Children’s Involvement in Running the Home
Our job as parents is to give our children the skills necessary to become self-sufficient. Running a home is a basic skill that each child is entitled to learn. Each will someday have a home of his or her own. Relying on strangers to manage the household is not an optimal situation
Parents, by personal example, should motivate children to feel a responsibility for, and actively participate in, the running of the household. We learn this lesson from Yaakov Avinu, who included his sons in the process of making peace with antagonists like Lavan (HaEmek Davar, end of Parashas Vayeitzei).
While outside help can be a blessing for overburdened parents, placing all the responsibility for housekeeping on paid servants deprives the children of valuable lessons in responsibility. Our job as parents is to give our children the skills necessary to become self-sufficient. Running a home is a basic skill that each child is entitled to learn. Each will someday have a home of his or her own. Relying on strangers to manage the household is not an optimal situation.
Nor should a child be paid to do chores. The house belongs to the entire family, and its maintenance is everyone's responsibility. If the parents' attitude toward doing the dishes is positive, the children will feel good about taking turns washing them. If we go around complaining about this chore or that, the children will learn that chores are a horrible burden and will rebel against doing them. Instead, we should make the child feel that it's a privilege for him to be able to help out, that sharing the chores earns him a place as an honored and valued member of the family.
As adults, we know a feeling of satisfaction when we accomplish something. Children should be given the chance to experience the same feeling. For example, at Shabbos and Festival meals father and mother should sit like a king and queen and be served by the children (once they are old enough). A mother slaving away while her teenage children sit and watch is a reflection of poor education. We can and should give our children the opportunity to fulfill the commandment of honoring their parents by letting them help us. Children should feel successful at their tasks in the home, not burdened by them. Even three-year-olds can help pick up toys or bring bentchers, for Grace after Meals, to the table. Cleaning the house with children might take longer than doing it ourselves, but the results are far more rewarding in the long term.
Parenting does not mean looking for the easiest or quickest way to get things done. Among their other responsibilities, parents must seek ways in which to teach their children skills that will help them in building homes of their own one day. As the children grow older and become more proficient, they will be able to do things completely independently.
It's important to give children a wide range of jobs — the “clean work" and the so-called “dirty work" as well. Housework would be far less pleasant for all of us if we did not derive from it a sense of satisfaction that comes from exerting effort and achieving an important result. Cooking can be the most enjoyable and creative aspect of keeping a home, but some parents guard the kitchen as though it held the crown jewels. We should let children experiment in the kitchen — and help them learn to clean up afterwards. Praise the cake they made, even if it did turn out too sweet. (You can suggest that next time they reduce the sugar content.)
If they don't clean the kitchen properly, still praise them for the cake. If the challahs that a daughter made are served at a Shabbos meal, be sure everyone knows who made them, and who separated the challah from the dough. We can afford to stay in the background. Even if all the child really did was drop the eggs on the floor and stir the batter so hard it splashed all over the wall, we can still tell everyone that it is “her” cake and let everyone praise her for her baking skills. As Rebbetzin Malka of Belz said, every kernel of wheat asks G-d not to let it go to waste, but to let it reach the mouth of a Jew who can recite a blessing over it. Thus, the cake your little girl has made will merit many blessings being said over it.
It is important to give children, too, a feeling of control. Let them decide in which vase to put the flowers for Shabbos, how to arrange the napkins, what kind of cake to bake, and how to set the table. Again, praise them for how beautiful everything looks—and make sure other family members know of their contribution — even if the spoons are on the wrong side and the chairs aren't lined up with the plates.
It's possible to establish a system of rotating chores, so that everyone knows what is expected of him. It may take the child a while to get used to this type of responsibility. We need to help him succeed in this endeavor, as in every other. If he has trouble with a particular chore, we should help him learn ways to do it faster, better, and more easily. We all dislike failure. We should listen to his complaints and respond to them, so that he will not become resentful and bitter about what he's compelled to do. This kind of bitterness will poison the atmosphere of the home. Forcing the issue will only arouse greater resistance. In such a case, it is best to leave it awhile until the child is more mature and ready to cope with the challenge of participating in running the household with greater success.
When children do not want to do jobs that we have given them to do, we can explain the importance of the particular chore. For example, if a girl is told to take out the garbage and she does not feel like doing so, the mother might describe to her how the house would look the next day if the garbage were allowed to remain indoors. She might add a description of what would happen if the mother did not perform her regular jobs, such as buying bread. A vivid example is the partnership of Yissachar and Zevulun. Zevulun imported large fruits from across the sea which flourished in Yissachar's merit, and he supported Yissachar in respectable style. As for Yissachar, he learned Torah and prayed on Zevulun's behalf.
There is no need to criticize a child in order for him to improve. If he does the dishes and the dishes still have soap on them, we should not scold. We could quietly wash the dishes over again, and next time, before the child begins, say, “By the way, there's a better way to rinse the dishes." No one wants to be told they did something badly, but everyone is happy to learn how to do something even better, especially when the instruction is conveyed in a positive, encouraging way.
We can also show flexibility and consideration. If the child has a big test the next day, we could do the dishes for her. The other children will learn from this to help each other out as well. Family members are a cooperative team, with the ultimate purpose being to help each person accomplish his or her goals. Everyone shares responsibility for everyone else, and showing sensitivity to one another's needs can only improve relations within the family.
Adapted from "Two Halves Of A Whole" by Rabbi Yirmiyohu & Tehilla Abramov. Available at www.jewishfamily.org