The question usually comes in as some form of this: “So, Chris, how do you get your kids to work and how can I get my kids to work like yours do?”
What a hilarious question. Don’t get me wrong, my kids work. But if you think it is easy you have been fooled.
Let’s take this off the farm for a little bit. Everybody makes dirty dishes. Everybody makes dirty laundry. Everybody can share in the work load. This is just part of living with others cooperatively. So we divide up the work. These are not paid jobs, these are just things we do. I’ll summarize the children’s chore list without going into detail.
- Week 1: Wash dishes
- Week 2: Walk the dog, clean bathroom sink
- Week 3: Fold towels, set the table
- Week 4: Put away dishes, take out trash
There is more on each list but that is the core of the rotation. Week by week, each kid specializes in a different set of simple tasks in rotation. We do not rotate in order of age, we split things up so we alternate between older and younger kids. We do this because the younger two are not reliable about washing the dishes and I don’t want to face two straight weeks at the sink.
The younger two are not reliable. They are currently 10 and 11. They may wash plates or cups. They may wash bowls and spoons. But they won’t wash pots and pans. The older two can be relied on to wash until the counter is clean. But not the younger two. And that is OK because they are children.
Look, I’m not making excuses, I’m setting realistic expectations. Washing dishes is not fun. The other 12 waking hours of the day the pair of them are parked at a table playing with Legos together or reading the same books (currently Warriors series). They don’t want to wash dishes. And I don’t want to force the issue.
To borrow a page from the book The Thomas Jefferson Education, I want to inspire, not require, my children to participate in our home. Be sure to click that link for clarification.
Now look, there are things you just hafta do. We seek to inspire but we still set expectations. You shower every week even if you don’t need to. You change your underwear at least once a month. You brush your teeth between meals. These are personal hygiene issues. But making your bed? Why? You are just going to unmake it again in 14 hours. What is the point?
The point is you live here too. Act like it. Make yourself at home. Use the vacuum cleaner. We want a nice, comfortable place of our own. Us. Ours. Nice. Put Goethe to the test. If everybody sweeps their own room and the whole house will be clean. But I have only met disaster when I take a hard line on this with the kids because they are kids and have an incomplete concept of “fair”.
So we seek to inspire them. I will admit, however, that I could be a better example. I have a pile of paperwork I need to file, or maybe just habits I need to change. Maybe I don’t need to file away that physical copy of the electricity bill for the next 7 years. Maybe it is trash. But I should do something with it and right now it is piled on the desk along with the lovely artwork our kids have created that I don’t know how to store.
I guess I could be more inspiring.
Everything so far applies to life in town. Let’s take it to the farm.
My 10 year old will not gather eggs by herself. My 11 year old will not gather eggs by himself. My 13 year old will not gather eggs by herself. All three are intimidated by the roosters. My 15 year old can run the entire farm by himself with one exception: he is intimidated by the cattle. But the cattle, the roosters and the children all know I am not intimidated by them. At all. I am careful. I am watchful. But I am not afraid of them.
But let’s set fear or other excuses aside for the moment. I need help gathering eggs and watering animals. When we first started out, all six of us would go together to do chores. The kids would play and sword fight with weed stems and look for frogs in the creek but they learned the routine. They learned about watering and feeding and offering oyster shell. This period of training is very important to everything we do.They understand that chickens cannot get their own water when I am at work or we are at the hospital. So all these years later I ask the kids, “Can two of you go get eggs, check feed and fill water at the red layers? I’ll take care of the dishes while you are out.” Off they go.
Dishes done, the kids come back with a basket full of eggs.
Me: “Hey, did you remember to check the water?”
Kids: “Oh. Ummmm….did you ask us to water the chickens?”
Me: “Sigh. You know, chickens can’t get their own water.”
They know. They really do know. They have heard us say that literally thousands of times. Chickens can’t get their own water! It’s not that they don’t know. And it’s not fair to say they don’t care. It’s simply that they don’t share our vision.
Our kids don’t own the farm. They don’t own the chickens. They didn’t work and sweat and burn away years of their lives, believing the dream that someday, if they got good grades and worked hard, they, too, could be successful (whatever “success” means). They haven’t been sitting in a cubicle, looking outside at the lawn care guy and thinking, “What a life he’s got!” and wondering about the meaning of it all. Does it mean anything? “I have debt so I can have a car so I can drive to work so I can service my debt.” There is a difference between working toward a dream and having a dream imposed on you by your parents.
