You have to pick your battles. My kids chose all of them.
Chores. There's no more dreaded word in the English language, except maybe "diet," and its close relative, "exercise." Excuse me while I sit still on the couch and eat my bodyweight in cheese like God intended. My wife Lola and I have long made our kids help around the house, not because we're good parents, but because we're lazy. Of course we're going to use the free labor force we mutually created, especially since it insists on whining about everything. Complaining that you don't have any clean socks is a good way to get stuck on laundry duty until you graduate high school. In the past, we assigned household tasks based on age and capability. That's what we said, anyway. The real criteria was if it was more work to micromanage the kids while they did something or to just do it ourselves. Our eight and seven-year-olds, Lucy and Waffle, long benefited from this system. Their feigned incompetence and squirrely demeanor meant it was almost always easier to send them into the other room to watch YouTube while Lola and I did whatever important task actually needed to be done. But last week, the tides turned. Lucy and Waffle are suddenly contributing to the household, and they couldn't possibly be more unhappy about it. Here's how I ruined their lives to slightly improve mine.
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In the workforce, assigning more employees to a single task almost always improves efficiency. More hands means more work gets done. The obvious exception is road work, where adding more laborers just leads to one person actually fixing the interstate and an infinitely increasing number of people supervising. I'm convinced the stretch near my house will never have all of its lanes open again. It's a protected orange barrel habitat. Kids operate differently than most of the rest of the market. Putting more than one of them on a task never leads to more work getting done. In fact, it's the opposite. Each additional child leads to measurable negative progress. Yet my wife and I insist on assigning more children anyway. Are we crazy? Obviously, but only because we had four children in the first place. Our chore assignments are driven by nothing but cold, hard logic, which makes our kids hate them all the more.
The only thing more distracting than a kid "helping" is a kid not doing anything. If one child is doing a chore and another one is not, 100 percent of chore kid’s time and energy will be dedicated to yelling at non-chore kid. Picking up the toys in your room might only take five minutes of focused effort, but it’s a solid hour when you factor in the fifty-five minutes of fighting over who’s not pulling their weight. My daughters’ primary concern is with fairness in an inherently unfair world, but only when it comes to themselves. They’re not trying to strike a blow for justice on behalf of all child-kind. If one kid was absolved of menial tasks while the other three did all the work, the spared child would never say a word. The children doing chores would make up for it, though, with novels worth of whining. If I ask a kid to do anything, the first words out of their mouth will be, “But [insert the name of any other sister here]...” The cornerstone of sisterhood is making sure your siblings are exactly as miserable as you.
The problem with distributing the chores equally is the kids don’t have equal capabilities. “From each according to their ability and to each according to their need” sounds good in theory but causes nothing but strife in practice. Karl Marx must have been a terrible father. Fun fact: Marx had seven kids. He wrote The Communist Manifesto solely so he could go on a book tour and get away from them. I give Betsy, twelve, and Mae, ten, more chores because they’re able to do more in a capacity that’s actually helpful. They can wash dishes reasonably well. Granted, they’re just rinsing them off and sticking them in the dishwasher. The machine is actually doing most of the work. It’s kind of like how I pretend I’ve accomplished something when I wash three loads of laundry. In reality, I spent less than five minutes total putting clothes in various machines. It’s not like I was beating them on a rock in a river. All I have to do is push a button, and sometimes, I forget to do that. There’s nothing better than opening the washer to find perfectly dry laundry an hour later. Then I have to ask myself if I really skipped a key step of the process or if evaporation was just really aggressive that day.
Betsy and Mae sometimes have the same lapse with turning on the dishwasher. That’s how we run out of forks and spoons despite having forty of each. This weekend, I had a chance to see life at a more reasonable scale. I hung out with a lifelong bachelor with no kids. There were five of us. He waited until one of us left to tell us that he had chili in a crockpot. It turned out he only had four spoons. I aspire to that level of minimalism in my life. Betsy and Mae remember to turn on the dishwasher enough of the time to make it worthwhile for me to assign them that chore, even if it means I’ll have to deal with a wave of complaints about who else hasn’t been doing what. Their gripes are especially focused on Lucy and Waffle, since they don’t get as many chores. They’re not capable of doing as much, or, more likely, are just better at feigning incompetence. This makes Betsy and Mae angry to no end. They forget that they were similarly useless in their younger years, just like me.
I spent a very large portion of my life in that stage. (If you ask Lola, I never grew out of it.) I made it through my entire childhood without ever helping out in a meaningful way. I didn’t cook, wash dishes, or do laundry. My mom understands why some animals eat their young. My one chore was vacuuming my room, which I would get around to roughly twice a year. I wouldn’t want dust bunnies to become an endangered species. In my defense, I offset my many, many deficiencies by being a somewhat clean child by default. My room was never a disaster. I tended to put things away, or simply to not get them out in the first place. It’s easy not to make a mess when everything that brings you joy is in a save file on an N64. Most importantly, I always put my laundry away. Yes, my mom did 99 percent of the work by washing and folding it, but I took it the final one percent of the way to cross the finish line. That’s harder than it sounds. Mae leaves her entire stack of laundry in front of her dresser, where she presumably collapses from overexertion. The pile then sits there until it’s kicked apart or just generally succumbs to entropy, devolving into the wrinkled mass of shirts and leggings it was meant to be. Chaos always wins. That’s the first rule of parenting.
