Q: In some of your books as well as in your newspaper column, you have written that children as young as 3 years old should do daily chores around the house. Exactly what chores are reasonable for this age child?
A: First, a personal anecdote: my mother kept a scrapbook from my early years that contained photos, notes, and other memories. Scrolling through it one day, I found a photo she had taken with her Kodak Brownie camera of me washing the kitchen floor of our small apartment on Church Street in Charleston, SC. On the back of the photo, mom had written a date indicating that I was 3 years old 1/2 years at the time.
When I asked her about it, Mom told me that I love cleaning and teaching me how to mop a floor was simple and easy to do. She also pointed out that she had held me to a pretty high standard. If I did a sloppy job mopping the floor, she would make me do it again. Such was “parenting” – in fact, it was simply called “child-rearing” back then – before it became necessary to applaud and shout over everything a child did to ensure continued inflation of self-esteem.
My training in the art of marriage continued. At age 5, before starting first grade (kindergarten was not universal in South Carolina in the early 1950s), I occasionally washed my own clothes in Mom’s “washing machine”, which consisted of a large galvanized tub with hand rollers bolted to it. . And again, there were standards applied. “Do it right the first time and you won’t have to do it again” has become my motto.
The point of this reminiscence is that young children are more capable than most people apparently realize. I wasn’t a drudgery scholar at 3 years old. I was simply trained correctly, meaning patiently but with a calm insistence that I do the job to the best of my abilities. Let’s face it, washing a floor is about as basic as it gets. Soak a sponge, wring, lay on the floor, wipe, soak, wring, etc. Furthermore, my mother’s goal was not to make me do the job as well as she would have done, but to teach me a fundamental civic skill as well as the value of a clean and tidy environment. As we baby boomers were told (but few kids these days hear it), “good citizenship begins at home.” As for washing clothes in a bathtub, all you had to do was grab two handfuls of cloth and rub them together until the grass stains were eradicated. Again, not complicated.
My home management lessons continued after Mom remarried. One summer, when I was 12, I painted our split-level house. Luckily, we lived in a suburb of Chicago then where it wasn’t as humid as Charleston, and my water, thanks to an actual fridge-freezer (as opposed to Charleston’s cooler), was ice cold. (One of my earliest vivid memories is the regular visits from the ice cream man with his tongs.)
Teaching children that there is no free lunch, that consumption must be balanced with contribution, is essential to maintaining a civil society. I can’t quite understand that my youngster is a genius and yet expect next to nothing from him. After all, one truly respects a child by expecting, reasonably, from him.