Though I would have disagreed with this statement when I was in high school, I was fortunate to have grown up in a house that spanned four generations under one roof. My great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, younger brother and I (along with two cats and a dog), all lived together in a drafty-but-beautiful 1800’s house in the country here in Connecticut. While it certainly wasn’t always easy coexisting with so many different perspectives on everything, living with my extended family taught me many things.
My great-grandmother’s family was off-the-boat from Sweden. She was born in 1904, and just to show us all up, did five push-ups on Christmas when she was at least 93 (after I’d complained about hating fitness tests in my high school gym class. Great-Grandma burn!). She was a hearty Swede who was used to hard work and telling it like it was. Being from a typical turn of the century American family of first generation immigrants, she had six siblings and went to work to support the family at a young age. She quit school after seventh grade and went right to work from sunrise to sunset as a housekeeper to contribute to her family’s income. Even with everyone pitching in, they still scraped to get by. She told me a common dinner was dopp i grytan, Swedish rye bread dipped in pork and beef gravy drippings. When she was in her early twenties, she found her first “real” job, working in the laundry of the William Wirt Winchester Tuburculosis Hospital in West Haven. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to wash hospital linens by hand before the advent of electric washing machines. Oh. My. Goodness. She never drove a car, so she walked to work each day, a trip of several miles, worked standing up all day, and walked home after.
My reason for recollecting this story is this: modern life has made things much easier. Perhaps…too easy, in some ways. I want to instill a good work ethic in my sons, and I certainly don’t want them to think they can just depend on my husband and I to do everything around our house all the time. As a child and teenager, I was expected to help with so many household tasks…cooking, cleaning, caring for my relatives in their old age. I am realizing now that this was partly because there were so many adults willing to show me how to help. My mother took my brother and I out to pick every kind of native fruit imaginable in the summer and taught us how to can jams and jellies. My grandmother showed me how to frost a cake, though she probably knew it’d be faster to do it herself. My great-grandmother often shamed me into cleaning my room by walking by and shaking her head, looking disgusted, and saying “Do you want me to help? I can fold!”. There was always someone willing to take the time to show me how.
It can be tough to let young children help around the house. I know it’s faster and more efficient to simply do it all myself. My boys, though only 18 months and 4 years old, truly want to help, and to be honest, my 4 year old is actually pretty helpful with some tasks. I find I really have to stop myself from saying “Just hand it to me; I can do it” most of the time, though. There are only two adults to two kids here…not the five to two ratio I had as a child. My patience runs out. I want to give my sons the gift of self sufficiency, though, so I’m really trying to teach them how to do…everything. I want them to know how to cook, clean, care for others, do yard work, repair things, change a diaper…all the things that I was lucky enough to learn from my elders. In tiny, small ways, I’m already seeing this pay off in my older son. I’m hoping it continues to as the years go on, and I can manage to resist the temptation to sigh and say “Just let me do it for you”.