Last week I had to do a fair amount of travel by ferry and instead of reading a book I brought along my knitting and some podcasts I’d downloaded about unschooling and natural parenting. It was while listening to one of these podcasts that I suddenly had a Lightbulb Moment. And what I found so interesting, in reflecting on that moment later, is that the information I heard, the information that led me to have this sudden burst of inspiration and understanding, was not anything really new to me. Somehow, the person talking had used just the right words, and brought up just the right imagery in my mind, that it all suddenly made sense for me.
But enough about the process of inspiration itself. The subject of my inspiration is what I’m writing about today, and that is House Cleaning. This topic comes up regularly on attachment parenting boards (particularly when the kids get old enough that we start expecting them to help with household cleaning) and also unschooling boards. Having the majority of your family at home during the day adds greatly to the level of messiness compared to a house that sits empty for most of the day. Also, unschoolers often have one parent who is the stay-home parent and thus is in charge of, among many other things, cleaning the house. The issues raised are not just how a housewife (or housedad) can keep up with all the housekeeping and still have time to facilitate their children’s learning, but also there’s the issue of how to get our children to help when they become old enough to do so. I have participated in many, many discussions on this subject over the last 8 years that I have been a parent, and I’ve not only heard a variety of suggestions but I’ve attempted to implement many of them with varying degrees of success. I’ll now describe my own situation, what my epiphany was all about, and how it has affected my life with respect to this particular issue.
I’m one of those people who really like everything to be tidy. Not necessarily “clean” (as in, sterile and free of dirt and dust). But tidiness – a place for everything and everything in its place – is really important to me. Accordingly I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my career as a homemaker trying to keep my home tidy. It was easy when my eldest was a newborn, and got progressively harder as she reached toddlerhood. Now that my kids are older (6 and 8 years) I have more time to do things around the house. But, as they are quite independent, messes can build up to extreme proportions while I’m off doing something else. While mostly I enjoy tidying up – I get a great feeling of satisfaction from turning chaos into order – on occasion I would find myself feeling pretty resentful about all the work I had to do in cleaning up messes that I myself had no part in making (usually it was when I’d leave the house I’d just spent time tidying only to return to a mess). I would often take this out on my husband, who would then express his frustration that the children weren’t helping me clean up the messes they were making. In short, this was creating frequent conflict in our house between everybody. In between times we’d hum along, then suddenly this issue would rear its ugly head again and the inevitable result was some form of coercive or manipulative parenting in order to “teach the children responsibility”.
As an unschooling parent with a few years’ experience under my belt I have come to witness firsthand just how personal and organic the experience of learning is for a child. The old adage of leading a horse to water is true: you cannot make anybody learn anything. I was becoming convinced that the idea of teaching a child to be responsible by forcing them to do chores or participate in cleanups was nonsensical. I knew from my own experience of being a child who never had to do work around the home until I was in my teens (and then it became a great source of conflict between my mother and I) that such a child can grow up to be a neat freak after all. I pondered the issue of why that was, and what I could do to foster such an outcome for my own children. Ideas had been floating around in my head, but nothing solid had coalesced from them until the day I heard Sarah Parent musing on her Humans Being podcast about teaching responsibility. She pointed out that, in unschooling, we assume that children will acquire a particular skill when they encounter a situation in their life that calls for that skill, and then will do so readily and willingly. And so, she continued, the idea that a child *needs* to learn how to be a good housekeeper or otherwise suffer the perilous outcome of living as a slob, is silly. Because when children find themselves in a situation where they are in charge of their own space they will be confronted with the reality of housecleaning and will figure out their own way and what they are comfortable with. I don’t know why I had never considered household responsibility as a skill like any other that unschoolers encounter and learn organically (such as reading or math), but the way Sarah said this it all just clicked in my head. Certainly there did not seem to be any evidence in my mind for a clear association between coercive chores and cleaning rules, and children who were happy and willing to help out around the house.
The thing about lightbulb moments is they often result in a domino effect, where one idea clicks and then suddenly a whole bunch of related ideas fall into line and one affects the other in sequence. Having suddenly realized that I don’t need to “teach” my children responsibility I was free to examine the rest of the “problem”. It was me getting into these moods of resentment that were the trigger for all the resulting conflict between myself and Husband, and then the Parents vs Children. In another podcast I heard the host telling a caller (who expressed concerns about this very issue) that she should just “let go” of having a clean house. The words this person was using to explain her point of view did not click with me at all. It sounded as though she was invalidating the feelings and experiences of the caller by suggesting she should just “get over it”. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a suggestion, but while it never sat right with me, still for some reason I couldn’t let it go. It remained in my mind, floating around looking for a place in which to fit. When I heard the same message delivered by another podcast host, but this time in a context that made sense to me, it all just clicked into place. She suggested we look at the problem from our own perspective and not that of our children. In other words, instead of “why aren’t they helping me?” ask “why is this a problem for me?” and start exploring that to see where it takes us.
