Training for real-life work experience doesn't start "on the job." It begins at home with early involvement and continues right through the high school years.
Our family's journey along this path started when I was a working mother with four children between the ages of 10 and 15. We desperately needed an equitable solution for handling household chores. It did not help to have me mediate the arguing over who should do which chores and when they needed to be done. I wanted to remove myself from the picture and help our children accept responsibility for the choices they made.
We put together a model that any family can adapt to fit their needs (see box, below). It worked because of the children's involvement from the beginning decisionmaking to the completion of each week's tasks. They also had a clear understanding of the basic ground rules.
We began by drawing up a list of each week's chores. The tasks included feeding the cat and the dog, watering plants, washing dishes, setting the table, helping to prepare the evening meal, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping the kitchen floor, changing their bed sheets, and bringing dirty clothes to the laundry.
The list was then divided into daily, three-times-a-week, weekly, and biweekly chores.
Once we agreed on the frequency that a task would be repeated during the week, the rest was relatively easy. It was more difficult to decide how often their sheets needed to be changed, and sinks and toilets cleaned. They all agreed in wide-eyed horror that they would never do some of the jobs - most notably cleaning the toilets - that needed to be done. No way.
That feeling didn't last long. If there were any jobs left undone by Saturday afternoon, the agreement was that there would be no allowances paid that week. No excuses, no finger-pointing accepted.
Preparing four children to take on these chores meant that each one had to know the proper way to do things. Hands-on training followed: sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, watering plants. Instructions for properly washing the pet dishes to changing the vacuum-cleaner bag were all included.
As time went on, the children learned that complaining about having to do jobs when they had after-school activities landed on deaf ears. And so they became creative and forward-thinking. Sometimes on Sunday, they might elect to get some Monday jobs done, so that homework could be done as soon as they got home.
The dynamics that developed were interesting. At the children's incessant pleading, detested bed changing was switched from a weekly to a bi-weekly chore that was placed in Saturday's slot. When Saturday came, it meant that everyone did a bed change. When the tab was turned over for the next week, it meant that everyone cleaned his room.
The first sign that our youngsters were getting into the chore mode came when the school bus stopped. Off raced two eager children, each wanting to get to the job chart first to pick off the easiest jobs.
When the next bus arrived, the choices were considerably narrowed, and predictably, the onerous red job still waited to be done.
But there were other unanticipated results. When someone was going to be late in getting home, some bartering would take place: "If you do my jobs for me today, I'll do yours for you tomorrow."
When Saturday afternoon rolled around, just a glance at the charts would tell if there were some unperformed jobs still undone. They realized no one would get an allowance if all the jobs were not finished, which meant that they had to put pressure on the culprit(s) to get busy. I was relieved from having to play the heavy. It soon became apparent that if someone had to do an extra job to keep all from losing their allowance, then they would cooperate and help one another. And to keep it from happening again, they made sure the laggards kept pace the next week.
During the week, I found that it was important to look over some of the jobs, to offer support if they weren't being done properly, and to compliment the children when thorough work was in evidence. Knowing that there would be occasional checking on the quality of their work meant that they learned to do it right the first time rather than risk having to do it over.
Families with a wider span of ages can still make this type of plan work. Every toddler loves to be a helper, and there are many age-appropriate jobs that can be done. Pillows can be shaken out of pillowcases, wastebaskets emptied, dustpans held in place while others do the sweeping, silverware placed on the table.
Investing in toddler participation in family chores is a lot like investing in the stock market. Decide to be in for the long haul, and watch the dividends grow with the child.
Looking back over the years, I think our kids had an important role in running our household. I have wondered how much impact those early lessons had on them.
All four of the youngsters are now adults in their 30s. They all have home responsibilities, and three have families, not very different from the way it was 20 years ago with us. Each of them exhibits an ability to get things done and a penchant for order. And to be honest about it, a couple of them have even outstripped me in their organizational skills.
The years of trial and tribulation gave them a leg up on skills of time management, negotiation, cooperation, thoroughness, reliability, and meeting deadlines. It also instilled in them an appreciation of beauty and order, as evidenced in the homes that they maintain today.
I only hope that what they learned in household management doesn't make them so efficient that they forget to share the chores with their growing families. Otherwise, the skills may skip a generation while they unwittingly play the role of superparent. That would be a loss that reaches well beyond family circles.
To track the completion of home chores, it helps to have a system. Here's how the Bantly family (see main story) tackled this job with four children, who are now all adults.
Using two standard classroom-seating pocket charts worked well for us. Each chart had seven rows across that we labeled for the seven days of the week.
Each day had a column with seven pockets, in which we placed individual job cards for that day. To make moving them from one chart to another easier, we folded the card in half so that it slipped in place and hung out over the edge, with the job clearly visible.
In the absence of seating charts, magnets or Velcro can be used to make your own.
The two charts hung side by side on our refrigerator with magnetic clips. The chart on the left was for our current week, and all of the pockets were filled on Sunday morning.
The chart on the right was empty except for the names of the days. As each job was completed, the person doing the job would transfer the card to the corresponding day on the right-hand chart.
Each weekday hosted one of the harder, more undesirable jobs, identified with red letters. If a red job was chosen, the doer didn't have to do a second job that day.
Otherwise, each child had to select two lighter jobs.
Biweekly jobs had one job listed on the front side, and it was turned over when it was moved to the right- side chart to reveal a different bi-weekly job for the next week. Other jobs were designated to be done daily, weekly, or three times a week.