how many chores can kids really handle? Eloise Wilkin’s point of view

Last week we had a lively discussion sparked by my meeting a mother who claimed her five and seven-year-old sons do all her family’s laundry without any supervision on her part. Here’s the consensus we seem to have reached: while it is very important for kids to have responsibilities so they don’t go off to college not knowing how to turn a washer ON, it is also very important for them to be kids, and not do too much of the heavy lifting. But how to find that balance? How much is enough responsibility, how much is too much? 

Last night, I was reading to Maggie from one of her very favorite story collections- the “Eloise Wilkin Golden Book Treasury,” a collection of that author’s apple-cheeked children first drawn fifty years ago. Maggie chose the story “We Help Mommy,” and while I have read that story many times– not just to her, but to myself, many moons ago– last night I saw the book with new eyes.  Won’t you read along with me? 

Here’s the cover. Look at them, with their wee broom and dustpan, Sally in her starched apron! Maggie does that very thing with a play Dustbuster. Although it doesn’t actually bust any dust. 

They help their Mommy every day. Doesn’t that sound nice? They take off their jammies without even being asked! (That’s more than I can say about a certain six-year-old.)

Sweet Mother of God, is that three-year-old using a TOASTER while her four-year-old brother fries eggs on a hot plate? A hot plate which would be pulled from stores in 1962 after a rash of horrifying house fires? “You two are a big help,” says Daddy, and by “help,” he apparently means, “make my breakfast while I take my morning seat in the bathroom down the hall.” 

“Pull the sheet tight,” Mommy says, standing in the doorway, in her kind-of-mad voice. Sally and Bobby pull until there’s not a wrinkle left because the last time Mommy tried to bounce a quarter off her bed, and it didn’t bounce, she made their tummies feel a little funny inside.

Then they dust and vacuum and mop, under all the furniture, EVERY DAY, while Mom surreptitiously texts her friend: “3 pm martinis my hous B THER.”

Actually, it’s a toy soldier in the mother’s hand. But may I point out to you: that is the first toy we have seen in this narrative, and it is not being held by a child.

After that, it’s a quick trip through the grocery store. Apples and raisins! Criminy, is it Christmas morning?

Then it’s lunchtime. Sally and Bobby make their own sandwiches, and then, Slap! Mommy puts them together, sprinkling some ash from her cigarette on top. What yummy sandwiches!

It goes on from there: setting the table, washing the dishes, reorganizing the kitchen, doing a few loads of laundry (with parental supervision, it must be stated), hanging the wash out to dry on the line, the three-year-old with her mouth full of clothespins. 

Soon, it is time for them to put away their books and toys, after their allotted “play time” from 5:57 to 6:00 p.m. Then they retire to their slave-barracks, where Daddy reappears just in time to tuck them in. “I’m so hungry, Daddy, “Sally tells him. “That’s all right,” Daddy responds, patting her arm. “I sure enjoyed the dinner you made for me. It was a delicious treat. For a servant’s heart, that is its own reward.” Sleep tight, Sally and Bobby! Tomorrow you have to beat the carpets and mulch the front lawn.

James Lileks is the king of reinterpreting found texts, and I owe him props here. If you’ve never read his work, start with his interpretation of the 1973 Sears catalogue.