Leeny stood in the chicken coop, shovel in hand, a huge grin crinkling her eyes. She was not faking it: My 7-year-old was having fun cleaning out the chicken coop. I was happy she was enjoying herself, but I’d meant the chore to be punishment for losing a library book. So, was I winning or losing at parenting?
My daughter always has her nose in a book. She even took to reading in the car on the long drive to summer camp, which was where she lost the book.
This is the first lost library book in my life. My family has always been overeducated, but we were poor, poor, poor. I didn’t own books. I borrowed books. My library books lived on a specific shelf on my headboard while they were mine, and it pained me when I had to slide them into the return slot at the library.
However, my daughters have more books now than I owned my whole childhood, and I knowingly contribute to the problem by adding to the stacks. So it’s probably my fault that when Leeny realized she had lost the book, she shrugged.
“Sorry. I can’t find it,” she said. “Don’t we just pay for the book?”
“It’s only $20, right? What’s the big deal?”
The missing library book may have been met with ho-hum ambivalence from her, but it was met with nail-biting panic from me. I walked into the library in a deep purple shame to pay for the book as if I had been the one to lose it.
I felt the need to make her feel responsible for the book, but I’m not sure I made the impression I meant to. She has a strong back, a pretty good work ethic, and at the time she was short enough to stand upright inside the filthy chicken coop. She agreed to help me clean it in trade for my paying the library fine.
I thought this idea was very clever because cleaning the coop is a chore I had been avoiding for months. It was summertime, at least, so the chicken poop had dried into a crust instead of the oozing, sucking slime that clung to the floorboards the rest of the year. Still, vile dust floated in the dry air, and the smell, while better than it was in April, still had notes of vinegar and rotting garbage.
But my girl, my animal-loving, book-obsessed mini-me, thought shoveling chicken poop was the most fun she’d had on a Saturday morning in a long time. We laughed. We talked. We installed a new perch. We chipped baked crud off the floor of the coop. Leeny squealed at the chickens running helter-skelter as we cleaned their home. She happily flung shovelfuls into the wheelbarrow. Then she lovingly spread fresh straw over the floor and refilled the food and water dishes.
I stood, somewhat dumbfounded, watching her.
Is it still a punishment if the chore turns out to be kind of fun? Like, really fun? Did I teach her the value of a library book if the picture I took shows her leaning jauntily on her spade after working away for an hour, grinning as if she’d just found two ponies under the Christmas tree?
No, I’d failed. She did not feel shame, regret, or responsibility for the lost library book, or any of the requisite emotions that punishment is supposed to instill. In fact, she looked as if she might lose another book on purpose in order to clean the coop again.
It took me a while to realize what had happened, why my punishment had failed so profoundly – and why I didn’t care.
The fact is that I had Leeny help me clean the chicken coop.
I was there, too, shoveling or manning the wheelbarrow, fetching the clean straw and feed. Leeny’s little sister, Vicki, was inside watching a cartoon while my husband paid bills. Only Leeny and I were outside. She had me all to herself for the first time since Vicki was born, and she was enjoying all the attention for once.
I don’t know what she learned about responsibility, but I found that I didn’t care about the book anymore. We bonded over that gross job and spent quality time together: mother, daughter, and chicken poop.
The best part may be that my daughter thinks we should clean out the coop every season, and that I should pay her $20 each time we do.
And I think she’s right.