Boys and chores — a generational shift in perspective

By April Wallace, Northwest Arkansas mom and nwaMotherlode contributor

It’s a lot of work to keep a house in clean, functional order.

All mamas know this, of course. But being stuck at home for the past 5 and a half months, unable to pop off to the library, museum and other kids’ activities has kept my focus on it.

And so, my dear boys, it’s time for you to grab a mop, don a pair of rubber gloves, view the world from behind a vacuum.

The Wallace boys! Left to right, Henry, age 3, Elliott, age 19 months, and Jackson, age 15.

When I was growing up in Rose Bud (a small town in Central Arkansas that only exists on certain maps, wedged between other idyllic-sounding places like Romance and Joy), boys were not taught to keep house. They learned how to wrangle cattle, hunt deer, plow fields, sure. But not usually laundry, mopping, vacuuming, baseboard cleaning, ironing, etc. That was the work of every little girl who was expected to grow up to be like their mama.

In our house, though, my mom did require my brother to learn ‘women’s work.’

The reason seemed funny to me at the time. “How should I know if he’ll get married?” she told me a time or two. It seemed like she taught him in the event that he didn’t find a woman who would do those things for him. And it’s a good thing, too, because I’m confident my sister-in-law appreciates not being the only one to load the dishwasher, make a meal and generally clean up or contribute in any given way that their family needs that day.

My reasons are different. First, just on a basic level, I want my boys to be able to take care of themselves. There will be so many difficulties once they are on their own in this world, I don’t want this to be one of them.

I won’t be with them during those college years (or beyond), picking up dirty laundry and running a load or two regularly, scooping up food wrappers or wiping counters and cleaning mini microwaves.

Instead this should be second nature, something they take care of all the time.

Maybe some parents forego serious or consistent chores because they don’t want their children to be burdened, to grow up too fast. Let them enjoy every minute of their childhood, they may think, or let them have more time for studies, scholarship applications, extracurriculars, whatever. Their intentions are good.

But if I start early, I’d like to think they’ll adjust and balance the whole work of life. As people, we’re not compartmentalized, we’re not one dimensional. We’re many things all at once, and learning to juggle takes time and practice.

My thinking? My boys can get some of that practice while still living at home.

Although our household could easily afford it, we do not employ any cleaning/maid services. I’m afraid that growing up knowing that someone else will come in behind you and take care of your mess could lead to entitlement.

Fifteen-year-old Jackson knows how to cook a meal, clean up afterward, weed the yard and whatever else needs doing.

I’m sure that my intellectually brilliant 15-year-old stepson will one day be able to afford to hire someone to do these things around his own place one day if he wants. But until then he can do after-dinner kitchen cleanup, handle a bathroom top to bottom properly and weed our yard among many, many other things.

Each of our boys has age-appropriate expectations.

Jackson has handled tougher things like cleaning baseboards, sweeping/dusting/mopping all the tile and hardwood in the house, and generally learning to make every surface shine. But he can do that because he’s a teenager, he’s got more skills and attention span than my two little ones.

Henry, my 3-year-old, makes his bed in the morning. Not yet very straight, but I don’t adjust it or help him unless he asks. He knows this is his job, and he really feels like a big boy doing it. He puts his own dirty clothes in the hamper at night—don’t even try to do it or you’ll get an earful—and looks forward to watering our herb garden and plants in the evening with my husband’s supervision.

Three-year-old Henry waters the herb garden, with a little help from Dad at aiming the hose.

At 19 months, Elliott carries his own diapers to the trash can. I don’t care that it doesn’t make it all the way to the Diaper Genie, I’m just delighted that he knows he legitimately helps out, too. When we’re unloading groceries, he loves to carry a small, light bag or two into the house. It takes forever, but we have the time. And without having been asked, this sweet toddler of mine is already helping unload the bottom rung of the dishwasher each time I open it.

Nineteen-month-old Elliott is “helping” Mom in the kitchen. Pass the whisk, Elliott!

I think that’s proof that my plan is working.

Instead of seeing housework as chores, I’m raising my boys to find a sense of purpose and fulfillment by contributing to our home. They’re not just little house guests using our towels, making messes and getting out. They are responsible for our home, too, and can take pride in taking care of it together.

I look forward to the day that one of them tells me a particular chore is not important or worthwhile. To me, that will show it’s already contributed to their plans for their own home and life. It’s good for them to start forming their own opinions.

My stepson’s mom advised him to listen to me closely ever since I started teaching him to cook because, she says, whatever girl he ends up with one day will love having a partner who can make her dinner. And I totally agree, except that it extends further to splitting the labor of an entire household.

To me, there is nothing more romantic than my husband seeing a need around the house and taking care of it without me saying a thing. It’s his way of showing me that he wants my life to be easier, or on the worst days, a little less hard. It shows I’m not alone in this.

As a stay-at-home mom, it’s easy to feel like the weight of the entire household rests on my shoulders and simply put, some days it’s a lot.

Even with a kind husband who has a feminist outlook, we’ve still had our share of disagreements about what’s a fair division of chores. He works long hours, always working at least one late night a week and some hours each weekend, too. And though I’ve put my professional pursuits on hold, my daily work of childcare starts at sunrise (sometimes before) and goes until sunset.

If I’m the only one making meals and doing housework, that means I’ll still be doing it well after my husband arrives home from his job, and occasionally even after our kids are asleep. That makes my supposed “job” last roughly from the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep. And is that really fair for anyone?

Let me tell you, doing that day in day out can cause resentment. So yes, having our children pitch in alleviates my load a little bit. It will not always be done quickly or correctly. But it makes me feel like the work of five people is not just up to me.

Three-year-old Henry makes his bed each morning and knows his way around a broom.

Each day when my husband arrives from work, he drops his work bag and comes to help me dice veggies, stir a dish, wrangle kids, set the table, unload the dishwasher—whatever needs doing at the time. I don’t think that’s typical for most men his age, and I’m grateful.

He grew up with a dad who cooked for their family, which I’m sure contributed to this mindset,  so I feel even better knowing our boys have a great example in him. It will seem normal and expected to follow his lead.

I like to imagine that my husband and I are saving our boys many future marital arguments by showing them it’s just what you do—you cook, you clean, you take care of the house. Why? Not to help mom, necessarily. But because it’s your home, too.

April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to two beautiful and curious baby boys and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her babies while they’re still babies. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction. For more of April’s posts on pregnancy, babies and toddlers, click here.