Can we save (or destroy) humanity through our parental approach to chores?
I attended a professional development conference today at MSU Denver (my alma mater). In one of the workshop sessions, the presenter mentioned — just as a side comment but with no small measure of pride — that each of his four children do their own laundry and have done so since the age of 5.
The workshop was excellent. The content was interesting and the presenter’s perspective was fresh and interesting. But it was the totally random aside about four children each doing their own laundry that keep popping up in my thoughts.
This parental dictum is nothing new to me. When I was a teen, my siblings and I each did our own laundry. When my own children were young (in the mid- to late 1990’s), many of my friends and parenting peers were instituting similar laundry policies.
While I understand and appreciate the lessons parents are attempting to instill, I feel the whole concept is misguided. As with so many widely-distributed, conventional-wisdom parenting policies imposed in an effort to instill a sense of responsibility and independence, I …. well, to be frank, I think it’s poorly thought out. And to be even more blunt, I think it’s stupid.
As with too many lessons meant to instill independence, I believe the actual lessons are waste and selfishness.
I’d like to think that by treating household chores as part of our social contract with each other as a family unit my children learned more than simply how to do laundry. Or clean bathrooms. Or kitchens. Or do yard work…
Before you get the wrong end of the stick here, let me be clear: my children started doing chores, including laundry, at a very young age. And while they were not solely responsible for laundry by age 5, they were definitely laundry-proficient by the time they were 8.
But here’s the important difference: each time it was his or her turn at laundry duties in the chore rotation, he or she was responsible for doing everyone’s laundry. My son, as well as my daughter, was expected to master every aspect of the family’s laundry needs — from towels and sheets to woolens and “unmentionables” and everything in-between.
I believe my approach has several important implications:
First, there’s an explicit lesson in social responsibility — everyone is counting on the laundry doer to a) get it done and b) do it right;
On the other hand, with the “to each his/her own” method, there’s the strong, implicit message that we’re all solely responsible for ourselves, answerable only to ourselves, that the individual supersedes the collective/community;
And there’s also a larger explicit lesson in social/environmental sustainability and responsibility. Four youngsters doing partial loads, on top of parents’ and household laundry, means four extra cycles of wear-and-tear on the washing machine (and dryer, if used), and at least five times the amount of water consumed and five times the amount of detergent used (important both for the cost of the detergent and the greatly increased amount of detergent entering our water system).
Then there are the additional lessons my children learned by rotating family laundry duties:
Each is now conversant in care of items typically associated with the opposite sex: my son had to learn the care and keeping of bras and my daughter is well-versed in the care and keeping of protective cups and associated gear.
They’ve seen, firsthand, economy of scale principles in action and the social benefits of cooperation over competition.
And they each have a full appreciation of the full range of laundry responsibilities required in a household, not just their own individual needs. Their own dirty laundry was just a fraction of the overall laundry duties they had to bear during their laundry duty rotations. They were responsible for sorting, washing, drying, folding, and distributing all of the laundry.
I’d like to think that by treating household chores as part of our social contract with each other as a family unit my children learned more than simply how to do laundry. Or clean bathrooms. Or kitchens. Or do yard work, snow removal, trash duties, household maintenance and repairs, etc. I think they learned that we humans are interdependent. They learned that if they can be counted on to step up when someone is ill or busy, the favor will be returned in due time. I also think they learned to give their chores their best effort so as to not negatively impact others. Because turnabout is fair play. And it’s unpleasant to be on the receiving end of shoddy work.
In my eyes, the presenter is more than justified in his pride over the fact that his children have learned laundry skills at a young age. But I think he and his wife missed an important opportunity to instill additional values and impart additional lessons. Deeper, important, subtle lessons. Lessons that, when extrapolated upon, result in socially conscious, empathic adults well prepared to contribute positively to society. And tackle any laundry challenge thrown their way.
By the way, I must have done something right: my children are two (generally) fabulous, generous, empathic, hardworking, contributing members of society. And don’t just take my word for it — I’m sure their partners would agree. They bring more to the table than just being able to do their own laundry.
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