The Slow, Painful Truth About Chores and Patience

It seems like there is this phase kids go through where they really want to imitate their parents. My 14 month old son is in that phase now. This’ll tell you all you need to know about how I’ve spent the last 14 months of my life: he just adores wiping up spills, sweeping and pushing his mini-vacuum back and forth. He thinks it’s just fantastically fun to blot up spills (almost always his) by dancing on top of a white rag set over the spill.

“It’s cool, mommy, I got this one.”

So I’m going with it, I’m encouraging the hell out of that behavior. When he smears peanut butter all over the table with a rag because he’s helping, I clap and cheer.

When he takes his little broom and “sweeps” at the dirt, crumbs, hair, and cheese stick wrappers I finally got into a pile and am just about to sweep into the dust pan, I thank him for his good help. Never mind I now have to re-sweep the whole mess.

When he “puts away” the pile of diapers I’ve just washed and folded by grabbing and running with them all over the house, I show him where they really belong and use my idiot-child sing-song voice to encourage him to, “put the diapers…right!…on the shelf!” And then for good measure I say, “Yay! Good job!”

Here’s the painful truth: I hate every goddamn minute of this cheerleading. Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong. There is something adorable in seeing a little boy wipe up his own mess. But it takes time and patience to teach a child to do something properly, and often I have little time and less patience.

I would much rather just get the laundry folded and put away, get the dirt in the dustpan, and wipe up the spills once, instead of four or five times after each bout of toddler “help.” I’m all about efficient, and a 14-month-old with a broom is not efficient. I frequently find myself wanting everyone to just leave me the hell alone so I can just do it all myself. So I can do it faster, so I can do it efficiently, so I can do it the right way.

I try very hard to master this impulse towards perfectionistic martyrdom. In a few years, my son is going to realize that cleaning up after himself isn’t actually that fun, and I’m racing the clock to get him in the habit of personal responsibility, now, before it’s a much harder-to-fight battle.

I have some reason to believe the “start ‘em young” method works. My 7 year old cleans her own room, puts away her own clothes, unloads and loads the dishwasher and (when requested) feeds the cats and the chickens and watches her brother. She has been known to clean the entire kitchen just to help out, and she knows that there are always jobs that can be done should she need to earn some spending money.

I’m not saying this to be one of those asshole moms who think their kids are perfect. (My kids aren’t perfect. They take after their mom that way.) And I can’t take full credit for my daughter’s willingness to do chores because she’s a natural people pleaser. She just likes to be helpful. But I will take partial credit and say that we started her on chores early, back before they were really chores, back when they were just play.

I think it makes a difference, so I’m faking patience until the payoff in a few years when he can do shit for himself.

One of Oliver’s chores is to come outside with me to the chicken coop and collect the eggs. He carries one egg inside and I carry the rest. Then he puts the eggs in the egg carton.

Usually it works.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes the cost of teaching Oliver is broken egg and a little extra clean-up for me. It would be faster and simpler for me to do this egg gathering solo, maybe while he’s taking a nap. And don’t think I’m not tempted. Who really wants to clean egg off the patio, the kitchen floor, the counter or the carpet? But the minute I say “let’s check the chickens!” Oliver is at the back door, ready to go get his egg. He knows.

Through this chore we work on gentle, careful, and all the other qualities that are required to get an egg from coop to fridge in one piece. I’m often frustrated and frequently bite my tongue as I grab a wet rag. But the reward is a kid who is starting to see himself as capable and responsible. That’s worth way more than a few broken eggs.

Slowly, painfully, we’re faking it ’till we make it, to patience.


  1. says

    You are certainly braver than me – especially regarding egg gathering. But your end result is the goal – Oliver, who likes himself, wil be able to do whatever for himself and will understand what self responsibility is.

    Me – I didn't think in those terms when my kids were small. I did it – because it was quicker!

    Obviously I was short on patience then. Now, like you, I'm trying to help my grandson understand that there are duties everyone has to perform – everyday. Even if they are simple things like making his bed, picking up his washing and hanging his wet towel.

    My reward for this newly acquired patience? His smile of satisfaction at a job well done :) And one more male who is coming to understand that household chores are not strictly only a females domain!

  2. says

    I don't have kids, but I do know that I would have a hard time with the patience required to let them learn and figure out these things on their own as they start to help. Heck, I can barely let other adults help, because clearly I am the only one who knows how to do things "right" (why yes, that was sarcasm right there). Good on you for having the patience to help him learn valuable skills.

  3. says

    "I frequently find myself wanting everyone to just leave me the hell alone so I can just do it all myself. So I can do it faster, so I can do it efficiently, so I can do it the right way.

