Caveat: I wrote this over a year ago, specifics and rhythms have changed as my children have grown and matured and our lives change. Perhaps I will do an update….A Working Life:
On my bookshelf, a row of familiar books show their broken spines and disintegrating covers. They reveal their frequent use, probably the most read books in my collection. My guess is that it is the most-read collection of books in many homes, homeschooling or not. Laura Ingalls Wilder gave us the most wonderful gift in her writing: a picture of a family life lived in real, palpable and functional work. I am talking about the kind of work that was central and integral to daily survival. This work was not an afterthought to the day, it wasn’t relegated to “chore time”. Nor was its components listed on a chart, complete with rewards and consequences given based on its accomplishment.
This work WAS their life, not a component of it. Woven into daily work was family relationship, community identity, spirituality, sense of “self”, communion with environment and nature, and “education”. In this modern age, these components of self are rudely ripped from each other into separate compartments, leaving us constantly seeking “wholeness” and peace. I could not imagine a childhood classic written today from the perspective of modern mainstream life (or even a Waldorf homeschooling life) that could convey such nourishing and holistic concepts. Can you imagine it?! Perhaps titles like:
“BY THE SLIDING GLASS DOORS OF TRADER JOE’S”
“AT THE PORTAL OF THE YAHOO HOMESCHOOLING GROUP”
“LITTLE SCHOOL IN A 500 DOLLAR CURRICULUM”
“THESE HAPPY GOLDEN MOM’S NIGHTS OUT”
“HIDING IN THE CORNER FROM PLASTIC TOYS AND VIDEO GAMES AT THE COUSINS’ HOUSE”
Maybe some chapters:
“MAMA HUNG THE CHORE CHART”
“FINGERKNITTING WITH SCRATCHY WOOL YARN”
“WHAT DVD’S I CHOSE FOR MY ALOTTED SECRET SCREEN TIME”
“A PLAYDATE AT THE PARK”
“GAMES I PLAYED IN THE CAR”
“NEW HANNA ANDERSSON LEGGINGS AND PLAYDRESS”
“WOOLIES FROM NORWAY FOR CHRISTMAS”
Perhaps I am just cynical, and I certainly often feel that perhaps I was born in the wrong era. However, I think that this longing for real work, and a return to a life lived wholly, not in parts, is universal….especially to us homeschooling mamas. The problem that we face, as children of the 70’s and 80’s now raising children of our own, is that most of us were never taught to work in this way. In fact, our particular definitions of “work”, “education”, “pleasure vs. leisure” and “survival” are so far removed from how these concepts were defined in Laura Ingalls’ time that we don’t even know how to approach life in this way, especially with our children.
When I was growing up, my most important “work” was my “education”. I put these words in quotes because going to school was not “work” that lent itself towards survival and unity of the family and community…and “education” was about a mental and intellectual gathering of facts and skills, not the development of my whole being (body, mind and soul). I was rarely required to do physical or domestic work, as my time was mostly devoted to school and extra-curricular activities. Yes, sometimes I had to sweep a kitchen floor. I was in charge of my own laundry by the time I was 12. However, I had no picture of how an entire household was run and organized. My parents did this work all the while encouraging me “to focus on your education so you can be something more than a housewife or maid”. The daily mundane work required of a family home was considered to be the work of the grown-ups, and relegated to a part of the day allotted to “unfortunately necessary work”. It was seen as a side-effect to life, not life itself. Domestic and physical work was something we had to get through to get to the “real stuff” of life. We were raised to believe that the MORE we focused on our intellectual acuity or “education”, the less of this nasty daily mundane work we would have to worry about when we grew up. A sign of being totally successful was one where we could have others do this gritty day to day household stuff so we could focus on our careers and our passions.
