I have always been jealous of my friend Ann’s housekeeping. Her yard is a model of perfection, with lawn mower stripes in a checkerboard and not a weed to be seen. Her house is neater than mine will ever be. Nothing is out of place and there isn’t a speck of dirt on her floor. Her dishwasher is always loaded perfectly. Her coats in the closet all face the same direction. Her sinks are polished to a bright shine, and beds are made while they are still warm. I always marvel at how well she must have taught her children to do their chores and wished mine would be more careful when they did their own.
What was Ann’s secret? How did she ever get those two children of hers to do such a great job? Did she work with them? Were they just perfect children who did a perfect job without being reminded?
The answer is neither. One day at a community camp-out we were visiting around the fire. While Ann’s husband oiled the cast iron cookware, we were enjoying lemonade and comparing mommy notes. Often this leads to discouragement. Sometimes it brings a sense of relief because we aren’t alone in dealing with children and the myriad of issues that we face as mothers.
This time, for me, it wasn’t just a relief; it was downright amusing. One little comment from Ann told me the whole story about her and her meticulous housekeeping. I could barely keep the giggles from escaping: Ann does all that work all by herself.
Oh, her children used to fill the dishwasher after meals. But Ann went along behind them and repacked the dishes so they fit perfectly. Her children mowed the lawn at some point, but the rough edges and random un-mown spots drove Ann crazy, so she had to redo that too.
Eventually, either her children quit trying to help or she decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I smiled all evening at that. I bet she even has her dishes stacked just right and there are never any clothes in her hamper.
I suppose living in such a house would be pleasant, but it doesn’t matter, because I will probably never find out. If I want the dishwasher loaded perfectly, I will have to do it myself. If I want to teach my children to work, I will have to accept less-than-perfect results. If I want my children to learn, I need to let them do the chores their way.
Either I do it myself, or I need to accept my children’s version of a well-loaded dishwasher so they can learn responsibility. It’s a no-brainer. I’ll take the strange loading job any day. The dishes will still get clean.
I can’t expect perfection from others if I can’t expect it from myself. Sometimes when I am attempting to weed my flowerbed I have no idea if a specific plant is a flower or a weed. My husband says a weed is just a plant growing in a place you don’t want it. Suddenly, quack grass is a beautiful addition—if I like it, it’s not a weed anymore.
I guess I have a little bit of a hard time dealing with imperfect work, whether in the performing arts, housekeeping, or anything else. I have to constantly remember that if I were in an art class, the teacher would have to be awfully patient with my less-than-stellar attempts because I would just be learning.
Some things are worth doing as flawlessly as possible, such as surgery, musical performances, and school assignments. Others just don’t matter as much. The goal isn’t perfection; it’s training.
My father-in-law was often asked why he never hired help on his dairy farm. His boys helped him. Mistakes were common and cost them money, which was already scarce. But making a living wasn’t his ultimate goal. “I am not raising cows,” he used to say. “I am raising boys.”
Sometimes it’s hard to leave the front room un-vacuumed until a child arrives home so that he can finish the job. I hate seeing dishes in the sink that will need to wait for another child to wash them. The bathroom sinks only receive a quick swipe instead of a good cleaning, until I notice and call the child back for a re-do.
What am I teaching them if I finish the work? That unfinished jobs will just disappear? That a sloppy job doesn’t matter because Mom will redo it anyway? That their best is never good enough, so if they do a really terrible job, they might never be expected to do it again?
No, I don’t want them to believe any of those things. Training my children is more important than living in a spread for Better Homes and Gardens. I continue to show them how to complete a job and do it well, but I won’t do it myself. They need to learn, even if they don’t do a spotless job. I might have them come back and teach them how to do it better, but if I expect perfection, they will stop trying because it’s currently outside of their abilities.
A four-year-old’s version of a good job is different than a 16-year-old’s. When a younger child finishes a task, I might spiff it up a little when he isn’t looking and praise him for his efforts, but he is learning to complete a task.
Besides, with so many things to do that take my time, I am just glad that someone is helping! Who am I to complain? The dishes still get clean, the grass outside isn’t going to grow legs and move indoors, and laundry gets done when we have time. Now I am just going to close my eyes and ignore my unvacuumed room. It will get done tomorrow, and I’ll train my children in the process.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.