    I try very hard to master this impulse towards perfectionistic martyrdom."

    Hello, welcome to my head All The Time, and I don't have kids! I think I need to pay attention to your last line there, because delegating? Not so much my thing.

    I think the only way those pictures could be cuter is if he had a tiny little egg basket.

  4. says

    Your son is adorable! And you're doing it right (not that I'm an authority, I'm pretty sure I did everything wrong raising my son). I do remember not having a lot of patience, and I don't think I taught him much self-reliance.

  5. says

    Dani – I think this is only really possible because my kids are spaced so far apart. 6.5 years, so I got my daughter pretty much self sufficient before I had my son. Not sure I'd even have fake patience with multiple little, little kids.
    Nothere & Amy – yup, that affliction is more common than people like to admit, I think. :)
    Alison – thanks! I screw up tons but have faith that the chore thing is good for 'em. :)

  6. says

    Thanks for the post, Erica. As the new mom of an 8-week-old (but soon to be egg-gathering, I'm sure) little one, I really appreciate your thoughts. I'm also prone to "perfectionist martyrdom," so I totally get where you're coming from.

  7. Anonymous says

    Erica – Thanks for this post. Gonna wax prophetic here, if I may…

    Stay the course with this… if not for the little ones' sake, or for yours down the road, then for all of society's sake.

    Think about the future return on your 'investments'… the time you take now to teach, encourage, allow, and 'put up with' will pay off big, both now and down the road.

    In the grander scale of things, right now, its just a dropped egg. Later, it might be the homework assignment that magically gets done, and turned in, on time; gas that appears in the car's tank BEFORE its on E; and/or when its their turn to be a parent, they'll remember how you did it and reward you with grandchildren equally ready to learn, believing in themselves, and giving of their personal qualities, just like you.

    I have come to believe that its meant to work this way. Let them know that grown-up's drop eggs once in a while, too. Its one's response to that dropped egg that does all the teaching.

  8. Erin says

    Erica…as usual your post is profound. Yes, you are profound. My son is 30 and I have a lot of guilt thinking back on my lack of patience. It is so powerful to hear women admitting to the same. Thank you for easing that burden.

  9. Jen says

    I'm looking for the 'like' button! Such a relief to know that there are more moms out there who feel the same impatience, but also know how important it is. My boy, now 6 (and 3/4) has been helping with chores since he could walk, even though I was champing at the bit to just get it done. It has taught him the responsibility of chores and doing a fair share of work. He willingly helps out and does the easy chores he's been allotted as his to do everyday without being asked. I now better understand what my own mother went through!

  10. Anonymous says

    Your son is lucky to have a mom like you and you are blessed to have him!
    Forget how many eggs he breaks! I know you put a high value to your eggs but the quality time you are spending with your son is priceless! He will grow up and when you will look back you will not regret a single moment:)

  11. says

    You hit the nail on the head. I still struggle with this and my daughter is 8! My mother had very little patience and she was the type of person to just take over and do it for you. I find myself acting a little too much like my mother most of the time, but you have inspired me to continue to work on this.

  12. says

    Too true! So much easier to do clean by myself, cook by myself, etc. I share that "impulse towards perfectionistic martyrdom" for sure. So easy to whip up something in the kitchen alone…so…messy with 'help.' But, yes, put on my patience pants and know it is the best thing in the end. To know we all pitch in and that she knows how to cook and clean.

  13. says

    i don't have kids either – but i feel like you're doing things the right way. Not only are you encouraging their helpfulness (true: chores aren't fun. but if they grow up learning how to constructively participate in the household, who cares? They'll do it because it's the right thing to do), but also their sense of self worth! Your positive encouragement and rewarding behavior where you cheerlead them may be just what leads them to great things later on in life.

    Also: thank you for being so candid about your own limits. I have very little patience myself in this sense and am much faster and more efficient at getting stuff done than my partner. Try correcting a grown 34 year old man's behavior though. haha..

  14. says

    Erica I have 4 kids, 7-14, and it sounds like we use pretty much the same method. All my kids have turned out differently, but they all help out and can even initiate and offer to do chores! Our house is, um, organic rather than spotless, but you know what they say, A dull woman keeps a clean home. We are often far too busy with our passions to polish the silver. Good job, well done, you were probably just born this awesome but I appreciate the effort you put in (and omg I know that patronising sing-song voice you mention).

  15. says

    I’ve been working hard at saying thank you ever since reading this last week. My son has been “helping” in the garden, cleaning house, doing laundry. It is a big shift in thinking from telling him no for pulling all the wet pocket diapers of the drying rack to thanking him for being a good helper, but the rewards are worth it! The big smiles when he’s praised, and my total shock when he starts hanging diapers back up!

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