Flash forward to when we all started getting married and having babies. We held our children in our arms, looked into their eyes, and decided that we didn’t want to send them off to school. We all chose something different, we knew (and we still know) that we wanted our children to have an experience of their own lives that is deeper, more home centered and less compartmentalized than what we experienced. Many of us brought our childhood fantasies of a Little House on the Prairie life to our young families. However, because of our lack of “training”, and our culturally skewed views on “work” and “education”, we find ourselves fatigued in our daily life and at constant odds between our ideals and our realities.
I make no pretense here. I do not want to put forward an image that I have it all figured out; and anyone who knows me in real life can attest to the fact that my house is often out of control and messy. I often allow the necessary tasks in front of me pile up while I spend precious hours on a blog or nose deep in a novel. However, through grappling with this subject, I have been able to redefine life and work in a functional way. My children work very hard compared to their contemporaries, and I recently calculated that they spend more literal hours a day engaged in domestic and physical work than in any other single activity.
On so many parenting and homeschooling sites, we see questions like “how do I GET my children to do chores”? Often there are many answers that involve the typical manipulations we perform with children, “getting” them to eat vegetables, clean their rooms and “share” their things. We have tried every chart and reward and punishment system. I have even seen parents make complete clowns of themselves creating elaborate “fun” stories and scenarios that make the chore or undesired request “enjoyable”. So many parents think that if a child expresses displeasure in a task that there is somehow something “wrong”. A child that refuses to work, share or eat vegetables is called “strong-willed”. A child that wilts with a broom in his hand makes us feel as though we have not properly filled him up with the right nourishing stories or foods. Before we try and manipulate our children’s behavior with the application of our own will…let us realize that children wilting at work is the sign of a WEAK will.
Children often do not know how to say “no” to themselves and their own whim of emotion (sound familiar?….I experience this myself faced with a laundry pile that is taller than my 6 year old). Sometimes washing dishes does not feel good, it is not fun. We know this as grown-ups, and perhaps our generation of homemakers feels this more than our forebears for whom work was an assumption of life. So we look in the eyes of little Johnny or Joan, wet with tears over an intense desire to not put the blocks back in the basket, and think “I need to figure out another WAY to GET them to WANT to do their chores”. Hence the cycle of manipulations and struggles and bad feelings and throwing up our hands and just doing it ourselves to get to the other side of chores to the important real stuff of grimm’s fairy tales, pentatonic flute lessons, beeswax modeling and circle songs.
We need to step back from our preconceived notions of work and priorities of family life, and instead of asking “how do I get them to do their chores”, we should ask “how can I re-center my priorities around daily work and elevate these tasks so that they become the most important cornerstone of all facets of our life”? That is what the first part of this essay has been about. Once we redefine, re-center and reevaluate our assumptions, we can get to the how-to. If we don’t first do the philosophical readjustments, anything we try or do will be another materialistic scaffold that will eventually make us feel imprisoned. I offer now a picture of what I have done in my own home that seems to be working, at least for now….not as a “method” but an example of one family’s WAY and CULTURE of home life. I also freely admit that this is a picture of us on our very BEST days…and that many days are nothing close to this ideal. You will certainly create your own ways and means through your own journey in redefining your relationship with work.
I no longer consider myself as completely responsible for the home and housework. I may be the shift manager, or lead homemaker, but all of us in the family are responsible for the running of the home. My daughter, now actively in that 9 year change, craves responsibility. She is responsible for breakfast, and makes toast, oatmeal or pancakes every morning without my supervision. I have even trained her to make coffee in the press and bring me a cup in bed. Yes, I am admitting this to you! (you might vacillate between horror and jealousy on this point) She is such an early riser, and quite frankly, I need an extra hour most mornings….so this works for us. We have a notebook where she writes a letter to me every night, talking about things she is thinking about, and asking about the next day. She leaves it next to the bathtub for me. When I am filling my nightly bath, I write back to her. I write to her loving thoughts, and also give her responsibilities for the next day that she needs to attend to. I give her ownership over that first hour of the morning, and often by the time I have risen for the day, she has already accomplished much household work. This simple early morning breakfast is not eaten until everyone is dressed and beds made. I am not afraid of them starving because they don’t want to make a bed. And they won’t die from eating cold oatmeal through tear stained eyes after finally relenting to making their bed.
