To hear my mum talk, you’d think she was Cinderella as a child. She was the eldest of four children. Her parents worked in their factory in the back yard (her father was a furniture designer and manufacturer; her mother essentially ran the office). She was brought up by nannies, none of whom spoke much English (she didn’t speak herself until she was three, though she came straight out with a complete sentence, none of this Ma-Ma and Da-Da stuff), but was largely responsible for bringing up her two younger sisters. Among her chores were the daily shopping, cleaning out the fireplaces and setting the fires (which, because matches were banned in the house, involved walking from the boiler in the basement, holding a burning splint of wood or newspaper and walking through the house to each of the fires, often dropping and stamping out burning embers on the route) and washing up. There may have been more, though the shopping was a fairly big chore, taking an hour and a half round trip.
From the age of about seven, my main chore was the washing up. Doing the washing-up every night gained me my £5 a week pocket money. Other than that I had to help out intermittently with cooking, hoovering, washing, hanging washing out, etc. But not much. When I was older (from mid-teens, I think), I cooked once a week.
I had a boyfriend many moons ago, who had three siblings and they had a rota of housework, including washing up, feeding pets, cooking, and some general cleaning, though they had a cleaner who came in twice a week to do the hoovering and clean the bathrooms.
At secondary school, I had a friend who did absolutely nothing. Not because she didn’t want to, but because her mum wouldn’t let her. Her mum still tidied and cleaned her bedroom and made her packed lunch every day. (My friend claimed that she wasn’t allowed to make her own packed lunch, because then her younger sister would insist on doing so, too, which would not be a good thing.)
There seems to be such a variety of ways of dealing with children and housework. Rosemary has been helping out (often it ends up being the opposite of helping out, but hopefully not forever) since she has been physically capable of doing so. She helps put the washing on – puts clothes from basket into machine, gets the tub of washing blobs out, puts a blob in, presses the buttons I tell her to (used to be ‘Press that one. Good. Now that one.’; but now it’s ‘Press the cotton button twice, then the drying button, then the start button. Now press and hold the lock button until it beeps.’; later in the year it will probably just be ‘Set in for a low cotton wash and iron dry.’) and sometimes she’ll hand me the pegs and/or clothes when hanging them up.
She loves sweeping up and is obsessed with wiping any surface she’s allowed to. She quite likes hoovering. She would love to wash up, but only gets to try that occasionally with a few wooden spoons and her own plastic plates and cups. But she already knows that she has to rinse after scrubbing (with the right cloth) and put the items to drain, not dry them with a tea-towel (I am ridiculously fussy about washing up). She’s very hit and miss about tidying up. Sometimes she’s really into it and sometimes she’ll scream and kick if someone else is threatening to tidy the room. But she does know where most things go and can tidy up when willing. She would love to help with the cooking all the time, but there are limited things she can help with. She will often stand on a chair while we’re chopping vegetables and pass us the items we need, but she gets bored of that quickly. She’ll be happier once she’s allowed to cut them herself (not for a while yet, I think).
I’m looking out for signs for her to be ready to be given her own job. Not sure yet what that might be. Maybe wiping the table after dinner (actually, she could probably do that now) or bringing the dirty laundry downstairs or something. Personally, I think it’s really important to give children these kinds of responsibilities, though I do realise there’s a line to be drawn (see my mum’s story above) between teaching responsibility and taking advantage. I want my children to grow up knowing how to wash up, wash clothes, sweep, hoover, clean bathrooms (and even loos), cook, etc. etc. I don’t want them to grow neurotic about any of it (which would be difficult in our house, to be honest), but I want them to know how to look after themselves when they leave home. And that will, of course, go for Number 2 whether they are a boy or a girl. In fact, I think it’s so important, that I’m loathe to get a cleaner again, in case it takes away the opportunity for the children to learn these skills.
So when do your children start helping with the housework? Is their pocket money conditional on their doing their chores? Or do you not ask them to help? Do you consider it slave labour or teaching important life skills?