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