Growing up in a family of eleven, with no dishwasher or garbage disposal, being on “dish detail” was not a coveted position, and yet, some of my favorite memories come from those evenings. Usually there were two of us per meal. One cleared the table and scraped the dishes into the trash, while the other pre-rinsed them. Then one sink was filled with very warm, soapy water and the other with extremely hot water—so hot that you couldn’t put your hand into it. (We became adept at fishing out utensils with a fork.) One of us washed the dishes, and put them into that hot rinse water. The other removed dishes from the drain rack, dried them with a cotton dish towel and put them away. Both removed them from the rinse water as needed. Sometimes a younger sibling was set on the counter with the task of putting drinking glasses, plates, and serving bowls into the cupboard.
It was work—demanding, laborious, time-consuming work; from the messy, greasy beginnings, to the final swipe of the laminate counter and tucking the drain rack into its space beneath the sink. It was also satisfying to see gravy smeared chaos turned into cleanliness and order. And often, it was enjoyable. I don’t claim we never quarreled—I think my parents purposely didn’t pair me with at least one sister—but generally we talked, we sang silly songs, we pretended we were in a competition like on a game show, and sometimes we barely finished in time for family prayers.
In an amazing article, “Family Work,” by Kathleen Slaugh Bahr with Cheri A. Loveless, Bahr began with her own childhood experience. She wrote, “While we worked we talked, sang, quarreled, made good memories, and learned what it meant to be family members, good sons or daughters and fathers and mothers.”
Bahr, who has spoken at world conferences: World Family Policy Forum, and the Second World Congress on Families, discusses the changes in the work done in a family from laboring in fields together, to the changes brought about during the industrial revolution and through modern appliances. With objection, she wrote, “Today many social and political forces continue the devaluation of family work, encouraging the belief that family work is the province of the exploited and the powerless.”
She laments those who try to assign an economic value to the work done in the home, while ultimately “devaluing family work to its mere market equivalent.” She claims that those who would do so miss the greater result of “building character development. . . Here lies the real power of family work—its potential to transform lives, to forge strong families, to build strong economies.”
When our children were young, I enjoyed when we worked together, from preparing meals to cleaning the house. We planted gardens, getting our hands into the soil from which grew carrots, onions and peas. We took a break from cleaning bathrooms and folding laundry to make blanket forts. Then we folded them up, put them away, and set the table for dinner.
Bahr wrote of working together “in this stewardship, with an eye single to the glory of God, a deep and caring relationship [grows] out of . . .shared daily experience. . . On a daily basis, the tasks we do . . . provide us with endless opportunities to recognize and fill the needs of others. Family work is a call to enact love.”
After expulsion from Eden, Adam was told that the earth would be “cursed” to bring forth weeds “for thy sake.” There is much good that comes from working “in the sweat of thy face” to provide for our families. Perhaps the fact that no matter how many times a room is dusted or a floor mopped or laundry folded, it will all need to be done again, and regularly, is actually a blessing. From these daily tasks that will always be there, we give of ourselves to make life better for those we love.
Bahr also pointed out, “Ironically, it is the very things commonly disliked about family work that offer the greatest possibilities for nurturing close relationships and forging family ties. Some people dislike family work because, they say, it is mindless. Yet chores that can be done with a minimum of concentration leave our minds free to focus on one another as we work together. We can talk, sing, or tell stories as we work. Working side by side tends to dissolve feelings of hierarchy, making it easier for children to discuss topics of concern with their parents. Unlike play, which usually requires mental concentration as well as physical involvement, family work invites intimate conversation between parent and child.”
She references the Canadian scholars Joan Grusec and Lorenzo Cohen, along with Australian Jacqueline Goodnow, “who compared children who did ‘self-care tasks’ such as cleaning up their own rooms or doing their own laundry, with children who participated in ‘family-care tasks’ such as setting the table or cleaning up a space that is shared with others. They found that it is the work one does ‘for others’ that leads to the development of concern for others, while ‘work that focuses on what is one’s “own,”’ does not.” She pointed out other studies that concluded children “who did ‘predominantly family-care tasks [such as] fetching wood or water, looking after siblings, running errands for parents’ showed a high degree of helpfulness while children . . . whose, primary task in the household was to clean their own room, were the least helpful.”
A child that works with his siblings and parents for the betterment of the whole, gains confidence and a sense of belonging; he learns about compassion, and he feels valued. It is an indispensable way to build the emotional quotient (EQ) of a child.
Bahr concludes, “Helping one another nurture children, care for the land, prepare food, and clean homes can bind lives together. This is the power of family work, and it is this power, available in every home, no matter how troubled, that can end the turmoil of the family, begin to change the world.”