Putting Your Children to Work at Home

Remember, your kids are your free labor.

In two weeks, both of my daughters are leaving for college, and I am very worried about my 14-year old-son, who will still be with me at home: Will he be too lonely without them, or will he revel in his new role as “only child”? He will be a latch-key kid three days a week: Will he be scared to enter the empty house, or will he love the privacy and independence? How will I monitor his gaming habits? But the question that weighs on me the most is: Will I ever again have an empty dishwasher without asking for it?

The girls are not perfect, of course. When each of them was a senior in high school, something kicked in and they constantly cleaned up, and did extra lovely things like making fresh-squeezed lemonade and baking batches of cupcakes. I’d go down to the laundry and see a load of freshly folded towels that I hadn’t done myself. Since they have grown, and the oldest has had her own place, their focus is less on the family home and more on their own lives, of course. But they do tend to pick up a dirty glass as they walk through the living room, empty the kitchen recycling can when it overflows, etc. My son Chris, however, does absolutely nothing that he isn’t told to do.

My boy is 14 years old and like most 14-year-olds, he’s complicated. He’s young enough to still list “blue” as one of his favorite flavors, but old enough that blue drinks stain his incoming silky mustache. He answers his phone in a deeper register than I ever thought possible, but can still whine and make his complaint sound: a kind of low, guttural grunt he has made since he was a toddler. He has not yet hit his growth spurt, but we stand literally eye-to-eye, if not always figuratively.

He’s starting ninth grade. I’m starting to panic. There’s so much to worry about. Will high school be dramatically different than middle school? Will he handle the workload? If he’s not in the coolest of crowds, will he at least blend in? Will he stay with his group of friends from middle school, or start to hang out with kids I don’t know? Can he handle French 2 and TV Production? Will he keep his straight-edge philosophy, or will he become “under the influence” and start experimenting with alcohol and pot? Will I know if he does? Will company be able to use the second-floor bathroom before the girls come home for Christmas break?

Some of the chores around our house have traditional gender roles attached, I must admit.  But though the girls have never mowed the lawn and Chris does that chore, he has been in the dishwashing rotation. Each child has, for the most part, done their own laundry from the time they hit about 12. Now that I think about it, the girls don’t do any chore that Chris doesn’t also do, but many are his alone, like the aforementioned lawn mowing, and taking out the garbage. I push him into the male role so wholeheartedly, I even tell him he has to kill the aberrant bug that invades our space.

It seems to me, though, that like older male/female house and chore sharers, Chris is happier to do project-oriented tasks. While some of his responsibilities are repetitive, garbage only needs to be taken out once a week. Lawn mowing gives him a sense of satisfaction for two weeks. Emptying the dishwasher is invariably followed by loading the dishwasher; believe me, I get his disdain.

I hate cleaning so much that I have tried to find someone to swap chores with me, i.e., I will cook meals for you if you clean my house. I would rather cook for three hours than clean for 30 minutes. I haven’t felt bad about doling out tasks to my kids; I figure over the course of a lifespan, the window of opportunity I have to take advantage of them is very small. In their early years, kids basically suck your life’s blood, as well as your breast milk. Once they’re 12, you can start to ask them to do stuff, even though you are still giving them much more time than they are giving you. Once they move out, they’re gone, so your opportunities for free floor Swiffering are long gone. Once they are living on their own, it would be socially unacceptable to hand them the Windex and point them to the smudged storm door when they come over for dinner, but it’s almost expected that they still ask you for cash as well as advice. An inequitable relationship to say the least, right? So. Why not get the air conditioning registers dusted while you can?

The girls are still home with me for a few weeks (Drexel’s unusual quarter system), but I dropped Christopher off for his first day this morning. He let out one big exhale, opened the car door, and walked away from me. So much can happen in the next four years. I watched him walk toward the doors of his high school, and the last thing on my mind was dirty dishes.