Growing up on a farm, of course involved quite a bit of heavy manual labor without paychecks and vacations. I didn't receive any allowance or payment for my work on our farm. I think my parents looked at it as pro bono work, which means literally: for the good of, and in this case, for the good of the family, our family. But what both of my parents missed is that there was a quid pro quo involved - an exchange of one thing for another thing of value.
I have three brothers, and we were all quite young when we moved to our first farm. I remember well the day my mom gave me a choice: you can do housework or barnwork, but you have to work. Well of course I chose the barn work. My mom was so cool. Still is.
I loved taking care of the animals every morning and night, feeding and watering, brushing the horses, collecting the eggs, sweeping the long barn aisle, cleaning the stalls and spreading fresh sawdust. It was difficult. The bales of hay and straw were heavy. In the winter, the pipes froze and we had to carry all the water by hand in five gallon buckets. Pouring the grain into the wheelbarrow required deadlifting one hundred pound burlap sacks of oats and corn. All of this had to be done morning and night, freezing and sweltering weather, school days and weekends, summer vacation, holidays, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We didn’t take vacations. It’s one thing to have someone dog sit for you when you go to the beach, and another to ask someone to take care of a menagerie of horses, goats, chickens, hogs, cows and even a few ducks. Our vacation was the Butler Country Fair, one summer week a year where we camped out and showed our horses and drove home everyday to take care of the animals. I credit it for the work ethic that I hold to this day.
In this scenario, I was getting a quid pro quo. I was able to be outside in the fresh air, taking care of animals, letting my imagination run wild with ideas and stories and interacting with nature. It also engendered the feeling of a job well done – the stalls were clean, the aisle well-swept, the animals fed and watered.
I have a firm belief that parents should never underestimate the power of using a quid pro quo with their children. It can be simple, “If you stop whining, I’ll give you a cookie.” Or it can be deeper and healthier: a sense of accomplishment, learning something important, putting newfound skills to use.
When I wrote my first published book, Bloomers Island, I wanted to incorporate this concept. I made the moral of the story, everything is more fun when it’s a party. That’s why I called it, “The Great Garden Party.”
Maybe it was my inner Mary Poppins. It was one of the few movies I saw as a child, because the closest movie theater at that time was all the way in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. What a great movie Mary Poppins was! I loved that she made cleaning the room fun for Jane and Michael Banks. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down after all. If you clean your room we will use magic and have fun. I still remember the lyrics:
In every job that must be done there is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap! The job's a game
And every task you undertake, becomes a piece of cake
A lark! A spree! It's very clear to see that
A Spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
The medicine go down-wown
The medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way
There was no payment nor were there prizes involved or rewards. It was just finding the fun and the sense of accomplishment in a job well done.
Many of the Bloomers, little plant, flower and tree sprouts, weren’t that enthused about gardening. Rosey Posey thought that it seemed like too much work. And Basil confided that he didn’t like getting his hands dirty.
So Professor Sage, in all of his sage wisdom, decided to make the act of gardening a game. He sneakily constructed a series of contests, each one an important element of learning to grow food, so that the Bloomers learn to garden, without even realizing it. He gave them a quid pro quo - which was learning something important and a sense of accomplishment. Whenever I perform school author events, I tell my audience that this is the moral of the story and I tell them to tell their parents.
Mark Twain was a genius at this. He figured out how his fictional character, Tom Sawyer, could get his friends to help him with his punishment of whitewashing the fence. His friend, Ben Rogers commented about Tom’s work. Tom simply asked, “What work?” He pretended like it was fun. And when Ben wanted to join in, Tom wouldn’t let him at first. Finally, Ben gave him an apple to let him paint the fence.
That’s what you can do with your kids. Make it fun. Figure out how you can do that. Be creative, and that in and of itself will be fun for you.
You want your kids to clean their room? Time them and give them a prize if they can do a series of tasks in an allotted amount of time. Do your homework early? We can watch that movie you wanted to see. Do your laundry? Yes, even young children are capable of sorting, stuffing it in the washing machine, adding a cup of soap, then the dryer, and folding their own laundry. Quid pro quo: your clothes smell as sweet as a flower. Pull weeds in the garden? Quid pro quo: I’ll let you help harvest the fruit and vegetables. Eat their vegetables? I’ll allow you to pick out a fun recipe and cook it together. Figure out what they want to do. Ask them what they like doing: housework or barnwork, or yard work, or garden work. If they’re doing something they like, it won’t feel like a chore.
Of course, when doing your own work, you may want to keep this in mind yourself, and in a most delightful way.