And so I did, I examined myself. The first thing I realized is that there is no such thing as the RIGHT level of clean. Some people are quite comfortable living in an environment that is less orderly than that “required” by other people. Is it fair to expect the whole family to stretch to the “highest common denominator”? Should the neat freak in the family be allowed to set the level of clean that everybody else has to meet? What IS an acceptable level of clean and tidiness? Well, I realized that I had to take ownership of my need for things to be tidy (on the other hand, I’m not bothered by dog hair and dustballs lying around, and can go long periods without vacuuming if things are in their place). It didn’t take much self-questioning to learn that when things are not tidy I get anxious. And I get anxious because I see a lot of work in front of me and then I stress about not being able to spend time with my children or do fun things that day because I have this need for everything to be tidy. I was carrying around a lot of guilt that I didn’t do much “sit down” time with my kids, because I was always tidying. Now, I knew that it was unrealistic for me to suddenly turn into someone for whom tidyness was not desirable. I had to accept that part of me. Instead, what I did was give myself permission to put down my tidying and spend time with the children. There was no life-and-death reason why the house needed to be tidy as often as possible. There would be time for cleaning when it was really needed (i.e. when guests come to visit). I reminded myself that my priority was my kids, and that one day (all too soon) they’ll be grown up and gone and I’ll have the rest of my life to live in a tidy house. And so I have found myself over the last week saying “YES” to my children’s request to play a game, come see a cool YouTube video they’ve found, read a book with them, or drop everything and head to the park. I cannot tell you what a liberating experience it has been to realize that I don’t NEED to tidy up, that it is my own issue and that I have a choice. And in return, we’ve had a wonderful week and I feel great about how much time I’ve spent with them doing little things at home.
There’s another domino that fell during this cascade of inspiration. I realized that Attitude may not be Everything, but it comes pretty close. One of the podcast folks described how she’d left a good-paying job to stay home with her children. She could afford a housekeeper if that was a priority. But she wanted to be at home, didn’t want to apportion some of the family’s budget to a job she felt she could do herself, and overall she knew she took great joy in being a homemaker and unschooling mother. I realized the same thing applied to me. Grumbling and complaining about having to clean up after my husband and kids was not bringing our family anything but misery. I reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to make this choice. I asked myself honestly if the cleaning was really that big of a problem. If it was a big problem we could certainly afford to hire some help. But I knew immediately by allowing myself to consider these options that I had already made my choice. I can think of many things I’d rather spend our money on than a cleaning lady (though I’ve had them at various stages of my parenting life) and the truth is I enjoyed cleaning most of the time. I really did. So with all that, I realized that complaining and grumbling was my own issue, because I’d chosen this job and I was glad to have it. That small change in perspective has allowed me to really embrace and enjoy the work I do at home now, because I remind myself regularly this is exactly where I want to be.
The next piece to fall was asking myself what was triggering these bouts of resentment. Again, it was while listening to my podcasts that I heard it explained in a new way. Children have jobs, and their job is to play and learn and explore their environment. Children are always busy doing the work of children, which is mostly play when they are young. As I was going about MY job I was looking at them and feeling resentful that they got to “sit around and play” all day while I was working. When I realized that what they were doing is THEIR own work, their own job, I realized how silly my atittude was. Being a child is not easy, and as an adult I enjoy so much more freedom than they do. I had my time as a child, and now it is their time. I need to stop looking at them in moments of fatigue and thinking that they are doing “nothing” worthwhile while I’m doing something “important”. I’m doing what I chose to do, and they are doing what they are supposed to do. That change in perspective was a lighbulb moment in itself.
The final piece of the puzzle was realizing that, once I’d start experiencing resentment or frustration by looking at my children doing “nothing”, I would inevitably follow that up with a request for help. I’d get the standard response – “No”, and then I’d start to flip out. The anger and frustration would boil over, I’d start ranting about how much I do blah blah blah…And so, the honest truth was, that my “request” for help in these circumstances was not a request at all. I expected them to say Yes, and I wasn’t going to accept a No. That is not a request, that is a demand, and the kids knew it. And suddenly I realized the problem – I had to be willing and ready to truly accept a No. Then I had to combine this approach with being able to come to my children with my negative feelings and OWN those negative feelings (rather than blaming others for me having those feelings). This is a skill Husband and I have worked on for years in our own marriage, so it came fairly easily once I realized what I had to do. I could immediately see how doing this would completely change the dynamics of the situation, and speak to my children’s natural love for me and desire to help me and see me content.
