Word and Rhyme

Fiction Poetry Life

That Floor’s Not Going to Sweep Itself

image_b_for_girl_320x213 In Jamaica Kincaid’s very short and lyrical story Girl a mother tells her daughter all the things she must do and not do, say and not say to grow up to be a respectable woman. What struck me is the sheer number of things the mother instructs the daughter on. Presumably this is over an entire childhood, but the volume is still impressive – I don’t think the mother left anything out.

At one point, the mother says “this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard…this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast” and so on.

How I Learned to Love the Broom

Like the mother in the story, my parents believed in giving my brother and I a steady stream of chores. Keeping our rooms clean was just the tip of the iceberg. In general, I didn’t like doing chores. I can remember muttering under my breath a few times when I was reminded of a chore I’d neglected (my mother put a quick end to that, though).

But for the most part, I didn’t resent the chores, they were a fact of life. Looking back, I see them as my contribution to the household. I used and enjoyed the household resources (food, lights, heat, money for toys, clothes and books) – shouldn’t I have contributed back in some way?

The other plus: when I moved out on my own, I didn’t have to call my mom to ask how to do any of the tasks that make us self-sufficient. I could clean my apartment, cook a meal and do my laundry without a second thought. There is real value in that.

Chores and the Twenty-first Century Kid

From what I can tell, kids today don’t do nearly the amount of chores my friends and I did growing up. Maybe making children do chores is too twentieth century.  image_for_girl_240x187

According to an article by Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. at Perfecting Parenting Press, “…many families don’t ask their children to take on regular chores. Some think it’s not worth the potential conflict and nagging, and feel it’s easier to do the chores themselves. Some feel children don’t do the jobs well enough anyhow. Some parents feel their children are too busy.” None of these excuses, I mean reasons, would have flown with my parents.

Children who are not made to do chores miss out on having a sense of ownership of the whole enterprise that is the working household. Instead, they have a sense of entitlement. When young people possess a strong sense of responsibility rather than of entitlement, it’s good for all of us. Have you tried dealing with an entitled young adult at your job, at the gym, at the grocery store? This is not to bash the Millennials, but they definitely have a different perspective on things than previous generations.

The Protection Fail

Parents who teach their kids to do everyday tasks are preparing them for life in the real world, away from home.

In Girl, although I appreciate the willingness of the mother to teach her daughter so many useful, practical things, the mother’s tone is off.  The time spent instructing the daughter could be a bonding experience. And the instructions themselves are a protection because she won’t be sending her daughter into the world without any useful skills.

But that protectiveness is undermined by one line the mother repeats throughout. She tells her daughter that she’s teaching her all these things so that the daughter doesn’t turn out to be “the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.”

Eventually, the weight of the instructions, coupled with her mother’s apparent distrust, will suffocate the daughter. In the years to come, the daughter may willfully forget all the useful things her mother taught her because they’ve been tainted by this one recurring thought, so crudely expressed.

The question is, How can parents instruct their children to grow up to be responsible, productive (not entitled) adults without being too lenient (no chores whatsoever) or too domineering (like the mother in the story Girl)?

I would love to know your thoughts. Should children of the twenty-first century have regular chores? Should they do more, less or the same, in general, as children of previous generations?

More on Girl

Listen to Edwidge Danticat read Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, courtesy of The New Yorker.
 

Literature Cited: Girl
Author:
Jamaica Kincaid
Year Published:
1978

Broom: photo credit: maryfrancesmain via photopin <a
To Do List: photo credit: 27147 via photopin

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8 comments on “That Floor’s Not Going to Sweep Itself

  1. Robert Chambers
    January 8, 2014

    Teaching your kids to appreciate the home and contribute to the order of the house is the best form of “Quality Time” with your kids. It can’t be replaced with soccer matches, play dates and personal classes.

    (…plus they made the mess in the first place.)

    • Johanna Chambers
      January 8, 2014

      Thank you for your comment! I agree, that kind of quality time is lasting — I still remember and appreciate so many of the things my parents taught me, both big and small.

  2. audrey
    January 8, 2014

    In this day and age more is better if for no other reason it would take them away from all the modern technology that threatens to consume them and bring them back to earth with practical things. And. as you said so clearly, there are learning skills they receive. And what better place to learn to make personal contributions than at home. The benefits are many and varied. Unfortunately, I think some of the parents who do not engage in this is because they don’t have the control over their children they should have to keep it from becoming a ‘battle field” to get it done and that control has to start early in the development of the child.

    • Johanna Chambers
      January 10, 2014

      That’s very true, if they have regular chores to do, kids will spend less time playing video games, watching TV, surfing the web, etc. And many chores will get them out of the house into the fresh air!

  3. Teresa
    January 14, 2014

    I especially like your observation on the constant digs the mother made regarding the future prospects for her daughter. I agree that it appears that there was not a true nurturing during the time spent teaching her daughter various chores.
    I also strongly agree that it is extremely important to teach your children responsibility within the family arrangement. Too many parents today expect little to nothing from their children, yet continue to give them all the material requests of their hearts. It seems that there is a message that one doesn’t need to “work for a living”, instilling laziness in a child….

    • Johanna Chambers
      January 15, 2014

      Hi Teresa, thank you for your thoughtful comment! Instilling laziness and materialism in children is all too common today. I am always encouraged by those parents who set limits for their kids while still providing an abundance of love and affection.

  4. Vee
    January 31, 2014

    Great post Johanna! In the spirit of full disclosure I am not a parent. However, I truly appreciate my parent’s insistence that I complete my chores. Having a “to do” list taught me order, discipline, time management skills and responsibility. I also developed a sense of self-confidence with each skill that I learned from my parents. It was the best sort of quality time….I learned life skills and in my opinion their willingness to share their knowledge with me demonstrated love and encouragement. Now, the mother from “Girl” is quite another story….

    http://www.honeylemontea.com

    • Johanna Chambers
      February 2, 2014

      Hi Vee, thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree with you more that learning to contribute to the home early on reaps so many benefits down the road. The life lessons are lasting, so kudos to your parents and I have to say a big thank you to my own as well!

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