I hated hearing that. As I recall, I continued to do a terrible job. I’d sweep up a few pieces of popcorn, but otherwise leave the mess and go back to watching The A-Team. My dad had to come back over and over again. I remember thinking that if I made him come back enough times, he’d throw up his hands and say, “Gimme the broom, I’ll just do it.” But he didn’t. He kept telling me to finish the job. And he didn’t let me go until it was done, and done right.
Now that I have an 8-year-old boy of my own, I see it in him—the impatience and half-assery, the urgent need to get back to cartoons or whatever, the exasperation of hearing me critique his work. There’s that exaggerated, overly dramatic movement as he sweeps. Can you sweep sarcastically? Turns out: Yep. If you’re 8 and being a little shit about doing chores.
I’m confident that there’s a mathematical formula for this. The number of times that fathers say, “Do a good job,” is inversely proportional to the quality of the job that the boy will do. In other words, nagging gets you the opposite result from the one you’re going for.
This I remember too from the old days. The more my dad tried to show me the value of doing good work, the more I knew what he was doing. He grew so tired of my slacking that he sort of let go of other lessons he was trying to teach me. “If you learn one thing in my house,” he used to say, “make it this: do your best on every job you do.” And, in fact, once I knew how important it was to him, the more I decided not to learn that lesson. The more I slacked off. The more I resolved to sweep up one piece of popcorn and stop. To do the minimum in all things, and make him regret making me do chores of any kind. I will outlast you, I thought.
I didn’t, though. He won. He never let me off the hook. His attitude was this: If you want to do this all day, then we’ll do this all day, until all the popcorn is gone.
When did I change? I can’t be certain. Sometime in middle school, I think. I’m embarrassed to say it might have been even later. And—not to get all golly-gee on you here—eventually I discovered the value in looking back at my work and realizing that I had crushed it. Done a bang-up job. Wowed somebody. I felt proud. I started cleaning stuff. I did every bit of my homework. I saw things around the house that needed doing, and I did them.
Another confession: I’m trying to jumpstart this feeling of pride in my own kid. Sometimes I see success. When he leaves an area cleaner than he found it, without being asked, for example. I go bananas when I see that. In a good way, I mean. I haul my wife into the room to show her what he did. Then, making sure he can hear me, I jump on the phone to somebody and gush about his work.
But for the most part, I’d say the boy’s firmly in the slacker camp when it comes to chores. I’ve tried not to nag. I’ve kept my tone even and matter-of-fact, saying, “You’re not done yet.” If I make it less adversarial, maybe he’ll come around sooner.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just part of life that fathers and sons clash like this. I’ve compared notes with other dads, and we agree: having a coach or teacher work with your kid on something is a million times better, because the kid will actually listen. Much to my dismay, it’s often the same damn lesson I’d been trying to impart to the boy, but he was deaf to it. You don’t know shit, Dad, his eye-roll says.
I knew this was coming. This is the beginning of those weird years, when I stop being a go-to authority about the world. He’s got 12 times the stubbornness I ever had. But my response isn’t gonna change. I’ll sit and watch him all day until he gets it right. I’ve even got a bowl of popcorn here.