In an amusing article in The Economist, “Apps for Brats”, which described applications that attempt to get kids to do things like eat more kale (kids earn points and then get a reward – presumably not a bag of Cheetos)- and make their beds (similar bribe scheme), I read that:
A 2011 survey found that 58% of American children do no regular chores; 37% do some, but feel they should do fewer…Many parents blame electronic gizmos for making their children so lazy. (Most kids would indeed rather lie on the sofa shooting zombies than take out the rubbish.)
I’m with the kids here, although my preference would be curling up with a book rather than running the dust mop. Who wouldn’t rather?
But I suspect that a lot of this is because so many of the chores-of-yore are now outsourced or convenienced away.
You don’t need your kids peeling potatoes if a pre-cooked meal was picked up at Whole Foods on the way home.
If you’ve got a Roomba, you don’t need your kids to vacuum.
And if you have fewer kids, there’s less need to deputize the older sibs as mini-parents.
But I still find it shocking that 58% of kids do absolutely nothing. Forget hospital corners. Most kids don’t even pull up the duvet cover to disguise a messy bed?
The list of chores that I did as a kid, along side my fellow drudge, my sister Kath, seems absolutely Dickensian work-house when I think of kids doing nothing.
On weekdays, in addition to making our beds – a given – we took the laundry off of the outdoor clothesline and folded it. And there was plenty of laundry to do in our house. Unbelievably, we never used a towel twice, so every day, there were at least seven towels and wash cloths that needed laundering. Then you add up the general dirty laundry that a family with five kids generates - including diapers, in that pre-Pampers era - there was an awful lot of laundry to be taken down and folded. (In the summer, and on days off, we also hung the laundry out to dry.)
We ironed, mostly the simple things, like handkerchiefs, pillow cases, and my father’s pajamas. My mother did the harder things, like our school blouses and the boys shirts. (My father’s shirts were “done” by “the Chinaman.”)
Kath and I were also my mother’s junior sous-chefs, paring carrots, peeling potatoes, and cracking walnuts, which once upon a time came in shells, not cans.
We set, and cleared, the table.
Curiously, we didn’t always have to wash and dry the dishes, as this was something that my parents liked (?) to do together.
But sometimes there were spells when we did have to do dishes, and we always fought about who got to wash and who got to dry.
We took out the garbage, burned the trash, and hauled the baskets full of cans to the curb when it got more convenient to have the “can man” come than for my father to drive to the dump.
I actually liked burning the trash, especially in the winter, when I would hover over the fire barrel with a Navy blanket over my shoulders pretending I was a war refugee.
While burning the trash in the winter was enjoyable, putting out the garbage in summer could be a horrific experience. If maggots were spotted, we had to clean the garbage can with bleach and hose. Gag!
Speaking of gag, we, of course, changed plenty of diapers, including poopy ones, which we had to slosh around in the toilet to get rid of the poop, then wring out and place in the ammonia-reeking diaper pail.
This was, however, pretty much the only downside of child care. Walking or feeding a cranky baby was not all that bad, and time spent amusing or reading to a little one – which actually didn’t really count as a chore - was actually fun.
Late Friday afternoon meant the absolutely worst chore of all.
Our groceries were delivered – my mother called the order in to Morris Market, reading off a long list of items, which someone on the other end of the line took down.
Boxes of groceries were delivered, along with the cash register receipt which just listed the prices that were rung up, not the items.
Kath and I had to go through the boxes, find the price of every item, then find that amount on the cash register list and cross it all, meanwhile cross-referencing everything with my mother’s hand-written grocery list.
It is difficult to express exactly how boring and painful this task was – we are talking about dozens, maybe hundreds of items here – but my mother needed to know whether she was getting shortchanged, or whether Morris Market had made a mistake in her favor. Mattered not in which direction. If the figures didn’t foot exactly, she would call the market to report that she owed them a dollar, or they owed her fifty cents.
Friday afternoon was just the prelude to full-on chore day, which was Saturday morning.
For this fun fest, we emptied wastebaskets, dusted – making sure we lifted up every Hummel and doily, our mother was going to inspect - dust mopped, and vacuumed. We cleaned the toilets with bleach – we had the luxury of two baths when we moved from a flat in my grandmother’s to an otherwise modest house around the corner – and scoured the tubs and sinks with Babbo or Comet, making sure the taps all gleamed.
I don’t recall ever shoveling, or doing much lawn work – my father took on most of this himself, I guess, or eventually enlisted the help of my brothers who were younger than Kath and I, and were pretty much exempt from any work around the house, as far as we could tell. Kath and I did have some lawn-related chores, the one which I remember most clearly is pulling out dandelions, using a screwdriver to dig up all the roots.
Leaf-raking was an all-in.
We had a lot of leaves in our backyard, which was large and surrounded by trees, so everyone had a hand in this activity, including those otherwise good-for-nothing brothers of ours.
The most peculiar job we were tasked with was “raking the hollow”, another all-in family effort that occurred on the first nice Saturday of spring, a day on which we would have been far happier riding our bikes or coasting down to Woolworth’s with our friends to buy a Nancy Drew book, and split a coke and a bag of Spanish peanuts.
Our house abutted a deep woods, and our property included a small bit of the woods, in the hollow that sloped down from the side of our house, which was on the crest of a hill.
Anyway, on that first spring day, we would all be issued rakes to help my father rake the hollow, making sure that our piece of the woods was leaf free. This took all day, and gave you blisters. For joy!
Curiously, our father never explained what this was for. We just thought he was insane. Who rakes leaves out of woods?
I realize now, of course, that he was creating a fire break so that, if there was a fire in the woods, it wouldn’t easily reach the side of our house.
We seemed to have an incredible number of chores, but, by our parents standards, we were lazy-asses who had it easy when compared to their childhoods of veritable indentured servitude.
Yet we still had an incredible amount of do-nothing time to hang out with friends, go sliding and skating in winter, loll around the backyard playing Sorry and Monopoly in summer, ride bikes, play hide and seek and Donkey with all the kids in the neighborhood on summer evenings, run through the sprinkler, play jacks, jump rope, go down to Woolworth’s to buy Nancy Drew books, push our doll carriages by the house where the old couple’s granddaughter impaled herself on a tree, watch TV, sit around reading, head up into the woods to pick laurel or blueberries, call WORC to request that they play “Purple People Eater”, go to Carrera’s Market to buy penny candy, and otherwise have a splendid time.
Somehow, I suspect that those 58% of kids who aren’t doing chores don’t get as much free, unstructured kid-time as we had back in the day.