Tuesday, June 29, 2010

willing participation

A few days ago, at a mothers only potluck, a woman told a story of her sons' resistance to "obeying" her when she told them to mow the law. Every Saturday there was battle of wills, punishments threatened, and resentful youth coerced into doing the task. This cycle repeated itself week after week. One inspired Saturday morning, she got up and after her normal routine, casually said, "If you need me I'll be out mowing the lawn." Before she was even half done with the job, both boys had joined her and taken over - without any requests, threats, coercion, or resentment. They've done it every Saturday since, without being reminded.

It got me thinking about chores, or tasks as I now prefer to call them. (Chores has a negative connotation to it.)

About a year ago, for a few weeks, my (then) three year old refused to brush her teeth. Enter nightly power struggle. And of course we were right to try to force her to brush her teeth, right? Good oral hygiene is essential. After a while though, it was not just exhausting, but, honestly, traumatizing. How could we expect our three year old to learn that her body is hers and hers alone, that noone else has the right to touch her without her permission, how can we expect to instill in her the confidence to say "no" to someone threatening, when we, her parents, responsible for protecting her, weren't even respecting her cries of no. So we stopped. For three days we said nothing to her about brushing her teeth. We said, "oh! Look Honey," to eachother, "it's time to brush our teeth," and my husband and I would head for our toothbrushes, then go lay down on the bed with the nightly stack of books. On the fourth day, she joined us, and with a few exceptions, has every night since.

When I was a kid, my brothers and cousins and I often referred to the adults in our lives as 'dults. As in "The 'dults want to us to pick up the garbage the dog tore up in the yard." In general those 'dults asked a lot of dumb questions and gave a lot of dumb orders.

We didn't know the word dolt back then, but now I can tell you the definition of 'dolt' is almost synonymous with how we felt about those 'dults at those times. Our responses usually went something like, "if the garbage bothers you, you pick it up. It doesn't bother me, so why should I do it? If you don't want to pick it up, then don't let it bother you so much." In typical fashion, arguments would ensue, usually ending in some sort of compromise that didn't leave anyone involved feeling satisfied. On the 'dult's part there was frustration, exhaustion, and those feelings and fears of inadequacy that every parent whose child "won't listen or do as she's told" feels; and there was frustration and strong underlying resentment on our part. Did they think we were their slaves? Why should we do the dirty work they weren't willing to do?

Now I realize how much more was going on in subtle and subconscious ways.

I chuckled when I heard the lawn mowing story, because so many times I've been through the same act with my children and children I've cared for. If I command they do it, they might. If I start doing it and ask them to join me they're more likely to. If I do it, willingly and joyfully, because I want it done, because I will feel better when it is, and my children witness this, then they will not only join when requested, but will often just jump in, or ask me if they can or if I'd like them to. Sometimes all it takes is saying, "hey, let's do [insert task] together. I'll start." They don't feel as though they are my little servants, as though I am a tyrant dictating they do the undesirable work so that I will not have to suffer the drudgery of it. They don't feel like I'm valuing my own preferences and desires over theirs, and trying to force them to accommodate me. I might have to willingly, joyfully do it myself multiple times before they jump in, but generally, they will. I try to remember to be willing and cheerful about the tasks that are generally seen as "mine" too, as my attitude directly teaches them how they should approach "their" tasks. If I can't be willing and cheerful about it, and it's not a matter of extreme importance (life, death, or a dirty diaper), than I do something else until I can again appreciate that task. Most of the time, I don't see much point in grumbling about things that "have to" be done, like changing dirty diapers. Diaper time is belly button raspberries and toe tickling time.

Not that any of that is always easy, but here's the part that most parents I know have the hardest time acclimating to; in order for this to work, there cannot be any rewards or punishments involved. You must sincerely be willing to complete the task on your own if they don't jump in. You could extend the courtesy of asking if they'd like to help this time (every time), but prepared to graciously accept their no, and trust that your child is an inherently social being, with an inherent desire to be accepted and valued, that they will grow to do what is expected of them and to follow the examples set for them.

As is often the case, the younger your child is when you adopt this approach, the easier it will be. You must give your child ample opportunity to be social, to participate in accepted, valued activities that encourage development, even when it's not convenient, not the task you wanted them to do or they are not yet able to do it to the same extent you are. For example, if your two year old wants to help do dishes, let him. Get him a stool or chair, set him up at the sink, and let him wash all the cups and plates and spoons - or as many as he wants to. When he's ready to wander off to play, leaving some dishes undone, let him. Now that he knows he's welcome, he'll be back. You might have to rewash a few, it might take longer, but it probably hasn't shortened your life expectancy any, and really, what were you going to do with those few minutes that was more important than nurturing your child's sense of social and self value? If your four year old is hungry, let her make herself a peanut butter sandwich. She's not likely to stab her eye out with butter knife, but if you just can't stomach the idea of letting her have one, let her use a spoon. If she asks for help, give it to her, no strings or criticism attached. If your six year old wants to help weed, and accidentally pulls up an iris, thinking it's just weird, fat grass, bite your tongue unless you can gently, encouragingly show them the difference, without being upset at them for the mistake. It is essential that you do not hover while they do these tasks, as it would likely give them the impression that you do not believe them capable of these things. Do something else, nearby, keeping busy and watching only peripherally.

If your children are older, it may take longer for them to start willingly participating, unasked. Any change in lifestyle or discipline is going to require an adjustment period, (sometimes much longer than we'd like), dedication, and a belief that you are doing something beneficial for yourself, your children, and society in general. Children are often resistant to change. They may test you in unexpected ways. They may simply refuse your invitations to join in tasks for a long time, or they may ask "you're not going to make me do it?" They may ask, "what do I get if I help you." My response would be, "I can't make you do anything. It's your choice," then whistle my way through the task at hand; or for requests for rewards, a smile and "I'll take care of it," should suffice. I don't know about you, but my head is always full of ideas and thoughts that could use more sorting, and what better than some repetitive, mundane, but useful, task to give me time to meditate on them?

I suggest that you evaluate your own reactions to events, and attitude toward tasks. See if you can identify any of the same behaviors and attitudes that are frustrating you in your children. Ask why you resent or dislike the task at hand, why you are reluctant to do it. Could it be that you were never given the chance to do it just because you wanted to? That you were never given the opportunity to grow up in an environment of obvious unconditional love and acceptance, whether or not you did your chores. That you feel like these are things you have to do, rather than things you choose to do? Could it be that it was taught to you, probably unintentionally, that these are tasks that 'normal,' socially accepted people grumble about and try to avoid, pawn off on others, or do only because there is no way around it? Do you complain about your job or about all the work you do around the house, or about how hard it is to do anything with your crew of wild children, your uncooperative rebels? Do you then expect them to do differently, to go "work" (school, tasks, etc) willingly, without complaint, and to be anything other than the whiney, wild, uncooperative rebels you've labeled them?

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