Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Works?

I'll be going on retreat for few days, so I thought I'd rerun some posts. Here's one that goes well with today's post over at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum.

A post about work? Are you serious? I don't work anymore.

Well, my work is now no longer about 30 kids, or 20 or even 90, depending on the grade. It's about 4. As cliche as it is, I'm working harder than I ever have even if most people's eyes glaze over if I broach the subject.

Aside: You know, that blank, when-is-she-going-to-stop-talking-to-me stare I get at parties nowadays never used to happen when I discussed the very same techniques and interventions in my schoolteacher days. Either I was less dull a few short years ago or merely less observant. I'm thinking teacher talk only gets trite when the paycheck is in the form of dandelions and hugs, but I could be wrong: my brother swears I was always a little boring.

Dear me, are you yawning already? Buck up! Let's get to work.

What is work? It is what we do. It is what we are. It defines us. When asked, "What do you do?" We say, "I am a..." more than, "I do..."


  • I am a wife, a mother, and a homeschooler.
  • I used to be a schoolteacher.
  • I'm still a writer--I really used to get paid for this in bits and pieces.

See? Fill in your own blanks. Work makes us. "Work is a necessity for man. Man invented the alarm clock." That was Pablo Picasso, by the way, just in case you never heard that gem before.

My job is still the same: I help make people into people. The only difference now is the hours. Oh yes, and the fact that I'm related to these people. Unlike most of America, I'm not raising children: I'm raising adults. A fully functioning adult is my goal, not just making it through the next few years until they quit bugging me so much. I like to keep that in mind. When I'm doing my work well, I look at a lot of my day by day decisions in that light. I think, "What does this little semi-socialized irrational creature need to know to join the humane race?"

One of the things all young ones need is work. They, too, languish without purpose. Schoolwork is one form of it, but even before the age of preschool, children are begging to serve the family in some way. They want to be a part of the action. Even the most hormonal teenager will benefit from that sense of satisfaction and self-esteem* that comes from a job well done (or even merely done).

A reasonably functioning adult can run his or her own home, down to the folding of his or her socks and balancing a checkbook as well as stick with a necessary but distasteful task until its completion. So, how will I grow these skills in my young ones? Practice...As my children are a part of the family, they are a part of the running of the family, too.

If time is money, I put my money where my mouth is. I am a firm believer that work is necessary for self-esteem and purpose, so I invest in it. Housework takes me about four times as long as it should because I have 5, 3, 3, and 1 year old helpers. Here's an example of how an overwhelming task (laundry) has been broken into age appropriate tasks:

My oldest son (5) folds his own laundry and puts it away. While I'm folding a pile of laundry, I toss any of his clothes into a separate basket as I come across them. Usually we are side by side, chatting away as this occurs and he is taking his clothes out and folding them faster than I put them in. When I see he is struggling with a particular item of clothing I will dig out something of his dad's and demonstrate. He loves it! I try to never use one of my T-shirts or pair of socks because this gives him an opportunity for a little male bonding even in abstentia!

My 3 year old girl can put away all the "tippy-top drawer" clothes with a bit of supervision (socks, panties). Her dexterity isn't up to independently folding awkwardly shaped items, but small rectangles are a breeze! She folds the washcloths and puts them away herself. I toss those into "her" basket as I'm folding along. Because her attention span is so short I usually ask her to put one item away at a time as I come across it during my folding. That way she can do a few washcloths, take a break by putting away some socks, then come back for more chatting and folding, take another break, etc. She gets a chance to admire those prized and hard earned underpants, too, more proof of her big girl status as one of the elite: the potty trained!

My other 3 year old is autistic and has trouble with the finer tuned tasks, so he loads presorted laundry into the washer. I put the soap in and start the machine when he comes to get me. He also takes the clothes out and either loads the dryer on a rainy day or a basket on a sunny day (for hanging on the line). One of his favorite things to do is watch things spin, so his breaks take the form of watching the front loader work for a bit. He comes in when he's had enough and "helps sort" hangars. His sorting generally means they end up a snarled mess, so I leave most empty hangars in the closet of origin until I need a pile of them. His other job is to interact with the baby and help her with her job.

Yes, I said that. The 1 year old baby has a job, too. As I come across an unmatched sock, I toss it to her. She puts the sock into the basket of unmatched socks. Eventually. She also takes them back out or dumps the whole basket out a few times, but eventually everything winds up where it is supposed to be by the end of the folding session, especially with my 3 year old son there to insist and model the "Pu-aa-way!" (His way of saying, "Put that away.") His language skills are right on her level, so they understand each other very well.

All of this sounds great, and it didn't happen overnight. It took a bit of time and observation. There was one on one instruction and some false starts, but I tried to tailor the task to the child instead of the other way around. There are no rewards other than a "good job!" or "atta-girl!", and there are no serious long-term consequences for a job undone (the no computer for a month kind of thing). The world simply comes to a standstill for the child who refuses to participate. Any requests or needs are met with, "Not until you take care of..."

And I mean it, too.
And they know it.
They've tried me.

Resistance is futile!

The process also includes the goal of gradually making the job look more and more like the adult version. I introduce a new item for my girl to put away. We work on opposites and how the words "bottom" and "top" mean different things and in the case of her dresser, different drawers. For my younger son I've been putting the pile of laundry to load in the washer farther from the front of the washer. Eventually he will take it straight from the bin. My oldest son will eventually be washing his own clothes. Teaching and learning, even about laundry, is never static!

Since my ultimate goal is for each child to handle his/her own life, the fact that I could do it better and faster and so much easier by myself doesn't tempt me (much). A lot of our family jobs are broken down into kid sized chunks. What it all means is that my house is not ever perfect and most jobs take forever, and sometimes, when company comes, it looks like kids dusted that table or put those books away.

Because they did.

*Contrary to pop-psych and the mistakes of the 90s, self-esteem does not come from praise or gloopy rules like, "Everybody wins!" It comes from doing esteemable acts. It's a feeling akin to, "Wow, I'm glad I stuck with that. That did some real good in the world."

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