The Cleaning/Chores Question

There's been a very interesting thread on one of the unschooling Yahoo! groups today about cleaning and chores. My take on this is kind of ironic for folks who've known me a while. I've never had the reputation of being a clean person per se; I was the kid who hid dishes in my closet (okay, I was also the adult who did that sometimes, too), I've never truly enjoyed folding clothes, and I generally will only pull out the vacuum if it's blocking my access to the boogie boards. In fact, you could say that in my earlier days, I was a complete slob; now, in these more politically correct times, you'd probably say that I've "de-prioritized daily household activities." But I know the truth; I'd rather hang out and have fun than clean. Hell, I'd rather sleep than clean. I'd probably rather watch QVC than clean, truth be known. But I do have my limits on how much disorder and dirt I can handle. We're cool with it. But we sometimes get an interesting question similar to the one on the Yahoo! group today:

"How can you live in a disordered and unclean house? Why don't your kids help you clean up? Don't they have chores?"

"Don't you want your kids to be responsible when they grow up? Aren't you tired of being a slave to your children's needs? Shouldn't you teach them that we're all responsible for ourselves? What the hell kind of parent are you? WHY DON'T YOU HAVE RULES????"

First of all, I wouldn't presume to cast aspersions upon or critique the way you live your life, so I would expect the same level of respect in return. That said, if you really want to know the answers, strap it on and hunker down 'cause here they come.

"Don't you want your kids to be responsible when they grow up?" Of course not; what parent could possibly want such a thing?:-) Yes, I hope that my kids will be responsible when they grow up, but I cannot just wave my magic wand, give them a list of chores to do, and let it take care of itself. Surely, the world is full of people who had to do chores as a child and yet are ridiculously irresponsible - and I'm not talking about "have a messy house" irresponsible, I'm talking "don't pay bills, treat people like crap, litter in the streets, send troops into war without justification" irresponsible. I would also imagine the world is full of people who didn't do chores in their youth yet have grown up to be extraordinarily responsible; in fact, I'm living proof. What's the link between chores and learning to be responsible? There is none. Why? Because people who accept responsibility do so because it's important to them to do so; it makes them feel good, they like how it makes others feel, they want to take care of themselves and their things. Can you teach that? No; I think you can model it, but you can't teach it - and you certainly can't coerce it through rewards and punishments.

"Aren't you tired of being a slave . . ." I'm not a slave unless I choose to frame it that way. When I need something cleaned, I clean it. When someone else needs something cleaned, I make a decision as to whether or not I want to do it, and when. Does that mean some things don't get done "on time" - that we have sticky dishes or dirty pants hanging around? Of course. And when I get tired of having the sticky dishes, I clean them. Pretty simple, really. It's not about picking up after someone, it's about recognizing everyone's tolerance level for the mess, especially your own. Is it my kids' fault that I can tolerate less mess than they can? Of course not. I'm like three times as big as they are, so the house seems three times as big to them as it does to me. If the entire house if a mess in my eyes, only one third of it is messy to them. That's my problem, not theirs. My kids will pick up when it's important to them to do so. When they're looking for something but can't find it; when they want to be helpful; when they don't have anywhere to sit because the couch is covered in socks and toys; when they see it's important to us and they choose to connect with us that way. It wasn't always like that; we used to force them, or at least tryto force them. Then we guilted them, then we yelled at them. The end result? A kid in a meltdown that was then physically and emotionally incapable of helping, and had no motivation to do so except to avoid confrontation. Not healthy for any of us, and definitely not the kind of environment we wanted to help create. We're not always perfect at it, but we now approach cleaning and tidying up as something personal for each of us: when the kitchen gets too nasty for me, I clean it; when Kai wants to pick up, he does; if he's okay with a mess and I'm not, I'll clean it; and he wants to clean and I don't, I'll usually lend a hand. No fights, no crying - and as a result, sometimes no cleanliness either. So what?

"Shouldn't you teach them that we're all responsible for ourselves?" I've said it before, and it's still true - you tell me how to "teach" someone responsibility and I'll put you in touch with some people in DC to see if you can help out there. You can model it, but you can't teach it.

"What the hell kind of parent are you? Don't you have rules?" What kind of parent am I? Ask someone better able to judge if you need to, but I like to think I'm patient, loving, nurturing, fun, energetic, happy, confident, creative, and positive. I'd like to think that if Ginger and I are somehow able to avoid jacking it all up, that Kai and Kade might be able to continue to be the amazing people they are for the rest of their lives. Not sure how rules would help us.


  1. I'm not better able to judge but yes, you are all of those things! And now that I know your tolerance level, next time I'm not cleaning before you come over. ;)

  2. Coming here from Authentic parenting.

    I had a dozen and one chores as a kid - I hated it. Once I moved out it was amazing how dirty my place became. lol Of course my parents never cleaned. After all they had 4 kids - in order to tech us responsibility we had chores. They were not going to be our slaves.

    Now we have 2 little kids (2 yrs and 3.5) and I wash my floors everyday because I can't stand stepping on stuff - the girls love to sweep and often help wash - after all the only way they get to pull out the buckets of water to splash in is if they also wipe it up when they're done. But their room is a mess - until they want something - I won't wade through toys to reach the closet - first the other toys need to be put away. It's amazing how quickly we find the missing item.

    I agree you can't teach responsibility, and I know that my children watch me cleaning and will take that with them in their lives. Just like they watch me in the garden and shopping, and... I had very little experiance in a garden growing up - but my mom loved to garden, she spent hours in it. It's amazing that something I watched a parent enjoy has become enjoyable to me, but something I was forced to do has remained a chore.

    great post.