A few months ago one of my blog readers sent me the link to the widely-circulated article entitled, “Spoiled Rotten” and asked me my thoughts on it.
The article looks at how parents in different cultures train young people to assume adult responsibilities. The article compared the self-reliant behaviors of American children living in Los Angeles to the children of the Matsigenka, a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon.
The American children in the study did not perform household chores without being instructed. In contrast, a six-year-old child in the Matsigenka tribe cooked, cleaned, and assisted in other important tribe duties without being asked. Furthermore, some American children in the study had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks and often still refused.
After reading the article several times, I responded to the reader by briefly describing how my children are given responsibilities at home and how I encourage them to think outside of themselves. But for some reason, that was not the end of it. Certain sections of the article kept popping into my head—particularly two questions mentioned in the piece: “Why do Matsigenka children help their families at home more than L.A. children? And ‘Why do L.A. adult family members help their children at home more than do Matsigenka?’ ”
For days, my children’s autonomous behavior went under a microscope. Whenever there was a complaint over a request to do a household task, I became panic-stricken. Was I raising spoiled children? Whenever I found myself bending over to pick up shoes left in the hallway and dirty clothes scattered across bedroom floors, I wondered where was this leading. I envisioned my children as grown adults sitting in side-by-side La-Z-Boy recliners watching “Wheel of Fortune” with dirty dishes and soiled clothes piled up around them—and not a stitch of clean underwear in sight.
To add to my growing concern was this interview with Debbie Phelps. One way she instilled responsibility in Michael was by having him pack and carry his swim bag every day. When Michael forgot his goggles in a competition and looked to his mother, she raised her empty hands and he swam without. (Consequently, he never forgot to pack goggles again.)
Deep down, I knew such a situation would never happen to my little swimmers. They merely had to reach into the swim bag to find their favorite pair of goggles because the magic Goggle Fairy (me) always packed them.
That was it.
I knew it was time to stop evaluating the responsibility development going on in my house and start kicking it up a notch. As the scope of my investigation zeroed in on my two children, fate had a way of telling me I was looking at the wrong offender.
As fate would have it, I got sick. And let me just say, I do not get sick. It is simply not an option. If I feel the least bit congested or slightly off my game, I take some extra vitamins and power through.
But not this time … this time I was rendered helpless.
It began late one Monday evening. I was doubled over in pain thinking my appendix was surely about to burst or an emergency gallbladder operation was in my near future. I could not lie down; I could not sit. The pain was only bearable if I paced slowly back and forth in a hunched-over position. I dubbed myself “The Crying Cavewoman,” but I was in no mood to laugh at my own joke.
As soon as I saw the light of day, I put the doctor’s office on speed-dial and called repeatedly until someone answered. As I waited to be connected, I pondered which unhealthy habit from my past was coming back to haunt me. I decided it was the large quantities of Boone’s Farm I drank in college.
But after thorough examination, the doctor informed me I was suffering from a violently painful stomach virus. I barely had time to expel a sigh of relief when she added that this particular strain was known to last for several days.
“Do you have anyone to take care of you? Is there someone to take care of your children?” she gently inquired.
With my husband traveling for work and my family out of state, the answer was no—but I assured her I could manage.
Truth be told, I felt so poorly I didn’t care if my kids ate Captain Crunch cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and played on animaljam.com for 24 hours straight. I would not be unclamping my arms from my stomach for anyone or anything.
That’s when the unexpected happened.
We had just gotten home from the pharmacy. I had popped my anti-nausea medication and gingerly lowered myself to the couch.
I heard my 9-year-old daughter announce in a cafeteria lady-like tone that it was lunchtime. She instructed her little sister to go wash her hands.
Approximately five minutes later she walked by with a very gooey PB&J sandwich (cut nicely in half), a cup of haphazardly chopped cantaloupe, and a side of Goldfish crackers. Lunch was being carried in her capable hands on a metal cookie sheet. I was told they were going to go upstairs so they wouldn’t bother me.
Despite the effects of the Phenergan beginning to kick in, I noticed two beaming smiles just above the cookie sheet.
“Thank you,” I croaked appreciatively to the proud waitresses. I knew full well that the tray could have contained a stack of S’mores Poptarts with a six-pack of Mountain Dew to wash it down, and I would have been deliriously grateful that my children were not going to go hungry—and I wouldn’t have to get up from the couch.
A few hours later I awoke from my medication-induced stupor. I was in the middle of estimating how far along the kids were in a Shrek movie-marathon when a little face appeared.
“Hi Mom. We watched one movie. But we thought that was enough TV so now we are making bracelets. But don’t worry, we will clean up the mess.”