For years, I didn’t know why we even bothered folding Mae’s clothes. Then one day I had an epiphany and stopped. I made Betsy and Mae fold the laundry. Yes, they take four times longer than I would, and three-quarters of that time is bickering. But as long as I close the bedroom door, it’s not my problem. Eventually, the laundry is gone. Note that I didn’t say “folded.” In theory, my kids should have completed the intricate process of garment origami, but in reality, I’d rather just not know. Their laundry makes it from the basket to… somewhere. Maybe that’s inside a dresser. Maybe that’s a hole in the backyard. As long as they have something to wear, it’s not my problem. If it’s covered in wrinkles because they balled it up and shoved it down a vent, I’ll never know. Kids cause much less stress if you just don’t look at them.
Predictably, this process upsets Betsy and Mae because Lucy and Waffle don’t have to do it. Lola attempted to balance the scales with a make-work assignment. She now has Lucy and Waffle sort the laundry into lights and darks. This might be the most controversial thing I’ve ever said, but laundry doesn’t need to be sorted. Lola only opens about a third of my newsletters, so I’m going to have to hope she stopped reading by this point or my next email will be about my divorce. I worked from home for a few years during the pandemic, and during that time I took over washing the laundry. I never sorted it. I washed it all on the same settings. The internet seems sharply divided on the topic—it might be the only split more heated than the two sides in the blue-versus-white dress color war— but as far as I can tell, the non-sorters are right. I went with the lazier option for YEARS and Lola, a die-hard sorter, never noticed the difference. If she reads this paragraph, she’ll retroactively blame me for a drop in the condition of all of her clothes and I will literally never hear the end of it. But if she doesn’t make it this far, she’ll go the rest of her life without it bothering her one bit. Now, Lola has Lucy and Waffle sorting laundry. They do a terrible job, but it doesn’t matter because their task is pointless. I simply take the “sorted” laundry, which is every bit as randomly compiled as the unsorted laundry I washed for years, and toss it in the washing machine. They wasted half a day doing ten minutes worth of work that was completely unnecessary, and Betsy and Mae get to feel like they’re not the only ones doing chores. The system works.
Recently, though, we transitioned to having Lucy and Waffle do real chores, and that’s how I ruined Waffle’s life. Lately, Betsy has been cooking more. This is partially because she enjoys it and partially because she’s tired of what I make. You can only have taco bowls so many Tuesdays in a row before you either have a mental breakdown or take over as head chef. Friday, Betsy made spaghetti and garlic bread for the whole family. She was part of every aspect of the meal, from the grocery store down to the plating. Granted, in our house “plating” just means “dumping a glob of pasta on your plate,” but that has an elegance of its own in a modern art sort of way. After Betsy went through all that effort, it hardly seemed fair to also stick her with doing the dishes. The next in line for the duty would have been Mae, but this was too much, even for her. Betsy somehow managed to use approximately every pot and pan we own. It’s possible she didn’t entirely understand the spaghetti making process. Perhaps giving her zero instructions wasn’t the way to go. This extra large problem required an extra large dose of child labor. For the first time ever, we set three children on the task. Lucy and Waffle were called up to the big leagues. It was an important lesson that in life, promotions often mean no extra money and much more work. Lucy and Waffle protested, of course. Lucy said she didn’t know how. I said Mae could show her. Waffle said she was too young. I countered that evil is timeless. There was no way out of this one. The only escape from dishes is paper plates.
The three spent most of their chore time negotiating who would do which part of the dishwashing process. All they had to do was rinse the stuff and stick it in the dishwasher, so there wasn’t much to barter over. The Continental Congress spent less time haggling over the Constitution. Eventually, the kids came to an agreement over who would run a small amount of water over what, and they got to work. Did they load the dishwasher efficiently? No. Imagine you have the perfect long, skinny piece dropping from above in Tetris, but instead of putting it in the slot where it would fit straight up and down, you turn it horizontally and then try to pound it in with a hammer. That was their basic organizational technique, but somehow, the door still closed. I hit the button and prayed to the god of dishwashers. His name is Ralph, and his disciples are the millennials on the internet who joke about eating Tide Pods. Two and a half hours later, I checked the dishes. Miraculously, they came out clean. This probably had less to do with how well the kids rinsed and loaded anything and more to do with the fact that I upgraded to a better detergent. If it can’t strip the paint off a car, I want nothing to do with it.
Thanks to that slight assist from dangerous industrial chemistry, all the kids are now able to wash the dishes. Lucy and Waffle failed to fail and are now a permanent part of the dishwashing rotation. They share a slot, though, since the two of them together roughly equal the washing capacity of one larger child. Maybe it will teach them responsibility and help them develop into effective adults, or perhaps it will just keep them occupied for an hour so they can’t distract their older sisters from other chores. Either way, everyone in the family is now a contributing member of this household, at least on paper—or maybe just on your screen because, seriously, who prints anything these days?
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.