How difficult is turning a knob?

Jane Christmas

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the fourth in our series, which will run weekdays in this section until May 14.

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I am thinking back to the precise moment when I first heard myself referred to as "the white woman." I had emerged from the basement bearing multiple armloads of neatly folded clothes and was startled to hear my teenage son engaged in a telephone conversation. What made me stop in my tracks was the realization that he had made the leap from grunt responses to full-blown sentences. I was flush with pride. And then I heard it: "No, I can't go out right now. I have to vacuum for the white woman."

I did a double take, but I didn't comment to my son about this because, well, I had eavesdropped, and God forbid if your teen catches you doing that.

A few days later, I overheard more rumblings about "the white woman." This time, the conversation was between my children and was spoken in a rather respectful tone. "I think the white woman wants us to do the folding." And later: "Sorry, I can't play Lego with you right now. I have to do the dishes for the white woman."

With the "white woman" reference now out in the open, my children shuffle through the house bearing the look of the fashionably oppressed. I imagine they also grandly refer to our tiny, shoe-horned, semi-detached home as "the plantation," and conspire in urgent whispers about one day escaping the white woman and her never-ending to-do list via the underground railway (a.k.a. the Queen Elizabeth Way) back to the city where we once lived. In their lazy, adolescent way, household chores equate with slavery.

Chores and children rarely mix. In fact, to be totally honest, chores and humans don't mix. But then, not everything in life is palatable, and, like lima beans, the acceptance of chores is a benchmark of, if not maturity, then an ability to swallow reality without gagging.

I was conscripted into household duty at an early age by my parents. I vowed then, as my children do today, that I would never -- ever -- make my own offspring toil over a roaring vacuum cleaner or dip their hands into hot, soapy water unless they were taking a bath.

But as a mother, and a single mother at that, doling out chores isn't just a character builder, it's a form of survival. Who can (or wants) to do it all? If everyone shares in creating a mess, then it follows that everyone must chip in and clean it up.

I introduced chores to my children when they were very young. Their first chore was to make their beds each morning, only I didn't call it a chore. I just told them it was what people did in the morning after going to the bathroom and brushing their teeth.

In time, their repertoire and capabilities expanded. Frequently, they asked if they could vacuum: An air-sucking contraption was, to them, awesomely intriguing. By the age of four, my daughter was ironing pillowcases and table napkins. I'm sure visitors to our home who caught her hard at work, her little tongue protruding between her cherubic lips in determined concentration, thought I was running a Dickensian workhouse. I'm not sure whether they were shocked or impressed.

Acclimatizing a child to doing chores is not such a stretch. Any child who knows how to set the VCR or burn a CD can operate a washing machine. How difficult is sorting darks from whites, dropping in a scoopful of detergent, adding a pile of clothes and turning a knob? If that can be done, then transferring washed clothes to the dryer, shutting the dryer door, turning a knob and pushing a button is baby's play.

Yet I continue to be surprised by parents who wave off the idea of assigning chores to their children, saying it is beneath their children's dignity to collect laundry, set the table for dinner or take out the garbage. I quickly discovered -- by observing their hideously overindulged brats -- that behind the laissez-faire fašade lurked spineless parents afraid of being disliked by their offspring. As if parenting was some sort of popularity contest. Ha!

If children want to be treated as adults, they need to know what goes with the territory -- and that the territory isn't limited to PCs, cellphones and DVDs. Besides, it has been my experience that children, particularly teenagers, become pretty keen on doing laundry when they want clean and dry clothes for the following morning.

I have also learned that when the entire household pitches in, chores take very little time. By my calculation, a household generates approximately five hours a week of in-house chores (dishes, making and changing the beds, laundry, vacuuming, dusting, washing floors, cleaning the bathrooms, raking the yard). Note that this refers to at-home chores: There's a whole other realm of domestic duties beyond the front door (groceries, medical appointments, dry cleaners, hardware store). Five hours of home duty divided by -- in my case -- three people, equals about an hour and a half a week per person. That's excellent value for a roof over your head, a stocked pantry, daily home-cooked meals, clean bed linens each week, homework help, taxi service, the pleasure of my company (surely, that's worth something!), and as many hugs, kisses and words of encouragement as they can humanly absorb.

In return, I get help running the household, the pleasure of my children's company (pleasure, in this case, is subject to a sliding scale) and, apparently, the moniker of "the white woman."

Occasionally, in our household, we fall down on the job when it comes to keeping on top of our duties. In those instances, I rally the troops, and in a one- or two-hour burst of frenzied action, we "do" the house, usually with Ja Rule or Eminem blaring on the system -- one of the trade-offs for full co-operation.

The current slate of duties on our agenda is vacuuming, washing the bathrooms and kitchen floors, dusting, collecting the garbage, raking the yard, doing the dishes. (Due to a momentary lapse of judgment on my part when I bought our current home, we are one of those challenged households that don't have dishwashers; the children take turns each night doing the washing up.) My pre-teen daughter keeps the family room vacuumed, and pitches in with the main floor and second floor on an as-need basis. Since my son has the luxury of his own bathroom, he's the one who has to keep it clean -- scrub the toilet, wash the tub, clean the mirrors and fixtures, and wash the floor. While he's toting the mop and bucket, he cleans the upstairs bathroom, too, as well as the kitchen floor. Both children take turns with the laundry and folding. I handle the dusting, clutter culling, shopping, meal prep, bed and linen changes. We all chip in with the ironing and outdoor work.

It's true that not everything gets done to my standards, so I've simply lowered them. In cases where there is an unacceptable level of performance, however, I make them repeat the job. In time, and with practice, I know they will improve.

A controversial issue concerns paying children for their household chores. I do not pay mine because I feel it's counterproductive to the structure and inherent goodwill and sense of collegiality to which a household aspires. However, when there are extraordinary jobs to do (an example being when we renovated our home), I pay them for their individual work.

And while they gripe now about not EVER making their children do chores, I know they'll feel quite differently when they get a taste of the white woman's -- or white man's -- burden.

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