We always felt we were giving our kids plenty of “power”—the kind of power that comes from taking responsibility for your actions.
That, we thought, was real power. Spoiling kids only makes them dependent and power-less. Everybody knows that. Don't they?
Recently, we agreed to baby-sit a friend's daughter, the dearest little 11-year-old girl in the world. The first day with us, Hurricane Hannah returned from a swim at the neighborhood pool, dropping wet towels and gear all the way into the bathroom, where she stepped out of her suit on the bathroom floor and, once clothed, continued on into the TV room.
I was flabbergasted. I am not a neat freak by any means, but this was quite a display.
“Young lady,” I demanded. “What's with the laundry all over the place?”
Hannah got up, sighed loudly, picked up her shoes and headed for the bedroom, leaving the laundry trail right where she'd ditched it.
As she passed, she informed me: “I'm high-maintenance.”
I ran to block her path to the stairs. “That's interesting,” I said, perhaps a little rabidly. “Do you know anybody who does maintenance?”
“Well,” she answered, wide-eyed. “You're supposed to take care of me.” She was absolutely serious; she looked genuinely hurt.
I put an arm around her and walked her back to her mess. “You see,” I whispered, “I'm very good at taking care of people. And I believe that, to really take care of people, you have to empower them to take care of themselves. That means you pick up your own stuff. That way, your stuff will be in order and our house will stay nice.”
Hannah grudgingly picked up each piece, then told my son, on the sly, that if I wanted my house to stay nice, I should pick up the laundry myself.
“But I told her what you're like, mom,” my son said gravely.
“What I'm like?”
“That you'd pick up her stuff all right, but she would-n't like what you did with it next.”
After Hannah's departure, our family sat down and had a good chat about the difference between needs and wants. My boy wanted to know if he ever was as helpless as Hannah. My teen-ager was quick to reply.
“You could try it,” she said. “But you'd get fined.”
We laughed. Our fee-for-service discipline system was once notorious as the cruelest, if most effective, parenting program on the block. It grew out of our children's constant pricing of their own efforts. Every Saturday, after their chores were done and they received their meager allowance, they'd start. “How much will you give me if I wash the car? How much to weed your garden? How much if I scrub the kitchen floor?” It was then we realized, heck, if their time was that valuable, so was ours.
God first calls his children to make each other peaceful and happy in a chaotic world.
I'd had enough of nagging them over kid-type messes, and enough of begging God to offer me a solution. I posted a rate sheet on the refrigerator titled “Mom's Maintenance Fees.” A towel on the floor cost them 25 cents—my pay for picking it up. Gathering their laundry and bringing it to the washroom was 50 cents, the same price as putting it away for them. Big-ticket items were those offenses which cost the household extra money: leaving water running, lights and heat on and so on. Those cost a buck for each incident. And children's library fines would be paid by the children.
It worked. “Please, please, please clean up your room” became “Holy smokes—I'm going to make a lot of money in here!” The former would have caused whining; the latter brought the frantic bumping and thumping of running feet and busy hands.
But fining our children came to an end. On Epiphany of last year, I presented them with a coupon book, with coupons good the whole year ‘round. They were only allowed to use three each month. Some were for ice-cream cones, some for little prizes, treats and videos. But others were for “one free laundry pick-up,” or “one total room clean.”
From this, a new family dynamic blossomed. As the children came to see chores as acts of love, they also came to understand that, to live in a community, everyone has responsibilities. Those responsibilities make one needed and whole and, when they are ignored, there are consequences for everybody. God first calls not with the dramatic mission to save the world. He first calls his children, when they are still children, to the simple things we do that make each other comfortable, peaceful and happy in a chaotic world.
A few weeks after Hurricane Hannah's parents returned from their trip, I got a phone call. “Hannah said you made her do chores,” her mother said. There was an awkward pause, then she added, “How on earth did you accomplish that?” She howled with laughter as I explained.
The next time we saw Hannah, it was at their house. She was thumping through the living room, sullen, toting an armful of dirty laundry toward the wash room.
Her mother beamed at me. “Darn,” she said. “I could have used the extra cash.”
Susan Baxter writes from