Shoes, soled with layers of dense mud, lined the porch. It had recently rained, turning the dirt driveways and road-side pathways into sludge traps. In this environment, shoes don’t come into the house. This was my front porch in Romania during the wetter seasons. In no time at all, the children’s shoes were trashed. I bought rainboots/wellies, and those worked for a time. But keeping shoes in top shape was a chore in an environment where pavement was scarce.
In Uganda, this scene also plays out in rainy season. Last year, as we discussed the universality of parenting issues, my Ugandan friend expertly navigated the streets of Kampala in her car on her way to work at a non-profit. Her children, not shockingly, weren’t keen on doing their chores. Yes, they had a nanny and a housekeeper, but the kids still had obligations. Case in point, they didn’t like to scrub their shoes. When shoes got muddy, it was someone’s chore to scrub them with a wet brush, cleaning them thoroughly, and then put them out to dry.
That was the secret to the longevity of the shoes in rainy season. Cleaning. Brushing muddy shoes seems a tedious task for anyone, but essential if one cares about stewarding their resources. Muddy shoes don’t need to be thrown out or neglected. They can be cleaned.
Cleaning shoes has the potential to be a banal, monotonous task. A chore. In my culture, chores are for children. At some point, they might hope to outgrow their chores. A chore, after all, has a negative connotation. No fun until the chores are done. They are conditioned to think that, at some point, they won’t have to do this thing that they don’t like. Then, theoretically, children are meant to transition those same activities into personal responsibilities, in tandem with their transition into adulthood, necessities for living as a mature adult.
At some point in my parenting, I realized the word ‘chore’ carried with it a loaded burden. Drudgery. Because chores are responsibilities that are carried into adulthood, why can’t we use the word ‘responsibility’ from the outset? The concept is similar, but the standard is the same from the time we are children until the time we are no longer able to care for ourselves. We always have responsibilities.
Because words choice matters, my kids no longer have ‘chores.’ Neither do I or my husband, for that matter. We all have ‘responsibilities.’ The children are responsible every day for making their beds, doing homework, brushing teeth and numerous other personal care and hygiene tasks. As they age, they take on more responsibilities beyond their personal care. They may be responsible for sweeping or putting the dishes away or closing the gate to the driveway. None of these are chores. They are things responsible people do.
One evening my daughter walked into the kitchen and asked me nonchalantly, “What are you doing?” I thought of giving the short answer – cooking. But at that precise moment I was not joyfully chopping veggies with the enthusiasm of Julia Child. It was a chore. I caught myself before I answered. “I’m doing my responsibilities. It’s my responsibility to feed you and make sure you eat healthy food, so I’m taking the time to prepare this meal for you.” I had to practice what I preached. Responsibilities aren’t something to be lamented.
Responsibility lays the groundwork for stewardship, competence, independence and a heart of service. When we deprive our children of the opportunity to exercise responsibility, we deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to manage responsibility in an environment where we can walk alongside them in that maturing process. We deprive them of the opportunity to see us model responsibility and live in community – the community of our family – each with different responsibilities.
I confess, I have been known to put down my book, let out a big sigh, and say within earshot of my children, “time to do my responsibilities.” At that point, it doesn’t matter if it’s a ‘chore’ or ‘responsibility.’ The attitude of my heart is what matters. While we can switch words around all we want, it does become an issue of the heart. That, as parents, is our greatest responsibility – nurturing hearts in the right direction.
If the shoes don’t get washed, it’s not the end of the world. But it is the loss of an opportunity to consistently and faithfully practice the skill they will need to live as serving members in the communities where God will place them.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Phil 2:3,4