With all these new changes in attitude having cemented themselves into place in my mind, with this new way of looking at the cleaning issue that just suddenly made so much sense, and fit so neatly into my view of How the World Works, I was eager to get home and implement these changes in myself. I have to say that the results have been remarkable and I couldn’t be happier with the situation now. The very first thing I noticed when I came home with the decision that I was no longer going to make my kids help out, or even expect them to help out, was that it turns out they are actually very helpful! For example, my daughter is in charge of feeding the cat and refilling the pets’ water dish (our dog eats raw food and I’m not comfortable with her handling raw meats just yet). Every time I ask her to check on the food and water she jumps up happily to do it – she loves our pets and loves being responsible for them. She takes this responsiblity very seriously, and why wouldn’t she? She chose to take that on, and it has real meaning for her because she loves our pets. In short, I was not seeing the things the kids DID do, because I was too focussed on what they didn’t do when I wanted them to. It was really wonderful to realize that my children were not irresponsible lazy slobs after all! (I should point out that this was before I told my kids about my new change of attitude, so it wasn’t just gratitude for being told I wouldn’t “make” them clean up anymore).
After my week of travelling I came home to a house that was really far beyond my level of comfort when it came to tidiness. Honestly, it was pretty crazy. But instead of freaking out, I looked for the things my husband HAD done and was able to genuinely express my appreciation for these things. He was probably pleasantly surprised not to hear a list of things he had neglected! I also knew that, having spent a fair amount of time away from my kids that week, they’d be wanting and needing to reconnect with me. And so while I set about tidying up the next day, I stopped frequently when asked to go do stuff with the kids. Son and I had a fabulous time building old-school arcade machines from Lego. Daughter and I watched a series of YouTube videos on miniature clay creations. And then, when the weather cleared up to a gorgeous sunny fall day, I dropped everything and we all went out geocaching. The kids were so pleased to hear so many “Yes” responses from me, and I was really enjoying the time with them because I’d stopped worrying about the mess in the house. What is really cool about all this is that I ended up getting the house totally in order, in not much more time than I would have otherwise, but with a much happier family as a result. An extra day to get to a completely tidy house was so worth it!
Eventually I told the kids straight out that I was done with chores and cleaning rules. I told them that, from now on, I was not going to expect them to do stuff just because I wanted them to. When the inevitable moment came where I was feeling overwhelmed (this often happens around dinner time) I applied my relationship skills to the problem. I said to the kids in a very conversational tone that I was feeling a bit stressed at the moment because I had to do A, B, and C and I was wondering if anybody would be able to help. Son said he wanted to finish the short video he was watching, and Daughter came over right away. She didn’t do the task that I would have wanted her to do if it were up to me, but she chose one herself, did it willingly, and it did lighten my load. Son came over exactly when he said he would and provided assistance proportional to his age and ability. Frankly, the fact that both kids willingly came over to help meant so much more to me than the time they saved, and I was filled with love and appreciation for them.
The other thing I noticed is that when I asked a child to clean up a mess they’d made (for example, Daughter was playing with her toy dinosaurs – over 120 of them – which were scattered around my bedroom floor), they’d either start whining or they would ask me if I would help them. Prior to my epiphany this would generate a conflict within me, as the voice inside my head tried to convince me that helping my children would be akin to enabling an alcoholic, and that really they needed to do this themselves because it was their mess and not mine. Instead I noticed that by asking for help the child was actually saying YES to my request. And so I agreed and happily helped them and was able to see how happy they were to carry out this task with me. I felt so foolish for ever thinking that helping someone could be the wrong thing to do.
And so during this week of instituting these new approaches I have learned something very important. I have come to understand that what I was modelling, in terms of my attitude towards cleaning, was likely far more important as a teaching tool than any forced chores or rules around tidyness. If cleaning is always associated with whining, complaining, resentment, and conflict what are my kids going to think and feel about this issue when it becomes time for them to take care of their own place? On the other hand, if I do my cleaning tasks with appreciation and enjoyment, and if I’m noticing all the ways they DO help rather than the ways they Don’t, and if they are truly free to say No to me when they really feel they can’t help out at that time, and when I am willing to lend them a helping hand when they ask for one…well, how can any of this be a bad thing?
I know there will still be times where I feel overwhelmed with my cleaning, frustrated at how quickly the house becomes disordered, and/or will want help. But now I will take ownership of those feelings instead of blaming the rest of my family. I can go to my family and ask for help without demanding, and my family is free to provide that help when willing and able. I no longer feel guilty that I “have” to clean rather than spend time with my kids. I am now able to see all the ways in which my children are helpful. And I am free from worrying about how I’m going to “teach” responsibility, because I now understand that such a thing cannot be taught. I cannot tell you how good I am feeling about all of this, and how positive an experience this has been. Thanks for reading this very long post, and I hope I have been able to inspire some of you as I was inspired myself.