My siblings and I grew up with certain understandings: Dad gets the biggest piece of pie; don’t disturb mom’s nap unless you’re hurt enough to go to the emergency room; and the “Lawrence Welk Show” is unavoidable.
We also obeyed a more universal decree: Children do chores.
I admire parents who teach their children to work when it would be easier and faster to do the tasks themselves.
My siblings and I were reasonable about most parental requests, but we contested our chores. We questioned their need, debated their equity and dawdled about doing them.
Carolyn and I were assigned to dinner dishes; one washed and rinsed while the other wiped and put away.
The next night, we switched.
Carolyn was one mean wiper. She’d pick up every item I put in the drainer, scrutinize it from all angles, and slam it back into the dishwater if she found a smudge of gravy or spot of grease.
I was a nervous wreck, pulling my hands from the water whenever she wound up for a throw and drenched by the tidal waves her force created.
Mom promoted Carolyn to cooking duties when Barbara grew enough to reach the sink.
My struggle changed. Every night with innocent eyes and infuriating calmness, Barbara insisted it was her turn to dry. We sometimes had to resort to wrestling to resolve the dispute.
Mom once entered the kitchen and found us in a silent struggle on the floor.
She sighed and left.
Joel and I recently visited our grandchildren in Illinois. One morning, a pitched battle about chores occurred. The disputed task had changed; the fierceness of the exchange had not.
“No, Jack, you’re lying. I emptied it last time; you know I did. Mom, he’s lying; he’s a liar!” Janey pled her case with drama, indignation and tears, a teenager wronged.
Jack fired back at top volume: “No, you didn’t, Janey; I did. I remember because you had to go to cheerleading practice. It’s true! I did it last. You’re the liar!” An easy-going fifth-grader with two older sisters, Jack knew how to counterpunch.
All this fuss because their mom told them she needed the dishwasher emptied — now.
My brother, Bob, raising an abundant brood in Texas, once lamented that in an urban area, he had trouble devising meaningful work for his children.
“If I didn’t milk the cows, we had no milk. If I didn’t fill the coal bucket for the cook stove, mom couldn’t cook. If I didn’t water the garden, our summer food supply died. What do I tell my children? If you don’t vacuum the living room, it won’t look nice? If you don’t mow the lawn, it will grow too long? They roll their eyes at me like I’m dim.”
He solved his problem by procuring paper routes for his progeny.
The older children pumped bikes around their quiet suburb, pulling wagons in which the younger ones sat, flinging papers at driveways. The little ones quickly developed accurate throws — the big ones hurt them if they didn’t; and then the neighbors called their parents.
Bob gave their child labor meaning by working out a deal with them: They split 40 percent of the money earned; the rest went into their college funds.
I thought my brother deserved a parenting award, especially after I visited and witnessed the mayhem he faced each morning getting his conscripts out of bed to roll papers.
His grown children still tell hair-raising stories about the experience.
But they learned to work; as are Janey and Jack; as did I —one of the most important gifts a parent can give.