Lessons from a child: finding joy in work

I have read of various eastern disciplines which stress living in the present moment and enjoying fully whatever activity one is engaged in, no matter how repetitive or routine it seems. Adults have to work hard to master such disciplines -- to learn to enjoy washing dishes or clothes or floors. We have to be trained to notice the water and the colors and sounds, have to be taught to find richness or joy in the experience of housework.

My daughter Jenny needs no teacher, no expensive trip to training to know how to enjoy the present. She does it. It is that simple. She loves to wash dishes, help with laundry, wash floors. She loves to help carry garbage cans. She loves to work. She does it with a seriousness born of great joy, not of grimness or duty. She works with total concentration and involvement.

I, on the other hand, love efficient use of time and peace. I love to Get Things Done. Jenny loves to do them. The difference is enormous. I often get so ambitious about getting things done efficiently that I have the washer going while the beans cook while the yogurt is starting and the dishes are soaking and i try to talk on the phone. I end up overreaching, pressed for time, needing time off to rest, but oh, do I Get Things Done. Jenny enjoys herself all along. I enjoy myself when I cross things off my list and feel efficient and then have time for fun.

Granted there are big differences in the number of times each of us has washed dishes. I outnumber her by quite a few plates. She also has the choice of saying, "I don't want to do this anymore. Bye!? -- an option parents usually don't have. But there is much more to our differences than length of service and ultimate responsibility.

I believe we teach our children -- indirectly and often unwittingly -- that work is hard and undesirable. We teach them our own unjoyous attitudes about housework, and then wonder why it is often so hard to get some help around the house, why the garbage cans or dishes or cleaning become such major issues.

I watched myself about to do this recently. We were making zucchini bread together. Jenny is a very eager stirrer and a good dumper of measuring cups. When she wanted to spoon the batter in the loaf pans, I balked. Ever efficient, I thought how much more quickly I could do it, how much less chance there'd be of spills to clean up, how much surer I'd be that it was done right. Fortunately I remembered I had goals beyond short-term efficiency. Jenny spooned the batter carefully and intently, smoothing each new spoonful so it would be just right. I went on with other things, watching with delight as she took a routine, dull step and made it an art and a joy.

Our attitudes about our children's ability come through every time we decide whether or not a child is accurate in saying "I can't." I am more likely to underestimate than overestimate Jenny's ability. I am more likely to say, "Here , I'll do it," than spend the time and attention needed to help her figure out a problem for herself. Yet each time an "I can't" is conquered means more freedom and confidence. Her cries of frustration are notm cries for someone else to do it, but part of the intense effort to learn it herself. She may need encouragement and support, may need a boost or some information, but she doesn't need to have the job taken over for her by a well-meaning adult. It is not help to support weakness and dependence in one struggling so hard to be free of them.

We may sometimes feel burdened by the seemingly inevitable dependencies of our children. Perharps our attitudes about work are the real burden. We frequently discourage the natural helpfulness and independence of our children. Our assumptions that work is difficult, that it must be done quickly and just right, hinder us. They blind us to the real helpfulness of our children and to the many present joys they can show us.

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