Caring for our homes with our children – a chore or a gift of presence?
by Marion Badenoch Rose, PhD
Rachel and her two-year-old daughter Ella started their day together. Ella brought place mats, napkins and bowls to the table, Rachel carried the cereal, milk, and spoons. Once Ella had laid the table, Rachel poured milk into a jug, from which they both poured it onto their cereal. A calm concentration rested between them, as they ate their breakfast together.
From birth onwards, babies learn by watching the household activities of their parents. We can help them discover their world by carrying them on our bodies in a baby carrier as we tidy, sweep, wash up and prepare food. (I don’t recommend vacuuming or mowing the lawn though, as babies are sensitive to noise and easily overwhelmed.)
As they learn to crawl, we can include children in our home caring activities by giving them similar things to play with, for example, when we are washing up they can play with a bowl of water, a cup, and a cloth; when we are hanging out washing they can play with the clothes and the pegs.
As they become toddlers, why not invest in a set of their own small tools including a small broom, dustpan and brush, and a mop? How about their own washing up bowl, apron and washing up brush, and a watering can, gardening gloves, and a small trowel? Maria Montessori, a pioneer Italian educator, spoke of the vital importance for a young child to be included in the real tasks of caring for the home. In the Montessori system, the areas of practical life help give a child self-respect, confidence and autonomy. Children’s needs for inclusion and contribution are fulfilled when given the environment in which to participate. (Standing, 1984.) Dr. Silvana Montanaro, a Montessori teacher trainer, once said, “All the activities connected with looking after yourself and your surroundings, such as getting dressed, preparing food, laying the table, wiping the floor, clearing dishes, doing the dusting, …. are precisely the tasks that adults like least. But between the ages of one and four years, children love these jobs and are delighted to be called on to participate in them.” (Montanaro, 2006) Whenever safety permits, children are given beautiful and breakable materials to use, such as glass and pottery for eating and drinking, rather than plastic. The child thus learns respect for these things, and senses the trust in him to use them. Children of this age love order, and so their tools can be kept in special “homes” at the child’s height, where he can get them himself. Likewise, the plates and cups can also be kept where the child can reach them.
This may involve changing your usual ways of doing things. For example, I found that rather than using the washing line, hanging out washing on a low portable drying rack meant my daughter could join in at a young age. At four years old, she still enjoys putting the washing in the machine, turning the dials, taking her things out, hanging them on the line, and putting them away in her own section of the cupboard. Hanging out washing has become altogether enjoyable for me in this way. I find that when we do things like this together, she slows me down and keeps me in the present moment. No longer do I rush to get all the clothes hung out as quickly as possible, all the while thinking of the next thing I was going to do. Instead we slowly put the things out, choosing where each thing goes. She feels satisfied knowing she can do it herself. We find connection together in the here and now.
“Soon we will begin to learn from the child how to bring our whole selves, mental, physical, and spiritual, to the task of the moment, to focus on each thing we do, and to enjoy each moment of life. Thus the child becomes the teacher of the adult. The needs of the adult are met at the same time as the needs of the child.” (The Joyful Child, 2006)
There are other home caring activities that I didn’t persevere doing together. Washing up, for example. After a few joint efforts, I just started doing it myself, wanting ease and speed. Just recently I have regretted doing that and this morning suggested to my daughter we wash up together. So out came her apron and her duck washing up brush. She used one sink and I used the other. And sure enough, I enjoyed it much more, and was much more thorough. Then we moved to polishing – one of her favourite activities. We sat down and polished our little wooden Balinese statues and then all the stainless steel kitchen appliances. As our morning finished, we had a kitchen that was beautiful and ordered, and we had had fun and connection. Lana was delighted to tell daddy what she had done when he returned home.
A few other suggestions – I avoid using the term “work” at all – once a child learns that work is dull and play is fun, all the joy goes out of the things called “work”. It also helps us adults remember that when we are truly present and connected when we do something, just about anything can be enjoyable. Also, I recommend never using coercion – “should”, “ought to”, “must”, or “have to”, and certainly no punishments or rewards. By all means encourage and suggest, “Let’s go and do the washing up together,” but make sure it is a free choice for the child. Otherwise, they will lose the intrinsic motivation, the doing it for fun, connection, contribution and autonomy. You can be sure that once they are doing it without free choice, they won’t do it for long, and probably won’t want to do it again.
Children move through different learning phases, so aim to accept that whilst they might happily lay the table every day for a month, they might also not want to do that for a length of time too. Remember too that children with a backlog of unexpressed feelings are unlikely to want to cooperate, since emotional release and being heard is their main priority. At these times, having some quiet time together, giving them the opportunity to let their feelings out, will lead to connection and cooperation between you. Make sure that the cleaning products you use are free of harmful chemicals. And finally, aim for self-acceptance for those times that you just want to do something yourself, your own way, or for when you feel frustrated or tired would really like some cooperation that they are not wanting to give at that moment.
Children included in this way from an early age are much more likely to continue helping care for the home once they become older children and adolescents. They know that what they do is valued, and doing it from a free choice means they can meet their needs for cooperation, contribution, and self-appreciation.
A sense of peace and connection enters our home when it becomes a place where presence and connection happens daily.
For of our time we lose so large a part
In serious trifles, and so oft let slip
The wine of every moment, at the lip
Its moment, and the moment of the heart.
Montanaro, S. (2006) Family Life, In The Joyful Child, Birth to three. Michael Olaf, Ca. P.24. Also available at www.michaelolaf.net
Standing, E.M. (1984) Maria Montessori. Her life and work. Plume, New York.
Symons, A. Credo, in Humphreys, C. (1984) Zen Buddhism. Mandala Books, London, P.129