Motivating my Volunteer Corps

Bad weather is on its way. They are calling for a mix of sleet and snow Friday, Saturday and again Tuesday. Temps should fall back into single digits again, wind chills deeply negative. There is quite a bit of work to do beforehand so I asked the kids to get the laundry done, firewood brought in, pine cones collected, the pigs and chickens bedded, and the house picked up. There is much more to do but the kids can handle those few chores. I left a list on the fridge this morning including a suggested timeline. Before 8, do this. Before noon, have these done. Before 5, be sure to have everything behind you.

I got some negative feedback from my oldest. Actually, my wife called me at work and asked me to talk to my son about his attitude.

So I talked to my son. I didn’t talk down to my son. I didn’t yell at my son. I didn’t even lecture my son. I said, “A storm is coming. If you guys can do those chores, I’ll have that much less to do when I get home after dark.” He felt foolish and agreed that the work just needed to be done and really wouldn’t take all that long.

But I am not finished. With him or with me. I’ll start with me.

I am significantly larger and stronger than my children. In fact, there have been several recreational wrestling matches pitting my four children and my wife against me (they try to get a toy out of my hands). I always win. I could easily force my children to submit to my will. But even if I couldn’t physically overpower them, I have absolute power over them. I could restrict their freedoms, remove favorite toys and prove to them in many ways, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am not only someone to be respected and feared, I am an enemy to be escaped from. That is not what I want to teach my children.

Let’s talk about my relationship with my wife for a moment. My wife is a sovereign partner in our marriage. She is a willing participant. She is not my slave. I have no ownership claim on her as she is not my property. Her body is her own, not mine. The success of our marriage is not the result of my command but the result of conscious, daily choices each of us make to respect the other. Julie has full authority to act without my permission but chooses to limit her actions in favor of partnership with me. For example, she could easily drive to the airport, hop on a plane for Jamaica and spend a week on the beach without us but she doesn’t. She could spend what little money we have but she doesn’t. She could, behind my back, sell all of our livestock or attract the attention of any man. But she doesn’t. And it’s not because she is afraid of me. We live on the farm, not because I said, “You are my wife!” and she said, “Goodbye city life!” but, instead, because we agreed to live here.

I have to teach this to my children. My children are not yet sovereign individuals but as they approach sovereignty I have to turn loose a little more. At age 3 it is enough to command. After around age 5 it becomes appropriate to reason…but not negotiate. To say, “We’re doing this because…” but not ask your children for permission to act. But then there will come a time when my children have full authority to act without my permission. I have to handle that transition correctly. They have to know they have the power and ability to either hurt or honor others as well as the freedom to make their own choices…and earn their own consequences. I want them to learn to express their freedom, not simply to exert power over others. So I work to avoid expressions of power. I try not to dominate. I try only to set the example and to show them love and respect.

I should have made a better presentation for my children this morning. I should not have simply written a list of things to do. I should have spelled out why each is important. I like wearing clean socks so we need all of the laundry clean in case the power goes off for the next two weeks (as has happened in the recent past). We need firewood stacked indoors in case the storm really packs a wallop and pine cones to help light fires (since we are out of stick bundles). The chickens and pigs need fresh bedding for their health and it is easier to add today than it will be when the sawdust is covered by snow and ice. If the laundry is all put away and the tables are cleaned off we’ll be more comfortable when we are all stuck indoors. I know these extra chores add a lot of time to your day but all of us will be better off for the next few days if we just pitch in and do it now.

So tonight when I get home I’ll sit with the family at the dinner table and review the day’s activities. I’ll pull up the weather forecast on the laptop and show them what is predicted to come our way. I’ll lay out the whole list of chores that have to be completed before bad weather hits tomorrow night (lay out cow pasture, haul, stack and cover hay, make sure coolers are clean in case power goes out, verify our pantry is sufficiently stocked, etc.). Then, after dinner, I’ll lay out the work I hope to accomplish tonight and in the morning and what they can do to help out. Maybe it won’t work. I don’t know. As a friend recently said to me, there are no “do-overs” in parenting. I think it is better to make a mistake while being respectful toward my children than to make a mistake being abusive.

6 thoughts on “Motivating my Volunteer Corps

  1. I really relate to this one.
    Your kids are lucky to have such wise and thoughtful parents. They’ll thank you one day.
    I leave lists all the time. I did it initially out of frustration that no one in the family seemed to know the list I kept in my head of daily normal automatic stuff: sweep, collect eggs, walk dog, etc. I couldn’t conveniently nag from work. So I left a list. And it worked. And it turned out they liked it better that way – I know because they told me so.
    You’re quite right that if they don’t know the why, they don’t have the same motivation as you to get through some tasks that they would prefer not to do, or don’t see the urgency of. It’s tricky isn’t it? This wanting them to feel the importance of their part in the family team, without burdening them so much that they want to run in the opposite direction the minute they can leave so they can live their own life?

  2. I agree with SSF, you two are great parents. Lists work here now, and the explaining to go with the list worked at an earlier age. It’s a process, sometimes when the cows are running down the county road, and you tell someone to grab a coffee can and some gravel – you don’t have time for explanations. Or questions like 3/4- or #2 grit?

    • Most cows in our neighborhood will come running when they hear the handle hit the side of a bucket. That’s the only noise maker needed. Our cows are not trained to the noise of a bucket. They just come running to me knowing I only appear when it’s time to eat.

        • Pigs too. We train our pigs to do lots of tricks but the most important thing is to come when we call. That way if they escape…

          We have called the pigs and seen them running through the tall grass over hill and dale. Like the intro to Little House on the Prairie…but with pigs…and without braids.

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