Monday, June 30, 2014

Best Mom Tip #189: Phantom jobs

My little kids always want to help me when I'm cooking or cleaning. Although I appreciate their enthusiasm, they have very chubby little fingers and their motor skills suck.  Thus, they are not very effective workers.

Every mom I know has this same dilemma. You need to sweep, mop, dust, sort laundry, make dinner, clean the toilet, but your toddler or young preschooler is standing directly in your path and possibly undoing your work in an effort to help. My friend Rachel told me recently that every time she tries to sweep, her not-quite 2-year-old manages to walk through the pile of dirt and then plops down on top of it to pick the crumbs off the bottom of his feet. Cute, but not helpful. Also a little gross.

My solutions for stealing a few uninterrupted minutes of housework is to give my kids phantom jobs.  For instance, if people will be at our house in 20 minutes and I need to get the kitchen swept, I give my toddler the kid-sized broom and tell him to sweep the living room. He gets bored after about 5 minutes and I have to find the tiny broom to put it away (could be in the toilet by now), but at least the kitchen floor is clean-ish.

If we are making a meal I give them a plastic knife and a bowl of fruit and tell them to cut it up for the table. I'm talking already cut chunks of watermelon or blueberries or strawberries-soft fruits that don't actually need to be cut and will not harm your kid if she eats it while "cutting." And I don't give them the whole bowl that they rest of us will be eating from because it is going to have kid goo in it by the time she's finished.

I give them Clorox wipes (or a wet paper towel depending on the kid's age and likelihood that the he might try to eat it) and tell them to wipe down all of the window sills. And if they finish that, I send them back in for the baseboards. Wipe down the kitchen chairs, clean all the light switches, wipe off all of the drawer pulls in the kitchen.  Really, you can have them wipe down any surface that you can think of and they feel really helpful. And, hey, I was never going to wipe down the baseboards anyway so that's something that is actually cleaner than before.

The key is to send the adorably eager and totally unhelpful little one into an area that you are not trying to clean right that minute.  Need to vacuum in the living room? Their job is in the den. Need to clean the bathroom? Have them make the beds. Doing the laundry and your little one keeps mixing up the sorted piles? Put him in charge of a pile of his own laundry to distract him from the rest of it. Of course, if your helper is too little to be unsupervised their job will just have to be in a slightly different corner of your own work space.  Not ideal, but really, how long do you think your kid will want nothing more than to be right next to you while you do housework? I mean, I'm bored just typing about it. Take what you can get.

My grand plan doesn't always work. Recently I sent my oldest son to go clean the stairs with some wipes. He is 5 and did a very thorough job. However, I did not check the status of his feet before he set off on his task. He very carefully cleaned each stair--and then stood on that damp,clean step to very carefully clean the one above it. When he was done, the stairs had dozens of big-boy sized muddy footprints all over them. They were actually far dirtier than they were before all of his hard work. Fortunately, the guests for that evening were coming for dinnertime so we just turned off the overhead light and the shadows covered the footprints until I could deal with it the next day.

Which, by the way, is another good way to prep your house for company. Just turn off the lights.

Anyway, you don't want to crush their little spirits and their desire to help. It's endearing, it reflects their willingness to be a part of the family team, and there are real household tasks that they need to learn as they get older. My oldest two kids (the muddy stair incident notwithstanding) are actually very helpful and can accomplish several jobs without my help or even supervision. They may not do it exactly like I would, but they get it done well enough. The little ones get their phantom jobs done feeling useful and if they did manage to clean something I am grateful that there are fewer tiny fingerprints on the windows or kitchen cabinets.

So, give it a whirl.  What could your kid help with that is safe and distracting?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Best Mom Tip #188: Pay 'em...maybe

Jay and I have differing opinions about how or when to give our children an allowance. I was never given one-my parents said that any work we did around the house was just part of being a member of our family. My folks both grew up on farms and had horrible chores like killing sickly baby chicks and picking tobacco in 95 degree heat, so my complaints about unpaid laundry folding fell on deaf ears.

It is really hard to negotiate with people who killed their own chickens for dinner or held the hind legs of the pigs for slaughter. Or shot the cow to get hamburger meat. Or saved the chickens from the flooded chicken house by wading through chicken crap. Or toted watermelons all summer. Or ate tomato sandwiches for months because there wasn't yet a pig big enough for you to have to hold it's hind legs so your dad could kill it so you could eat some meat.

Anyway, you get my point. No money came my way for any lazy, spoiled suburban-kid chores like taking out the trash or washing dishes. We were lucky we didn't have to murder our dinner ourselves. And we certainly didn't want to hear about it so we didn't ask.

My life now is pretty cushy--and so are the lives of my children. Work consists of cleaning bathrooms and sweeping the floors, not manual labor in the Georgia heat. Still, I consider that work to be part of being a team and should not be compensated. Jay thinks, and I agree with him, that an allowance can be a useful tool in teaching fiscal responsibility. Clearly, I want my kids to learn how to handle money, so how do we give them practice?

