4/12/2009

Little House on the Prairie

It appears that I am the only parent I know who requires my own children to help out around the home. While I do not live on a farm - far from it, I live in suburbia, and the actual chores around here are more often things like helping clean up the kitchen after dinner or mowing the lawn than those which children in days of yore frequently engaged in, such as feeding livestock, gathering eggs, bringing in the crops - there are occasional days when our entire little nuclear family rallies around some specific project or other.
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Last fall, all three of my sons ( 2 I gave birth to, one just hangs around all the time) helped hubster rebuild our fence. This project involved clearing brush, tearing down the old falling down rotted fence, digging new post holes, pouring concrete and sinking in metal posts, and then nailing up the wooden boards, leveling it all , etc. It took several weekends to complete; our yard is large. We will probably repeat this project for grammy's home, later this summer.
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Frequently we seem to be repainting various portions of this house. It reminds me of the Oliver Wendall Douglas' home on that old tv show, "Green Acres", which as soon as they painted a board, the wood just sucked up the paint with a slurping sound, and continued to look unpainted and shabby. I don't know what it is - harsh climate, wrong paints ( we keep reading and re-reading "Consumer Reports" to buy the supposedly "best" ones, to no avail - I am starting to think maybe siding isn't such a bad idea, after all ) , this house constantly appears as though it needs to be painted. In the early years, hubster and I did it all. Our motto was :"Reidy and Reidy Painters, the quality's not great but the price is right". Change that now to "Reidy and Sons, Painters" for the kids, now teens, help us with that job, too, and last spring were each responsible for a different side of the house - scraping, taping, prepping, painting, trim and all.
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Ever since they were babies, I have gotten my sons to help me in the kitchen. As toddlers they were always in there, anyways, wanting little tastes of things I was cooking. Soon they were old enough to roll out cookies or help crack eggs ( that was always their favorite task, they would approach it so seriously, with such worried expressions on their little faces as they carefully tapped the eggs over a bowl) or mash potatoes. The last several holiday meals they have become veritable sous chefs, fully responsible for all the desserts and side dishes : the chopping, mixing and saute-ing, each responsible for his own particular dishes under the master chef's ( that would be me) watchful eye. They are getting to be pretty good cooks.
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Hubster has long been "Mr Fix-it", and routinely handles all our electrical , wood-working, and automotive repairs, as well as most of the minor plumbing ones, too. It's handy to be married to an engineer.....he is starting to teach his vast array of knowledge in this area to the boys. How to maintain their own cars, how to not electrocute oneself. GFT's first husband was completely inept in all these areas, and spent countless thousands paying others to do trivial things like change the car's oil. What a useless human being he was. Even my own sister once built my mother an entire yard fence with nothing more than a hammer, boards, nails and a piece of string with a weight attached to it as a plumb line, for a leveller. It lasted 20 years, until the wood started to rot.
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This weekend was the first one where the weather wasn't too cold, windy or rainy to do yard work, so we were all out there together : cleaning up winter's mess and getting things ready for spring. Raking leaves, trimming hedges, weeding, tearing out and cleaning up old flower beds, raking and roto-tilling new ones. As we worked all day long, various groups of my children's friends sauntered by, lolling in the weekend sunshine. My children were not happy about his, and grumbled loudly about how their parents are slave-drivers, it's totally unfair, so embarrassing, etc. (Never mind that I bought them each tickets to Six Flags in exchange for their labors. I'm not completely evil, just mostly evil.)
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Which got me to thinking : Am I the only parent who requires their children to work around the house anymore ? Come to think of it, I have NEVER driven by and seen other kids in the neighborhood engaged in similar pursuits. I know at various points when my students are writing journals, when the topic has been "How do you spend your weekends?" or "What do you do to help your family?", I almost never see students mention working on chores around home. It could be this topic is not cool and no one wants to mention it. However, given the fact that almost the entire neighborhood walked by this weekend, almost as if to see the mind-boggling sight of their peers, aka my children, working so hideously while the others were free to roam and have fun, it would seem that no one else really does require their kids to do this sort of thing. Why is that, I wonder ? Is everyone so wealthy nowadays that they can afford to hire gardeners and painters and such ? Do they assume they will always be wealthy, and that having skill in these tasks is a waste of time ? While hubster and I could pay others to do these chores, we choose not to, ( for now - some day we will be too old, and have no choice) always preferring to save in some areas so that we may spend in others. But there is a larger reason, which is : When my children leave home, if they haven't spent years practicing all these skills, how will they know how to take care of themselves, and run their own homes ?
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Hubster and I both grew up in middle-class families in middle class neighborhoods, and helping out around the house was expected for many reasons. It was seen as something which taught responsibility, and built character. It was seen as a way to pass skills and knowledge of particular tasks on to the next generation. It was an activity which saved money . My mother-in-law likes to think it brought the family together in ways that are positive, and while hubster cringes when she says things like, "We'll rake leaves ! We'll sing songs ! It'll be fun ! ", there is some truth to the matter, just not in the way that she thinks. The family that learns to work together practices valuable skills in give and take, of putting one's own desires aside for a bit, working for the common good. It creates a bond among participants that transfers to other family dynamics. Who is going to be caring for me in my old age ? I hope it will be my children, and that instead of viewing the days we spent working together as a moment of hideous labor, they will instead have some appreciation of what sacrifices parents make, in terms of time and effort and re-channeling of interests, to create that stable loving family the children benefited from growing up in. If we are fortunate, this dynamic will get passed on to their children, and on and on to future generations. Is that a value which has no place in modern society ? I pondered these many thoughts, as I was raking leaves.

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