aaaahrrrr!" It had been a bad assignment. The trash made a load too bulky for a little kid, and she was letting me know about my mistake. She always does.
That same morning, determined to press the children into greater usefulness, I gave our oldest daughter, Marie, then 9, the job of rounding up all the shoes in the house and lining them up by the appropriate beds.
The job took her two hours because of the paperwork. She drew up a "shoe chart" and filled it out as she worked. The chart listed each member of the family down the side, and next to the corresponding name she drew in a picture of a shoe for every one that she put away. Looking at the completed chart, you couldn't miss the irony: I'd forced the one person who maintains good shoe discipline to pick up after a houseful of slobs who throw their footwear around like confetti.
But Marie didn't know the real irony: When I was her age, I had no chores.
On Saturdays, my brothers and I lounged around the rec room watching TV, still in our pajamas, much too lazy to get dressed.
In sharp contrast, my dad was busy with the laundry. He would bring the clothes from the dryer and dump them for sorting and folding onto the couch next to me. Did I then spring up to do my part? No, whenever a fresh load would arrive on the couch, I would roll into the warm, fluffy clothes and wallow sensuously, never taking my eyes off the TV.
Why did Dad permit this? I guess that after a grueling week of assigning, commanding and coercing his employees, he was in no mood to crack the whip on Saturday morning.
It wasn't until I was 13 that my brothers and I were made responsible for washing the dinner dishes. The main part of the job was arguing over whose turn it was.
Our system for keeping track was complicated and subject to endless interpretation. We'd bicker about it until my long-suffering dad would say in anger, "All right, I'LL do it!"
Then pure shame would cause whoever was losing the debate at that moment, to roll up his sleeves and get busy.
I don't tell my kids about my indolent past; we're looking for a new and improved generation here.
My wife leaves the child-chore issue up to me. Like my dad so long ago, she doesn't need the aggravation. It is usually easier to just do it yourself, even for someone like me, whose chore-free childhood produced an adult who does housework grudgingly.
But I vowed to break the cycle. I would raise children whose habit is helpfulness and whose self-esteem would be based on performance and effort. They would stand tall.
I've had to learn to suit the task to the child. Sally's hated wastebasket job was successfully given to her big sister Marie.
The shoe job that Marie resented so much was never reassigned. Shoes generally lie where they fall, but we are spared the charts.
Marie and Sally became partners in clearing away the supper dishes and emptying the dishwasher. The dishes and the laundry remained my job, with my wife handling the cooking and the cleaning.
One evening, when Marie was 10, and I was faced with my nightly dive into a sinkful of dishes, I decided to ratchet up the program a notch.
I pushed back from the dinner-table and told Marie she'd be washing the dishes a couple of nights a week. I'd show her how, and help a little. She was intrigued by the mystique of rubber gloves and an invitation to splash around in the sink. "Do I still have to help clear the table those nights?" she asked.
A fair question. I hadn't thought it through that far. I paused, and 6-year-old Sally spoke as one manager to another, "Aw, c'mon, Dad. Give the kid a break." I smiled, and Sally presented a whole reform package.
She would clear the table without Marie those nights, if I would assist. She and Marie would continue to empty the dishwasher, but the silverware would be sorted by Wendy, age 4.
I said, "OK," partly because it was a sound plan, and partly to keep up with Sally. I sensed that if I were to falter, she'd soon be assigning ME extra chores, inspecting the hospital-corners on my bed, and running a white-gloved finger over my dusty desk.
Sally's plan has worked well. As the years pass, all three kids are becoming increasingly helpful, and possibly a spirit of shared enterprise is developing that will add meaning to their labors.
But I've still got a lot of delegating, coaching and harassing to do before I can realize my ultimate goal - to loll in the laundry once more.
(It's the way I was brought up.)
- Rick Epstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.