March 15, 2010


By now it's not news to anyone who knows us that the Chamaco occasionally has moments of startling maturity. The one that stands out most clearly in my mind happened when he was 4. We were in the car (as we usually are when these moments occur) and he was weighing out loud the pros and cons of living at my house versus living at his dad's house. His closing statement to his own argument was this: "I think I like living at your house better, because you have rules. Daddy doesn't have any rules, really, and that just doesn't seem safe to me."

It helps that he's the sort of kid you can talk to with explanations like, "When I make rules, I'm not just trying to spoil your fun. I make rules to keep you safe, to keep you healthy, and to help you grow up to be a good person." And he accepts this. We'll see if he still believes me when he's a teenager...

But as it stands now he's eight years old. Most of the time he's content to run around making machine gun noises, play video games, and spout trivia about things that I have no knowledge of or interest in either one. But every now and then we get in a car and drive a long way, and the Chamaco has inherited his father's non-comprehension of the term "comfortable silence" - any silence occurring when there is at least one other person present must immediately be filled. So Saturday night we were driving home from la casa de mis tíos in the dark and he started talking. I'm pretty sure he thinks out loud.

"I think it's time I had some chores," he announced.

We had touched on this topic before, but I could tell from his tone of voice that this time he meant business. "That's a good idea," I said. "What sort of chores would you like to have?"

"I'm not sure. What are some things I could do?"

He's been helping me fold laundry and receiving basic folding training for a while now, so I said, "You could fold laundry... you could sweep the floor... you could pick up in your room every day..."

"And I could take out the garbage! Probably. If it's not too heavy."

"Yes, you could do that. Anything else?"

"No, I think four is good to start. And you should pay me allowance for doing chores."

I was not at all shocked by this progression in his train of thought, because only the day previous he had spent the last of his birthday/Christmas money and was now down to only $4. Fortunately I was prepared. "How much do you think you should get for doing those chores?"

"A dollar a week. Or maybe two. I don't know. What do you think?"

Much as I love the concept of cheap labor, I am a member of the so-called "Justice Generation" (as Barney puts it) and my sense of fair play won out. Also, because I know the kid, I took a gamble on the notion that after an initial gung-ho period, he'll get tired of doing the chores and opt out or complain about having to do them. Which led me to suggest, "How about we make a chart, and every day when you do a chore you can check the box. At the end of the week we'll add it up, and you can get 25 cents for every check."

My little math whiz was all over this. "Wow, Mom! That's seven dollars a week!"

I'm still older and (hopefully) smarter, though not as fast at crunching the numbers. "Not really, because two of those chores won't need to be done every day. We usually only do laundry once a week, and the garbage only needs to be taken out two or three times a week. So it'll be less than seven dollars, but definitely more than two. You're probably looking at around $4 or $4.50 most weeks."

"Sounds good. Can we start tomorrow?"

So we got home and made the chart and the details were hammered out. Sweeping and picking up his room he can do every day if he chooses to, taking out trash and folding laundry are done when necessary or when I ask. I'm not going to sit on him to pick up his room and sweep every day... I'll give him the option. He can choose not to do it, and thus choose not to earn the money. (Non-Head Start employees have no idea how very Head Start this system sounds... six months ago it probably would not have occurred to me.) 

Today was Day One, and of course he very enthusiastically swept the floor. He got to the picking up his room part, worked for about five minutes, then came down and said, "I think I'm going to do that one a little bit at a time because it's a big job."

"Well yeah. It's a big job right now because your room is trashed. But if you get it picked up nice and then you make sure you pick up every day, it'll take you like two minutes."

"Yeah, I know. But I mostly cleared off the table. Does that count?"

I let him count it. Meanwhile, I was fixing dinner. He asked if he could take out the trash, which was almost full. I asked him to wait until after dinner, because I was going to be throwing some more things in there. Seeing he was a little disappointed, I told him he could go in my room and fold the laundry if he wanted. He ran upstairs, excited once more. It took him pretty much the entire time it took me to make dinner, but he folded the entire load of laundry completely without assistance, divvying things out into piles as I have shown him. He asked where he should put away my clothes and I said I'd put them away if he just left the piles in the floor, so he went and put away his own clothes in his dresser.

We ate dinner at the table together. This is a rarity... usually I sort of work through dinner. But I had tidied the kitchen up while cooking, and had finished my translating while he swept and picked up his room (though admittedly I didn't have much today), so we had dinner together. While we were eating, the lightbulb in the fixture at the bottom of the stairs exploded in a blaze of glory. So after we ate, he took out the trash and then we went to buy more lightbulbs, because I was out. And we still had half an hour before bedtime, which is completely unprecedented and largely attributable to the Chamaco doing some of the stuff I normally do so I dídn't have to. So we played Uno. And then Guess Who. Then it was time for him to go to bed.

Now this isn't a perfect system... he's not exactly a professional-level floor sweeper. The floor could probably still stand to be swept in some areas. Also he can't fold towels to my exacting standards. Enter Head Start...

One of the things they're sort of making me do is read a book called "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers". They're very pro-Positive Discipline, and the concept was totally foreign to me when I started working there. Admittedly the Chamaco is not a preschooler, but I have picked up some things from this book that do make sense regardless of his age. There's an example in the book from a child's perspective - a little girl's mother asks her to make her own bed to save Mommy some time in the morning. So the little girl tugs and smoothes and pats the sheets into place and thinks she has done a pretty good job and is well-pleased. Later Mommy comes in and fixes it. Little Girl comes away with the impression that her work was not good enough and is discouraged from even trying it again.

I had this firmly in mind as I watched the Chamaco sweep the floor. Action plan now in place.
Will I re-sweep the floor? No. He'll do it again tomorrow. Maybe he'll hit those places.
Will I criticize his work? No. This is a behavior I want to encourage, not discourage.
Will I praise him for a job well done even though it is somewhat lacking by my adult standards? Yes, definitely.
Will I ask next time as he's sweeping, "Hey, could you make sure you sweep right here? It looks like that place really needs it."? Yes, probably. And if it's still not up to my standards, hey, the kid tried. No one will die if there are a few stray crumbs on the floor for a day.

Same theory applies for folding clothes. Does it, in the long run, even matter if things are folded in a different manner than I would have folded them? No. Do I want him to continue in this behavior? Yes. Will I praise him and thank him for his help? Heck yes... I hate folding laundry. Strangely folded towels are a small price to pay for not having to fold the laundry myself, and he can fold his own clothes however he likes. No, what is more important in this situation is that the job is done and that he feels accomplished, like he contributed something.

So it's the end of Day One of the great chores/allowance experiment. He earned a full dollar today. And hopefully he's in the process of learning something about responsibility and about working for what he wants, and also feeling like a valuable, contributing member of our little broken family. I'll try to remember to update as this project progresses if anything happens that seems relevant.

Song o' the Day: "Better Sorry than Safe" - Halestorm

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