What’s For Dinner?

A couple of nights ago, my twelve-year-old daughter asked what was for dinner, I asked her what she would prefer to eat.  Without hesitation, she replied, “I want something snuggly where I don’t have to do any dishes.”  It took everything in my power to not laugh and instead just say, “I hear you! Now, imagine how I feel.”  

I have good kids.  They do the dishes after a meal, do their own laundry and are generally good with helping when asked.  So, when my daughter said this about dinner, I couldn’t help but be proud.  It was a moment where I felt as though I was really winning at this parenting gig.  Finally, all the discipline and boundaries we cultivated as a family were paying off.  My children were actually learning where the limits are in our family.  On a small scale, my daughter recognized how much I do for them.  But more importantly, I realized that my daughters understand what is expected of them.  Yes, sometimes they need reminders and they are not always happy about the particular task but for the most part they toe the line.  

Discipline can be such a scary word for people when it comes to family dynamics.  It brings up thoughts of corporal punishment and it isn’t something we often like to discuss with friends.  But discipline describes the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.  This is exactly what parenting is.  When my girls were very young my father would regularly comment on how strongly we disciplined our children.  My husband and I had this theory, if we taught our children early on where our boundaries were and we continued to be consistent with them, as they got older our girls would know where our limit was.  We wouldn’t be forced to reintroduce boundaries when they were older.  Instead, we would be able to loosen the reins so to speak.  My twelve-year-old’s response about dinner was an understanding of our family expectations and boundaries.        

I cannot remember the first time I made my girls do their own laundry, but I know it was due to complete frustration. It was around the time we stopped having a nanny, the girls were getting dressed by themselves, and making a complete mess in the process. They would pick an outfit, not like it, and throw it in the laundry basket. I was up to my ears in laundry. After much lecturing and ultimatums, I threw in the towel (literally AND figuratively) and made them do their own laundry. How liberating it was to no longer launder for five! This isn’t to say it was without hiccups. For instance, I realized two months in that they had neglected to use detergent. Ever. I also had to come to terms with the fact that, if they did their own laundry, there would be some stained, disheveled, wrinkled, and/or shrunken outfits worn to school. But for me, this far outweighed the frustration of drowning in piles of laundry.

My daughters doing their own laundry is non-negotiable.  Saturday mornings are usually reserved for laundry.  Before they watch tv or play on their Nintendo, laundry must be sorted and put in the washer.  They tend to start early in the morning and usually two of them will be smart enough to combine their clothes to save time.  However, it is still a battle usually with my oldest growling and stomping up and down the stairs over the injustice of her having to do her own.

We each have battle (non-negotiables) we are willing to fight with our children on, and each of these battles are prioritized.  The give and take, the “it’s just not worth it” and the “I’m so exhausted I just don’t care anymore” fights.  Issues we thought we’d never budge on, suddenly seem less important and not worth the fight with the little beasts. Does it really matter if they have a piece of chocolate an hour before dinner?  Probably not.  Do I care that much that there has been a pile of laundry on the bathroom floor for several days?  Not really, as long as it gets cleaned up eventually.  Then there are those battles we know we will never give up on.  We all have them.  They are those sticking points either learned from our childhood or adopted from years of living independently.  These battles we find completely worth it in the end because they represent a family boundary we find precious.  

But, these battles and boundaries can change over time.  What is necessary for toddler isn’t always acceptable for an older child.  Pre-Covid, my living room was off limits to my children unless they cleaned up after themselves.  They rarely did, making that room off limits.  It was not as if I put up caution tape and roped it off but if we had an option I would choose the den for movie nights.  A year later, with the stay-at-home order, I gave up the battle over the living room.  It has become our cozy place where we all unwind and regroup after dinner.  We now have our movie night and our Survivor marathons in the living room.  We established a reasonable trade off with me cleaning up the living room after everyone has made it upstairs for their bedroom routines.  Should they procrastinate or find it impossible to get ready for bed without me being present, we move bedtime a half-hour earlier.  Initially, this strategy worked but as they realized that they could easily keep me part of their bedroom routine if they picked up their socks, toys and blankets from our living room, things changed.  Surprise, surprise, they now clean up all of their stuff!  I would love to say, they do it all by themselves but a gentle nudge is usually still required.  

Most nights at our house my daughters are responsible for setting the table, cleaning off the table and getting the dishes into the dishwasher.  This never goes smoothly.  Without fail, one of my daughters argues about the other two girls not pulling their weight preparing the table and the meal ends with a brutal negotiation over cleaning dishes.  I am sure this sounds like a miserable experience but similar to the laundry and the living room, it is not negotiable.    

As a parent, one of our jobs is to set boundaries for our children and it is our children’s responsibility to push these boundaries to their limit.  The chores in my household are some of the non-negotiable boundaries that I believe give them real world experience.  They learn from it and grow.  Silly family battles over laundry and cleaning the table are very real for my girls.  These disagreements become a safe place for my girls to flex their independence, learn to negotiate and in some cases rebel against what is expected of them.  It doesn’t always mean they will get their way or that we will bend on our expectations but it does help them become responsible human beings.

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