December 3, 2013

In the cafeteria a few weeks ago, my fourth-grade daughter's friends were complaining about their lunches. The dessert was missing. The fruit was bruised. The drink was no good.

Why didn't you pack yourself a better lunch? she asked.

Incredulous eyes swung to her. They don't pack their lunches! Their parents do.

My daughter's parents (yes, that would be my husband and me) do not. Part of our kids' morning ritual is packing their own lunches – a well-balanced lunch, occasionally subject to adult inspection. And, I must tell you, it is awesome.

I could tell you that we started having our kids pack their own lunches because we want to encourage healthy food choices, autonomy in eating, and responsibility for self-care. And that is all true. But it is also because as much as I love my children (tons) and love caring for them (lots), I really don't love packing lunches. And trying to do it every morning, frequently while they enjoyed a leisurely breakfast or sneaked over to play Minecraft on the computer, or the night before, when I was either tired out or stoked to watch Vampire Diaries, was just not doing it for me.

We all want help around the house, right? But too often we ignore the helpers who are sitting just over there, sipping the glass of water we've brought them while we cook dinner, or asking us to be quieter as we unload the dishwasher because they're trying to listen to One Direction. Consider this post, therefore, my call for child labor – not the pre-1998 Nike version of child labor, of course, but the version that encourages our kids to contribute to the family while giving us a much-deserved break. 

Whether it's a very young child bringing in bags from the grocery store, organizing his own snack shelf, or sorting dirty laundry by colors; an older child not only setting and clearing the table but also running the dishwasher and hand-washing the fragile items; or a tween checking the tire pressure (this is my husband's innovation for our sixth grader) or cooking meals, our kids will surprise us with their abilities and – once they realize this is their new reality – actually enjoy and feel good about displaying their new skills. They will also realize just how much we do for them, and grow more appreciative of the efforts we make to keep the household running usually-at-least-somewhat-smoothly. And we will feel less exhausted and less taken for granted – and create a dynamic in which everyone does his/her part to support and uphold the family.

I know there's always some guilt rearing its ugly head when we refuse to do something for our kids. We've somehow convinced ourselves that our role is to make life as easy and pleasant as possible for our children, and to care for them even when they're old enough to begin caring for themselves. It's hard to imagine taking a few minutes to sit down and relax after work, while our children throw a load in the dryer (and on the way back from the laundry room, could they please grab us a Diet Coke, thanks) or drain the pasta or run outside with the tire gauge. But it's actually a pretty beautiful thing. 

In fact, I would venture to say that this version of child labor is one of the best things we can do for our kids. Even the sages of the Talmud would agree. In the Talmud, parents are charged with teaching their children a trade; if a parent does not fulfill this obligation, we are warned, the child will become a thief. Our sages were not speaking of after-school classes in wordworking or textiles; they were speaking of a person's ability to support him/herself and to make his/her way in the world. When we do everything for our kids – when they reach adulthood without knowing how to clean a toilet or prepare a meal – we have effectively failed to teach them a trade. We have failed to give them the skills they need to make their way in the world. And we have failed our children.

So brainstorm a few age-appropriate chores, and brainstorm a few more. And know that what might look like a sulky tween throwing a cheese stick into her lunch bag, or a frustrated preschooler slowly figuring out how to roll socks, is actually a very lucky child – a child whose parents (you) care enough to fulfill this obligation of the Talmud. A child whose parents want him/her to grow up confident, competent, and infused with a sense of community. And – in my home, anyway – a child whose parents now have time to watch the last ten minutes of Vampire Diaries before collapsing exhausted in bed.

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