The Despair And Dejection Of Delegating Chores

by Terri Lively
Originally Published: 

Chores are important to childhood development. They teach you responsibility. They teach you to help around the house. They also teach you life isn’t an endless stream of your first-choice activity.

Chores are especially important to my children’s development: They stop me from selling my kids to the circus when it comes to town.

However, when you see a dishwasher loaded like this…

Image courtesy Terri Lively

…you realize there is no help to be had.

Who is to blame? After a desperate search for the usual scapegoats, e.g., SpongeBob SquarePants, video games and their father (the pioneer of this method of dishwasher loading), I realized Howard Jones was right: “No one ever is to blame.” That is except me, standing on an island of despair and dejection realizing proper chore-training is yet another thing for which I am responsible—and another thing at which I am failing presently.

This line of reasoning led me to an all-important realization: Parenting is delegating chores to the most incompetent employees ever and having no one to blame for their incompetence but yourself.

It came to me when I was on on my knees in the gravel while avoiding the ubiquitous network of spiderwebs dangling from the handles of my waste barrels and digging a load of recycling out of the murky depths of the green waste bin. Not surprisingly, I was also concentrating on not swearing outside my neighbor’s open window. It was hard, really hard.

It reminded me, as many of these moments do, of my youth. In elementary school, before the magical World Wide Web, we used to program a turtle to draw lines on our Apple IIe’s computer screen:

This was cutting-edge tech education at the time, people, for the gifted program, no less.

To prepare, we did an exercise where we had to “program” our classmate to tie a shoe. The idea was to think of every step needed and explain it in no uncertain terms. When you were the “robot,” the idea was to be a deliberate pain in the arse and misinterpret as much as possible.

The lesson? Programming someone to tie a shoe requires intricately worded and comprehensive instructions. My key takeaway: Programming is hard, really hard.

The same technique used for turtle graphics is necessary for one’s progeny to complete chores correctly. On a side note, children doing chores are as big a pain in the arse as 12-year-old-gifted kids in the computer lab circa 1985.

You say things like:

Turn the vacuum switch all the way on, or it won’t pick up anything on the carpet.

Please don’t use the bathroom towels to clean the floor.

Pledge is for the tables; Windex is what we use for windows.

Or my personal favorite:

Be sure to use a new bleach wipe for the sink counter that is different than the one you use for the toilet rim.

These are actual instructions I have issued. Little did I know that my little turtles lack the common sense of actual turtles.

I have always been firmly in the middle class—a different standard depending on where you live. For me, growing up in the Midwest, middle class meant we had neither a housecleaner nor a gardener. My mom believed she didn’t need them, and she didn’t. She had us, a resource she was not afraid to exploit to its full capacity.

We mowed, weeded, trimmed and pruned outside. We dusted, vacuumed and scoured inside. We cleaned out the garage. We chopped and stacked wood (no, we didn’t live on a prairie). We did all kinds of dirty, nasty jobs, like cleaning our family of six’s bathroom or food-sniffing to determine rancidity levels while cleaning out the refrigerator.

Lest you think my humble wood-stacking beginnings stuck with me, you should know I am not immune to this, “We’re too good to clean our toilets,” mindset. I have had a housecleaner for well over a decade. Also, don’t get me started on what I pay the gardeners to “mow and blow” our yard.

My recent move means I am sans housecleaner at the moment, a fact that has my sanity teetering on a razor’s edge. Today I plummeted off the edge because my fingernail dug into something squishy at the bottom of the green waste barrel that I can neither see nor recognize by touch.

However, I may not hire a new house cleaner. I can’t shake the idea that chores are a fact of life. I had to do them. So did my sister and brothers and everyone else I knew. My little turtles will too, because I will teach them in a way that would make my sixth-grade computer teacher beam with pride.

And I will start today, right after I soak my fingernail in disinfectant.

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