For right now we have decided to pay them for tasks that they do without us asking, that take work off of our plates, and that they do as well or better than I would do it myself. For our nearly 6-year-old son that is watering the plants. He loves plants, he likes to use the faucets, and he remembers more often than I do. The plants are all still alive and I am only out 3 dollars for the month of June thus far.

Our daughter found out that her brother was getting money and so she began a campaign to find some job for which I would be willing to pay her. She finally came up with being a sort-of mother's helper. She does jobs I can't get to right that moment because I'm in the middle of something else. It is usually things like serving breakfast to her brothers or putting shoes on the baby. She did it so well that this is how I was able to refinish the stairs. And still, I don't really like paying them.

I am actually pretty financially savvy. I got a degree in Economics back in the day and I like budgeting and talking about financial decisions, so it's funny that I'm so against giving our kids money for tasks they perform. I certainly don't get paid and it galls me that they might earn more than me, even if it's only by 4 dollars a month. I prefer to make them miserable every time I spend money by pointing out the price per unit or making them figure out what one treat item them want because we've reached our grocery budget.

We certainly do make conversations about money part of our family life. We show the children when we give money to our church or favorite charities. We explain that we use extra money to save or pay down our mortgage. We tell them how much things cost that they want and how many gallons of milk or loaves of bread that would be worth. But we still debate over the actual allowance part.

Meanwhile, their reactions to their paydays have been telling. Our daughter wants to buy every piece of glittery, colorful, junk she sees in any store we're in, including the grocery store. Our son wants to keep putting the money in his piggy bank so he can become "richer and richer" complete with gleeful/maniacal laugh.  Clearly we have some spendthrift/hoarder tendencies and teaching some balance would not be a bad thing on our part.

Whatever we decide it needs to be easy, logical, and as my husband likes to say, scalable. We have two more kids coming after the older ones and I am not interested in reminding four people to do their made-up chores so that I can remember to give them money that Jay earned. At this point we are treating these chores as a summer experiment. I am leaning towards removing the money once school resumes and telling them that it was just because they were home more and had more time to do the jobs well that I gave them money. And, of course, age and ability to understand the financial lessons matters. We will see.

So, what do you do? Do you have give, save, and spend jars? Do you give a steady allowance and let them decide? Is is all up to the Tooth Fairy and whatever Grandma sends for your birthday? Or, like me, are you fumbling your way through the money mess?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Best Mom Tip #187: Make Something New

I sometimes get lost in my own head. I'm not sure you'd call it depression-I've never seen any professionals and I've never taken any medication for it-but sometimes things just seem pointless. Or overwhelming. Or just too difficult to deal with. That's how I spent most of my January and February and maybe March and clearly, my blog took a hit because of it.

As the daughter of a person who has struggled with mental illness for 35 years, I am hyper-aware of the causes and treatment possibilities and also hyper-resistant to ever walk that path. When I feel myself begin to slip into a dark place I can usually redirect my fears and feelings of defeat by changing something or tackling something new. Sometimes it takes longer than others. And I know that if I ever truly cross the line into clinical depression it will not be something I can just pull myself out of. So, anyway, I am jacked up and loathe to admit it and so I throw myself into projects and refuse to go down the rabbit hole. I can't say that it is my healthiest personality trait, but there you are.

One of the ways I deal with my anxiety is by exercise. I train for things. I make myself hurt. I beat myself against a goal until I don't feel so down about myself anymore. But I also make things. Little things, big things. Things that use a miter saw and things that use my stenciling skills and things that need a drill.

I'm not sure why I find it so comforting. Maybe it's because I then have something to point to. Some way that I've spent my day or something that I, despite my many flaws, have accomplished. My latest project is these stairs. Last week they were covered in carpet and boring. This week they are blue.

Back in March, when I realized that my seasonal funk was lasting a bit too long and that I was feeling defeated and useless every day, I decided to pursue the possibility of returning to work. I miss teaching (although I also am grateful and enjoy the freedom of staying at home) and I thought that if my mind were busier I might not have to deal with my feelings of inadequacy. I could just fill my thoughts with grading papers and lesson planning.

That route didn't work out for this coming school year in what turned out to be a rather spectacularly unfortunate fashion from my point of view. So I was left with, what? No immediate career path. No sense of accomplishment. No sense of moving forward or upward or victory. Which brings me back to the stairs.

I use projects to propel myself out of the deep moments, but I also use them to celebrate my victory over the darkness in my mind. I use them to declare that I am still here. Still fighting. Still hopeful.

Eventually, finally, I remembered sometime in late April to pray. Really pray without any sort of secret agenda except to be and become a better human being. I prayed for purpose and direction and I am still waiting for answers. But my prayers helped me remember that I am not what I do. I am not even who I love. I am loved by God and my purpose is to share that love with others. How joyful. How hopeful. How uplifting. Just like my stairs. :)