After this first part of the morning, we head up to the barns to do the barn chores. Sometimes I send the kids up on their own to do them while I prepare for the homeschooling or other portion of the day. My husband and I have spent many hours teaching the children how to do these chores, by working alongside with them, then eventually giving them the GREAT PRIVILEGE of doing these tasks all by themselves. We often spend hours up in the barns. Besides the watering, feeding and mucking that needs to be done, we spend time hugging the goats. We pet the horses and take them on walks around the paddock and pastures. The kids will get lost in a puddle, using gravel and sand to build a tributary where they float a bark and leaf boat. We strike a balance between the necessary work and the freedom of experiencing our environment. I make sure that most of our commitments are home-based, not outside of the home, so that we don’t have to quickly push through our chores to get to our co-op, playdate or class. Chores and deep unstructured time in play become one in a way that is impossible in an overly structured and scheduled life. I remember in the Little House books, Laura and Mary would play alongside the work being done, seamlessly moving in and out…the work and the play were ONE. This is just “what we are doing”….not “something we have to do”.
If the barn chores take 30 minutes or 3 hours, we then move on to the “BIG BREAKFAST”. This is a hearty meal, and a grounding time before we move on to studies/homeschool. We all stand together in front of our icon corner (we are Russian Orthodox) and say our morning prayers. We sit on the living room floor, and the children color and draw, or do handwork as I read to them from the Prologue, the lives of the Saints, and stories about whatever feast day is upcoming on our religious calendar. I send Bella, our 9 year daughter, off to play with Meir (just turned 6) outside or elsewhere so I can have a solid 30-45 minutes to read Jude (7) his Grimm’s fairy tales and work on his main lesson book). At this point, Bella and Meir have had enough of each other, and I send the boys off to the pond to look for frogs, or to do some activity in another room. I set Bella up with what I need her reading that day, work on a celtic knot, have her retell me a story from the previous day, work on our times tables. She has become much more independent in the past year with her schoolwork….and I have let go some of my fantasies of my children being able to have a “waldorf classroom” experience here at home. She basically does everything herself, and my role is less of a teacher and more of a guide and mentor.
Meir helps me make lunch while the older two work on whatever they are working on. He loves to cook, and while we are doing that, we will often sing, tell stories, have a chat. When we are done eating, the children clean their spots. Meir wipes the table, Jude moves the chairs and sweeps under the table, Bella does the dishes. If the kitchen is still dirty from the morning, we wipe the counters and clean the floors. Nothing else happens until all of this is done.
The children go to a quiet time, everyone alone in their own space. We are not allowed to interrupt each other, and if they come down to ask “when is it over” or because they can’t wait to talk to me about something, I send them back and add on another 5 minutes to the quiet time, no exceptions. It is rarely perfect, but after years of doing it this way, they can all reasonably be alone without need of outside stimulation…and I get a good hour of decompression.
As soon as quiet time is over, they have to “clean up their quiets”…..so if they took out toys, cut up paper, made a mess of any kind, they can’t come out of quiet until their space is clean and set back to “zero”. At this point, I usually ask them to do some housework, depending on the day and need. If there is a snack, there will be NO SNACK until this work is done. Sometimes we are taking clothing off a line, putting clothes away, weeding in the garden, reorganizing the book or school shelves, or perhaps finally putting away all the random stuff on the “messy counter”. Snack is served, and the afternoon is then spent in freedom. I usually have something that I am working on, depending on the season and need. I could be working on dinner, sewing, canning food, working in the garden, reading a book, sitting and being lazy, etc….and they will come in and out of my world and theirs.
