As we sat with our two young boys at the dinner table my wife looked at me with concerned eyes. She knitted her brows, frowned and hunched her shoulders.
I was asking our sons aged 5 and 7-years-old what it was they’d like to do for chores over the next few days. I was asking this in the hope that this would make them feel like they had agency and incentivize them to engage with the new weekly chore chart I was putting together. What I should have assumed is that my wife already had an idea for the chore chart dreamed up. It didn’t involve asking the boys anything. I was ruining her plan.
It’s not as if we are a particularly messy family. I’ve been in enough of my friends’ houses to know our domestic disaster is far from disastrous. Still, I wanted the family to live in an environment that felt less chaotic — one that was more conducive to relaxation and chilling. I find it hard to be calm in clutter. I’d heard a chore chart could be the solution. I was wrong. Both practically and semantically.
“First of all we’re calling them ‘duty to-dos’ not chores,” my wife said, pronouncing the phrase so that it sounded like a single lilting word: doodytoodo. “I don’t like the word chore. It makes it sound like work.”
Not wanting to point out to her, in front of our boys at least, that chores are work, I decided to sit quietly through her explanation of the chart, which I was still pretty pumped about.
Apparently, the boys already had daily chores (I mean, dootytoodos), including repeating evening tasks and larger weekly tasks. We would have teams. The youngest boy would be on mine. The oldest on hers. My team would do a daily vacuum of one room. Hers would do a daily dust of one room. Over the week, we’d vacuum and dust the entire house. Also, parents would have chores. I would make the bed daily and wash dishes every other day. My wife, a stay-at-home mom, would do most of the rest. Fair enough.
As we talked all of this out, the boys seemed genuinely excited about the project. That surprised me. But I’d underestimated the power of fascination a vacuum cleaner holds for a 5-year-old, and how much an imaginative 7-year-old would love to swing around a duster.
Those two realities were the major realization of the first day of our experiment. Our two children would practically mutiny at the sound of the nightly tidy-up song. But here they were getting into their new novel duties. The 5-year-old, in particular, was a delight to watch as he muscled a giant vacuum, larger than himself, around the dining room.
But there was another realization: giving your kids chores is essentially giving yourself chores. The fact is that if we wanted the work to be up to snuff, we’d have to clean up behind our cleaners. Not doing so would mean two clean carpet streaks on the floor and random patches of shine gleaming from the dusty bookshelves. That said. At the end of the first day, with minimal fuss, we had a single clean room and a somewhat tidied house.
But all dreams must somehow die.
The next day the family was booked solid with outings and sports and activities. By the time we looked at the clock, bedtime had arrived and there was no time for chores. My wife and I put the kids to bed and I made a sorry attempt at the dishes before crashing on the couch to watch Netflix.
The day after was much of the same. The family launched into the day with little regard for our chore chart. Much remained undone after another hurried bedtime. By Thursday night the experiment looked like a complete failure, at least from my perspective. The chore chart had basically just loomed over my days, making me feel guilty about what I was failing to do.
As I lay in bed with my wife I asked my what she thought had happened.
“Well, I did far better than you, to be honest,” she said looking at me over the top of her book. “I did all of my dootytoodos. You didn’t make the bed at all and the one time you did dishes you just kind-of did dishes.”
Sure, I deserved that. But what about the kids? She acknowledged that the chore chart was a difficult ask during hectic days. But she remained proud that the boys completed the daily work they were used to. She assumed it would just take more time for the chart to truly be internalized by the family. I understood by “family” she meant “me”.
“It’s mostly on us,” she said, noting how a lot of the work was ours to do. We had to manage expectations. “But my team did do better than yours,” she said.
“What? You actually dusted your rooms?” I asked, challenging what I thought to be a lie.
“Well, we did three rooms this afternoon,” she smirked, pleased she’d bested me.
It’s important to note that, although I was deeply shamed, the chore chart still hangs in its place in the kitchen. We’ve decided to give it more of a chance. After all, the fault was not in our willing children but in their parents time management. I can see the chart working in the future despite all indications of the contrary. Some of that optimism is predicated the enthusiasm of my wife. But most of it sits squarely in my desire to prove her wrong about me.
Because the fact is that I am bad at doing chores. Far worse than my boys, actually. Some of that is due to feeling overwhelmed during the day and resentful of more work, but that resentment isn’t necessarily fair. My wife works her ass off too. But what I don’t have is a habit of doing chores. And really, I think that’s the key. So that’s why I intend to stay oriented to the chart. That habituation to housework is important, not just for the equity in my household, but for my boys. They need to see that men do housework too. It’s part of what it means to be a good man and a good father.
And if that’s not a solid motivation. I’m not sure what is.