The grandchildren are visiting from Portland and I’m a bit in that weekend Dad mentality of organizing fun kid-friendly things for them to do. There will be that—the trip to the playground, the ice cream treat, the possibility of the zoo. But meanwhile, what is proving so satisfying and just as much fun is simply including them in the routines of what need be done. I had three-year old Malik to myself at the beginning of the day and we started by making pancakes together, putting in the laundry, taking out the compost, cleaning the kitchen. In each of those activities, I found a way he could help and talked through what we were doing and why.
Later, six-year old Zadie joined us and after some playground and hill-climbing time, we all went to Trader Joes and they helped shop, shuck some of the corn in the store and bring the bags into the house. Then Zadie helped cut some strawberries and Malik helped set the table. Still later, Zadie helped me folding the laundry.
This is so simple and so important and yet, we often lean too much toward entertaining the kids or making sure that machines are entertaining them. How is a child to learn the basics of self-care, the sense of helping, of being a useful member of a family unit, of finding pleasure in life’s necessary duties? Montessori education is very big on this, giving children more independence, control and power over the little things in life, teaching them techniques and procedures and attitudes about caring for oneself and the environment. Maria was very clear that you should never do something for a child that the child can do for him or herself. Okay, if you’re running late and have to get out the door soon or else, you might be excused for tying your kids shoes just this once. But don’t make a habit out of it.
So sometimes we do things where the child is following the adult and learning something necessary, be it how to fold a shirt, wash a dish, read a book or fix a flat tire. And sometimes the adult is following the child—like when I left Zadie alone for 20 minutes and found her composing pieces for squeaky toy pig and piano (Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?) or having the squeaky chicken ask the Magnetic Fortune Teller “Do you speak chicken?” and getting the answer, “Yes.”
In short, adults passing on the lore of the family, culture, species to children on their way to adulthood is vital, pleasurable and exactly what children need. And the adult also gets the pleasure of sharing their knowledge, be it the simple act of how to beat egg whites to how to craft an essay or fix an engine. Children need to know the value of work, the pleasure of work, the mechanics and techniques of work, the craftsmanship of work and the feeling that they are contributing not by verbal praise, but by active participation in the communal activity. Simple truths that get lost when we get confused and choose the entertainment mode with our children.
And equally, children need to be left alone to play and pass back their imagination, curiosity, offbeat thinking (playing the piano with a toy pig?), their expressive bodies and voices, their dynamic energy to adults who have leaned too far to the work mode and forgotten how to play. The child then also gets the pleasure of knowing that they are something more than an inefficient inexperienced worker whose exuberance is often declined and know that there are adults who still love to play and love children for their playfulness. Another simple truth that gets lost when adults only care about molding children into “responsible adults.”
So a reminder to us all. Share what you know with the children habitually, before they reach the eye-rolling stage and be clear about their ability and necessity to contribute to the daily running of the household, not as a chore that robs them of their childhood, but as a pleasure that help completes it.