The Sixty-First Chart

October 19, 2012

By Ekta R. Garg

I’ve had a chance to think a few times recently about this culture of entitlement we live in.  Despite our best efforts sometimes we still slip up and give our children the impression that they only need to hold out a hand and they will receive their hearts’ desires.

Readers will see snippets of this in next week’s Spurts, but today’s Chart kicks off my thoughts on this idea.

Last week I read an article that astounded me.  A mother of twelve-year-old twins and a ten-year-old (all girls) decided to go on strike.  You can read the full story here, but here is the short version.

Jessica Stilwell decided she had had enough of picking up after her daughters, so she declared a strike.  On her Facebook page.  That her daughters never read.  Stilwell made up her mind, sat back, and let the dishes accumulate in the kitchen, allowed the papers to pile up in the den, and didn’t do any laundry.  All in all she and her husband didn’t do anything for several days to make a point: her girls need to help out more often.

Here’s the kicker, however.  First, as I said, Stilwell didn’t tell anyone about her strike.  She just decided to do it, declared it on Facebook, stepped aside, and let the sink overflow.  Second, she decided to start blogging about her experiences (sharing her strike with the entire world, although, as I said, she hadn’t told her children about it.)  Thirdly—and this is the one that really made my eyes pop—by Stilwell’s own admission, it took her daughters four days to really catch on to what she was doing.

Four days—really??  A pair of twelve-year-olds and a ten-year-old continued to eat their school lunches out of grocery and (clean) dog poop bags, and it took them four days to begin protesting?

Many mothers cheered Stilwell’s efforts.  They said they should have done the same thing themselves.  Huffington Post writer Lisa Belkin added her two cents’ worth of approval in this follow-up article:

Fortunately many other parents had the same reaction I did: why did Stilwell let her children get to the ages of 12 and 10 without (seemingly) teaching them the basic idea of responsibility?  By Stilwell’s own admission, her daughters come home from school/activities and dump their backpacks and lunchboxes in the hallway.  In the follow-up article with Lisa Belkin, Belkin relays Stilwell’s assertion that her daughters are polite, hard-working, and involved in many activities after school.  Before the strike she would clean the entire house and pick up absolutely everything after her girls because she used it as a way to express her love for them.  She felt like they worked hard enough at school that it excused them from doing anything at home (or something to that effect.)

Six and Four are much younger than Stilwell’s daughters, and yet they already know where their shoes go after they come home from school.  They put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, and Six takes her backpack and lunchbox to the kitchen (their designated spot) so I can hang them on their hook there.  Both kids take their dishes to the kitchen after every meal, and they wash their hands after they enter the house from anywhere.

I’m not trying to brag about my children.  Believe me, these tasks Six and Four complete come with a fair share of reminders.  Almost every day I nudge Six to take her backpack and lunchbox to the kitchen; as Four climbs the stairs after lunch and before her nap, I cheerfully suggest she pick up her dirty socks (where she dumps them after school) and take them upstairs to the laundry basket.  And very few meals go by when I don’t have to ask the girls to take their plates to the sink.

Stilwell is a social worker, an admirable job.  During the weekend when she decided to go on strike, she had her own three girls plus a foster child who was living temporarily in her home.  Her husband was away for the weekend.  She had the responsibility of four children on her shoulders with all of their activities and events all by herself.

With the exception of his weekends on call or when he’s away for the weekend at a conference, my husband stays home and helps with the kids every weekend as much as possible.  My father-in-law lives with us, has known the children since birth, and spends every waking minute when the girls are home spending time with them.  Even with so much help, I still have my days when I want to go on strike—as in, get in the car, drive away, and not come back for hours.  And I’ve even done that a couple of times.  So I’m certainly not knocking Stilwell’s idea.  In fact when I first read the headline I smiled, because I thought I’d identify with the mother in the story.

But Stilwell and all the people who agree with her have missed out on a key component: teaching children responsibility from a young age.  It takes a LOT of hard work to do it.  It takes endless reminders as well as an incredible amount of patience when certain tasks have to be re-taught or reinforced.  It takes several deep slow breaths when a young child takes five minutes to finish something that takes an adult 30 seconds to execute.

Seriously, I think I could go on strike right now.

And yet, when I think about my children getting to their teenage or young adult years and not participating in their own lives by picking up after themselves, then I remember why I do all these things.  If I can lay the foundation for them now in taking care of the small things, then they’ll be able to take care of the big things on their own in their lives later.  If Stilwell’s children have busy lives now, what were they doing when they were—well, six and four?

Again, I’m not comparing Stilwell’s daughters to my own.  Six and Four have had their moments that have made me want to bang my head against the wall.  Until I remembered I’d only have to regain consciousness and clean the blood all by myself later.  But I do also know that I make conscientious efforts every single day to enable and empower my girls to become responsible adults later.

Jessica Stilwell may feel like she’s scored some points in the short term, but the best example of her long-term failure came from her own kids: when she finally explained to them about her strike, her daughters half-heartedly apologized for not doing more and thanked her for all she does for them—only after one of the twins said, “That’s what parents are for, to clean up after their kids.”

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