Challenges in Contemporary Living (kids, chores, & subterfuge)

Tom Sawyer, foisting off chores

In the olden days, kids milked cows and chopped wood. When my sons were growing up, we didn’t own cows or wood piles, but I still thought they should do chores.

The desire-to-work didn’t seem to come naturally to them. So I looked for ways–devious ways–to encourage the impulse.

When they were preschoolers, I paid them–and any neighborhood kids who’d stopped by–to clean. Admittedly they didn’t do the best job in the world, but they were almost quiet for a couple of hours, and it cost me only loose change.

At lunch time, each neighbor kid went home clutching several sweaty pennies in a chubby little fist.

“Guess what, Mommy. I swept their porch and wiped the toys and dusted a coffee table. And look what I got! Seven pennies!”

One good thing about innocent little children–they don’t know the going rate for house cleaning. Their mothers never complained, at least not to me. Why would they? Their kids were happy and out of their hair all morning.

Now I realize that many modern parents find this hard to understand. First, their preschoolers don’t wander over to the neighbor’s house by themselves. Second, modern parents cherish their children and never ever want them out of their hair. What can I say? Some of us were shallow then.

As the kids got older, six or so, I began offering them a penny for every five Japanese beetles they collected from the row of pink shrub roses by the sidewalk. Any kid was welcome to join in. For a little while, the Japanese beetles were under control and the roses flourished. But too soon they decided the thrill of dropping beetles into a bottle was gone. No matter. Winter had temporarily solved the problem.

I wondered what other chore-opportunities I could foist upon them. I reminded them that this was the 1970s. They were growing up in a world where more women worked, so husbands, in all fairness, should do their share of household chores. I repeated this often. I swear to god I was sincere. This was not entirely personal sloth.

Paul, my oldest, turned ten. He was a sweet, bookish kid, ever so slightly gullible. Perfect. I got my supplies in order and sidled up to him.

“Paul. I have this great idea. I call it ‘Challenges in Contemporary Living.’”

I paused to let the fine big words roll around in his head.

“I have these index cards, see? On each card is a chore–I mean challenge–and each challenge is broken down into steps.”

I sped up. I had to get to the good part before he lost interest.

“Each challenge is assigned a point value, depending on its level of difficulty. And here’s the best part….

“As you successfully master each challenge, you earn points. We keep track of your progress. With graphs…drawn with colored pencils..on graph paper!

“And best of all (I paused as long as I dared to build the suspense) you can earn stars. These stars! dumped them out on the table: a tantalizing shimmer of red, blue, silver and best of all, gold.

Paul was intrigued. I was pretty sure he would be. Not only because I knew him, but because I knew about the magic of foil stars. I’d learned to read because my first grade teacher had ceremoniously affixed red, blue, and gold stars on my Dick and Jane reader whenever I read without mistakes. I still like to read, and I adore stars.

Paul learned a wonderful variety of household tasks: to vacuum, to do laundry, to bake birthday cakes for his brothers so creative and impressive that the neighborhood was stunned with admiration. Best of all, he won points, his line graphs ran up the graph paper, and he earned lots and lots of stars.

A few years passed. The challenges had faded from memory. Raj, my next son was now ten. It occurred to me that he could also learn to do useful tasks around the house. And if my system worked so well for one, why not the other?

I put the packet together: the directions, the cards, the colored pencils, the graph paper, and the stars. I motioned to Raj to come over. He eyed me warily.

“Hey Raj, I have this great idea. I call it challenges in contemporary living.”

He looked suspicious, but I explained the entire, wonderful system. Then I paused. He took a quick glance at my treasures on the table. Then he spoke, too quickly, in my opinion.

“You’re asking me to do the laundry?!”

It was over: My marvelous system had disintegrated before my eyes, never to be put back together.

The boys, now men, have never forgotten. To this day, Raj will say,

“I’m still glad I didn’t fall for it.”

And they all laugh.

I don’t mind. They grew up to be pretty fair-minded and accomplished, even at home. Maybe subterfuge has its uses.

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