Before dinner, everyone is required to go to “their rooms” and make sure everything is as it should be. Every child has two rooms of the house (not their bedrooms) that they are completely responsible for. I have taken the time to show them where everything goes, how to clean it top to bottom, and what it should look like when everything is in order. Some days all their room needs is a quick straighten. Other days it requires dusting, sweeping, mopping and even washing the woodwork. Many times one of the children will come out of their appointed room crying, “but I didn’t make that mess in there!!!”. It doesn’t matter. They are responsible for that room, and part of that responsibility is going to be cleaning up messes they didn’t make. We are a family, and we take care of and serve each other. We are not just a bunch of individuals thrown together by genetics and a shared last name……only responsible for our own singular welfare.
There have been times when a child has sat sulking in their room refusing to clean up someone else’s mess, but the next thing (dinner in most cases) will NOT happen until this is done. I assure you no one has starved in my home, and after doing it this way for long enough, I rarely if ever meet resistance. On the contrary, my children meet most work with joy and gladness. Bella sings constantly while working, and the boys often create imaginary scenes for themselves that incorporate their tasks. I didn’t accomplish this by convincing them, manipulating them, bribing them, punishing them, or trying to make “everything fun” for them. I just made it a reality. Work is a reality that moves our day from one thing to the next, and the day doesn’t move unless it is done.
On top of this “reality”, I have also given my children the responsibility and privilege of being able to take full ownership over their appointed rooms. They are allowed to decorate it, and request moving furniture arrangements if possible and reasonable. I will often find an arrangement of pebbles, feathers and silks on a windowsill, or a mason jar filled with flowering weeds on a shelf. The children take pride in their spaces. It is not just their “chore” that they have to “do”. They are integral and important homemakers. I need them, and what they do is necessary to the unity and survival of our family. Not only do they help clean, they help create the environment and beautify our home.
Another question that is often asked on parenting groups is “what chores are appropriate for my – year old?” We will see a suggestion of a good list: “my two year old can put silverware away, help make their bed, put their clothes on a hook, etc…” “my 10 year old can do his laundry, clean the bathroom, and clean his room.” These suggestions are good, but I think that we often greatly underestimate what our children are capable of. Would you be shocked to know that I taught my daughter to make coffee at age three and also let her use a sharp knife? Now at 9, she drives a small tractor to mow the lawn, and can cook an entire elaborate meal. My 7 year old can lead a horse to pasture and wrangle a sheep. Both of the boys have been splitting firewood with real hatchets for two years. They are able to do these things because they are always beside my husband and I as we work. Since work is not relegated to the least important part of the day, their experience of these tasks become the most important part of each day. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo rose in pride when he was given two small calves and yoke for his birthday. When work is elevated to such a central part of life, children crave it as most other children crave the latest toy or video game. When my husband bought my five year old his first hatchet, he was overjoyed….not because it was “fun” but because now he could “help chop firewood”. He knows himself to be important to the functioning of our home.
We need to be careful of chore LISTS, as if we can just check things off and know that we are done. The list creates a “work as separate” attitude as opposed to just being part of our existence. I do not need a list “breathe, drink water, eat” to check off every day. My body tells me I need these things, and I respond accordingly. When we redefine work in this new (yet old) way, it becomes as necessary and natural as these other bodily functions, yet it touches more than our bodies. It strengthens our wills, elevates our souls and refreshes our spirits. It is in this creation of a culture of work that we find our Way. Once we have done this, we no longer need to ask “how do I get my kids to do their chores” or “what chores should I expect of my children”. And you know what? Your house might actually be a little cleaner and more organized too, leaving you with more room to finally take that pottery class, or have your mom’s night out. And your children will be well-equipped to deeply apply themselves to whatever comes their way in life, no matter how difficult or “unpleasant” it may feel. Let’s not let our fixation on natural toys, main lesson books, and particular pedagogies get in the way of this most simple and nourishing of all aspects of life. You don’t need to order it from Germany, it doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars, and it can be done right now…..not after you have mastered anthroposophical child development theory or the telling of a story without actually reading it from a book. I dare even suggest that if you get this part of life in order, there will be much more room for these wonderful Waldorf “things” and activities. Blessings on your homemaking!!
PS: Please remind me of all of this when you hear me complain about housework and overwhelm!!