See the difference? What are you working for? I am working to fulfill a vision. A common vision Julie and I share. A dream. A goal. Not division. Vision. But the kids? They may be acting out of obligation out of respect for us. And that respect is how I convinced my 15 year old to spend 6 hours Memorial Day morning shoveling manure with me.
But let’s go back to that issue of intimidation. My eldest son is larger and taller than I am. Soon he will be stronger too. But he is intimidated by the cattle. The other three children are intimidated by the roosters. But the roosters and the cattle and the children all know that I am in control. I am not to be feared but I am to be obeyed. And now. (I have to tell you, Julie finds her comparative lack of control over the children frustrating.)
I am in control but I am not controlling.
I’ll come back around to kids in a minute but I have to talk about Julie here. I do not want to control my wife. I don’t want to bend her to my will. I don’t want to change her. I want Julie to be Julie and being “Julie” is a moving target. Julie is different than Chris…and in very good ways. And I love her. I love her much more than I love my job or my farm or even my children. My kids will move out in the next 10 or 15 years but Julie and I will remain. But the Julie that will be 10 years from now will be different than the Julie that is today. And if I don’t roll with those changes now I’ll be in for a shock. Empty nest syndrome.
I have to take time now to stay close to Julie each day. I need to know what motivates her. What excites her? What is she into right now? I have to know for this marriage to continue.
And, even though they will probably move out in 10 years, it’s the same with the kids. Talk about moving targets! I have to know what motivates the kids today! All four of them are different from each other and are different from me in ways that are difficult to quantify. I have to know all about each child and show them that I am interested in them as people, not just as extra hands, and I have to keep up with the radical daily changes in their personalities, interests, preferences and alliances! Not easy.
Butchering day is a good example of this. The only requirement was that the kids either worked with us, worked inside with grandma or, at a minimum, played near us as we worked. For years my oldest daughter would not participate with the chickens. She stayed inside with grandma baking pies. You know what? That’s totally cool. My daughter didn’t want to do hot, smelly, gross work. I get it. But she missed out on a lot of fun too. We listen to music while we work. We talk. We help each other. When we finish the last bird we all sing and do the chicken dance. And when the birds are all bagged and in the freezer the kids who helped get paid. One day our daughter asked if she could cut the feet off of the birds. I didn’t threaten. I didn’t scream. I didn’t berate her into helping. She wanted to have fun and make money too. So now she cuts the feet off of the chickens and does the chicken dance and listens to music with us and we eat fewer pies.
You know what she wants? What she really, really wants? She wants to bake pies and have fun. And on butcher day she chooses fun over pies in spite of gross dead chickens because she wants to be with us. And we want to be with her.
But she also likes to hold babies at church. And she loves to read P.G. Wodehouse. She loves Doctor Who and she hopes to become Groucho Marx when she grows up. And she bakes really, really good scones. And last night she was reading part 2 of a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I know because I talk to her like she is a person. I don’t speak to her like she is a child. She is not a nuisance. She is not an annoyance. She is not to be sent away in the evenings for karate, dance, soccer and gymnastics. I want to hang out with my daughter. She is a bright spot in my day.
She is also a reliable dish washer. But that’s the least important thing.
Farm or no, there is work to do. I confess, I am annoyed when they take a laundry basket to their room but fail to put away the laundry. I admit my patience is tested when I come home and the sink is full of dirty dishes. But if I lose my cool they will either fear or resent me. I do not want my children to be afraid of me. I want them to be confident that I love them in spite of their occasional failings.
How do I get my kids to work on the farm? I love them. They are learning to reciprocate.
I had written that last sentence to close the post but then I found this picture:
We have some close friends with seven children of their own. They raise their own pigs and we like to help on butcher day. Last fall two of their seven children were on the scene to help. This one helped skin the pig. The other kids were busy elsewhere. They were still helping, just not with skinning a pig. And that was OK. Everybody was busy. Everybody was involved and still, somehow, having fun. But skinning the pig isn’t for everybody.