And just when I thought my jaw couldn’t drop any lower, my six-year-old presented me with a large ice water in my favorite plastic cup.
“Drink it all, Mama,” she ordered with a serious expression that I swore looked an awful lot like my mother’s “bug-eyed” look that I used to get a lot as a teenager.
I sipped as instructed, and she took the back of her hand and held against my forehead.
Whatever she felt must not have been good.
“Just keep resting, Mom,” said my no-nonsense nurse.
A bit later, I peered over the couch and watched as the scavengers dug through the depths of the freezer to find dinner. It may be the only time in history that two “Lean Cuisine” meals created a crowd-roaring reaction. (Apparently it is cause for celebration when one can have both Mexican and Chinese cuisine all in one meal.)
When it neared bedtime, I began psyching myself up to get off the couch. By the looks on my kids’ faces, I must have resembled a roly poly bug when it gets helplessly turned over on to its back. For the life of me, I could not get up. The girls quickly assured me they could put themselves to bed. Minutes later they returned with clean pajamas and freshly brushed teeth.
Blowing me kisses from afar, the little one optimistically called out, “You will be okay, Mama. You will feel better tomorrow.”
The next morning, I stumbled out of my bedroom. They had graciously let me sleep in. I braced myself for what the early risers may have done to keep themselves busy for the past several hours.
Folded piles of clean laundry?
Not what I was expecting.
My six-year-old proudly showed me her stack of towels and smallish, easy-to-fold items (which, much to my delight, included clean underwear). She had clearly dressed herself—an athletic tank top paired with a long, flowy skirt. If Anthropologie had an athletic line, she would rock it. I noticed she managed to comb the front of her hair, yet the back resembled a mound of dryer lint. But who was I to judge? I was sporting permanent pillow marks on my face and three-day old pajamas.
My older child, also donned in a creative ensemble, stood in the kitchen with every ingredient known to man on the counter.
“We’re trying a new recipe,” she called out. “Lemon Poppy Seed Bread. It’ll make you feel better.”
At our house, baking equals love, so I refrained from telling them how nauseating that sounded and resumed my position on the couch.
And then I listened.
Listened as they substituted vanilla yogurt when they didn’t have enough milk.
Listened as they scooped out the egg shells that accidently got in the batter.
Listened as they mixed that batter until it could practically stand on its own two feet.
About an hour later, the mini loaves came out of the oven. I struggled to raise my head only to spy a misshapen block that looked more pathetic than I felt. Yet, the children stood there admiring it like they had produced a bar of gold.
“Doesn’t it look good?” they remarked in unison.
Within minutes they congregated at the kitchen table with thick slices of steamy bread slathered in butter. Engaged in critical baking evaluation, they quickly forgot about the sickly patient balled up in fetal position on the couch.
“It is not as sweet as the bread Mama makes, but I think it is better this way,” said one.
“Yeah, definitely better. We should take over the baking in this house. What should we try next time?” said the other.
As I listened to them collaborate, problem-solve, and plan future baking pursuits, two fat tears slid down my cheeks. It had been a rough couple of days, but that is not why I cried.
I was thinking about the self-sufficient children of the Matsigenka tribe. And that maybe my children had more in common with them than I had originally thought.
And maybe what I perceived as lack of independence in my children was instead lack of opportunity.
And maybe in my haste to get things done quickly with the least amount of mess, in my effort to avoid conflict and exert control, I was hindering my children from revealing their full potential.
After all, how can children show what they are truly capable of if someone is always doing it for them?
I have since recovered from that dreadful illness, but I am forever changed. And so are the ways things get done around the house.
There is less reminding and more natural consequences.
There is less someone-else-will-take-care-of-it and more do-it-yourself.
There is less comfort and more challenge.
There is less doing it perfectly and more learning from our mistakes.
And when I stand back and refrain from commenting or instructing while the children make their own lunches, pack their own swim team bag, pick out their own clothes, fold their own laundry, and pick up their own personal belongings, I think of the lopsided lemon bread.
I think about how good it tasted to the little bakers–not because it was the most delicious bread in the world–but because they made it themselves.
Isn’t that true of life’s successes?
The most rewarding achievements are the ones we accomplish with our own two hands.
Is there any task you do for the young person in your life that he or she could do for his or herself? Would you be willing to let go and watch him or her take some steps toward autonomy regardless of mistakes made along the way? Regardless of the consequences that may result? And if you already do this or did this when you were a child, please share your experiences. We can learn so much from each other.
Thank you for being a part of “The Hands Free Revolution.” I cherish your comments, experiences, and perspectives. We may have different ways of grasping what matters in this one precious life—but the point is, we’re trying.