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2004-06-12 - 1:13 p.m.

Family Engineering

By Joan Callaway

Many, if not most, families today complain they have “too many things to do, too many demands, and too little time.”

As a young mother in 1959, I had five children, worked part time. People, who have only one or two children (including my daughters), often say, “I don’t know how you did it!” My answer is always that without my children and a helpful husband, it couldn’t have happened. Each person in the family had something to contribute. I always figured that as soon as a child could brush her teeth by herself, there were other ways she could contribute.

Valerie was three and a half when her second sister, Laurie, was born. By this time, I had painted pictures on the children’s dressers, indicating the items that went in each drawer. Valerie became the laundry sorter and was even able to put them in the appropriate drawers. She could also go and get an item from those same drawers, if needed. Unbreakable dishes were put in cupboards at a level she could reach. She could set the table. We didn’t have a dishwasher at the time or she would have been able to empty it and put those dishes away, too. Soon Marci, daughter #2, who always wanted to do whatever her big sister did, wanted to help, too, so together we discovered little tasks she could do.

Admittedly, the drawers were not as neat as they might have been, had I folded the clothes and put them away. The table didn’t look like Martha Stewart’s. But what a small sacrifice for the learning of skills and sharing family responsibility that took place during that period of those young lives. And I learned valuable lessons, too: patience and forbearance chiefly among them.

As the children grew older and became more capable, various household chores were rotated, with Saturday mornings cleaning and straightening up day, with grocery shopping, laundry, ironing, sewing, yard work, trips to the dump, daily cooking and table setting detail all being accomplished by various members of the family.

Sometimes we forget that children can be of immense help, and more importantly that the more children are allowed to participate and do meaningful work in the family, the more ownership in the family each one feels, and the less any one person (usually Mom) feels overburdened. I got in the habit of asking myself, “What is _______ capable of now?” Most people like to help. They just don’t like to be bossed around.

I can almost hear you saying, my children are past that wonderful young age when children naturally want to help with everything. Do not despair! Think about holding a family meeting and discussing some “engineering plans” for your family. It’s not too different from what happens where you work. Getting the work of a family done requires the management of time, space, equipment, energy and people. Make a list of all the jobs that have to be done for your family to function. Include such things as laundry, ironing, cooking, shopping, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming, dusting, keeping accounts, paying bills, yard work, emptying the trash and the dishwasher, recycling, keeping the family calendar including making appointments, etc. If you have a pet, don’t forget to include feeding, walking, bathing, etc. If there is a family member who needs special care, include that, too.

Now look at your list and see how these tasks are being carried out in your family. (This may be very revealing.) Once you arrive at what needs to be done, your family will need to decide how the tasks can best be accomplished, by whom and on what time schedule. There are different ways to do this, of course. My preference is to compare the list of tasks to the capability/age level, varying job assignments among all those in the family who are capable of any given task. The key to success: adults need to accept the child’s work at his or her own level. Appreciate it for what it is; give up the expectations of perfection.

Think about how much easier your work is and how much more secure you feel when you have a job description, describing just what is expected of you – with clear goals and objectives, time lines, etc. and then apply that to your family. (You can tell I was a manager at home and at work.)

Select those jobs that are necessary for survival – including good health (both mental and physical). At a family meeting, make up a job description, defining goals and objectives of that job and decide what kinds of equipment and supplies are necessary to achieve the desired end result and the time each job must be completed. Then, whether it is Mom, Dad, or nine-year-old Susie doing the job, the checklist is available. (Remember: perfection is not the goal…if nine-year-old Susie (or Dad) is cleaning the bathroom, it may not be done the same way Mom would do it, but if adequate standards are met, appreciation by the entire family should be expressed.

When you are making your checklists, do not leave out any detail. Nothing is obvious to a child learning new skills. If wiping off the stove or the table is included in your mind in “doing the dishes” that needs to be included on the “doing the dishes” checklist. If setting the table includes having the fork on the left, the knife and spoon on the right, and a place mat under all, complete with napkin…include it on the checklist. (Use drawings or pictures cut from magazines for your three-year-old helper.) Encourage a little creativity even in the little ones. A few flowers on the table or something she/he made at school for a centerpiece will add to the self-esteem. A “Susie, the table looks so pretty tonight” will feel as good to her as “Mom, this soup is delicious!” does to Mom.

Things don’t just happen in a family... or anywhere else. I suspect that this kind of family organization is even more crucial today than when I had five children.

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