Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

At what age should kids get themselves up in the morning?  Make their own food?  Clean their own clothes?

I’m rather a firm believer in the idea that a large part of any parents’ role is to prepare their offspring for the real world. 

For years, I’ve worked with international young adults as they come to the United States for a work-training experience.  Since college in many countries does not mean living away from home, for most of them, coming to the USA meant new culture, new food, new language... and new responsibilities.  

Some of them have been woefully unprepared.  I went to visit one fellow from Colombia–and literally did not recognize him after six months at his host farm.  He had lost almost 60 lbs.! His work was much more physical than he expected, but his true weight loss secret came from simply not knowing how to cook.  The task seemed so daunting that at the end of a long day, he said he had to choose between preparing food... or going to bed.  “I choose sleep,” he told me with a grin.  

My poor children pay for these situations, of course.  After that scenario–which I’ve recounted to them a bunch of times– I have paid more attention to their food preparation skills.  Pasta seems the food of choice for teenagers: boil water, throw in some salt and oil, set a timer, make sure there is plenty of cheese to put over top of it.  Voila: lunch is served.  Nutritional value aside, they are proud of themselves.  We have talked more about the rest of the food pyramid, but expediency is really the name of the game for masses of hungry mouths at this age.

The teenagers don’t seem to enjoy other half of my kitchen-training plan as much as the food- creation side.  We have a distinct difference of opinion on this issue.  I believe that if they make the mess, they must clean it up.  They think that if they are doing “all this work of cooking” for themselves, “someone else” must clean up.  Their favorite trick involves offering to cook for their friends–or their younger sister.  Then, they insist “you ate, you have to clean up”–for everyone.  

My very favorite homework assignment–ever–came from one of the BAMS food classes.  The homework sheet that came home insisted that the student cook a specific item, and then–hooray!--CLEAN IT UP.  Best of all: the parent had to sign off on a statement that the kitchen was “left in good order, and cleaned throughly”.  I sought out that teacher and made sure to thank her profoundly.  

We’ve also been discussing laundry.  It’s really not that hard to throw clothing into a washing machine, and then a dryer about a half an hour later.  It involves machines with buttons, too; that makes this not such a hard sell in our house, particularly for boys who have always loved things with buttons to push.  But folding the laundry?  Putting it away? Oh, the horrors of those chores in their brains!  It’s such taxing work, they insist.

For a while, I declared that I would just no longer do their laundry, they were on their own, and they must figure it out.  Period.  

I backed off of that when I could no longer find my washing machine and dryer underneath all their piles–clean or dirty, no differentiation made, all just heaped, normally with my neatly folded baskets somewhere underneath.  There is nothing like reaching for a shirt I’ve carefully laundered and hung dry... and it smelling like the lacrosse bag that makes me nearly retch when it’s opened.

We have come to a different understanding now.  They must bring down the dirty stuff, and they must put the clean away.  There are to be no more piles.  Ever.  The washing machine awaits their dirty clothing at all times, but particularly after sports practices.  Sweaty stuff comes off downstairs in the laundry room, and is immediately resurrected by the miracle of detergent. My system must reign–or else they will just wear the smelly soccer shirt for days on end.

The first days of school, I remembered why I dislike the end of summer so intensely.  It’s not just the passing of my favorite season, the impending cold looming, the structure of the required routine that throws me so much.

No, it’s more than that.  It’s my cheery “good morning!” being greeted with half-human sounding grunts from my 15-year-old.  It’s the action of laying in bed until the last minute, not talk to anyone without yelling, and never really getting it all together, from the nine-year old.  It’s the watching of phone buttons being pushed all morning by the 13-year-old, and then hearing “I didn’t have time to get the rabbits out and the dishwasher unloaded!”  

When I’m completely honest, I have to admit that it’s also my longing for my summer morning runs.  The clock is ticking on the runs.  I want to eat up those last mornings of warmth and sun. Since the sun comes up later every day, the days are limited.  

So I bought three alarm clocks, one for each child, with a nod towards each of their favorite colors.  I made sure they all had “loud alarms” advertised on their boxes; two of them even had “ascending alarms”, the ones that get louder and angrier the longer you ignore them.  Last week, I happily handed them each their carefully selected gifts.  I explained how I think it’s time for them to get ready on their own.  I regaled them with stories of my own childhood (they roll their eyes, but I do it anyway): “At your age, I had to get up and go outside–in all sorts of weather–and feed fifty calves!  Your cousin goes out to milk cows still.”

And, I announced that I would be outside, running.  “If you don’t make the bus, there will be serious consequences, things like no more Kindles and phones,” I said, and ended the discussion.

Well... so far, so good.  They are rising to the challenge. We’re working on time management a bit (if you pour a huge bowl of cereal six minutes before you need to walk down to the bus, will you really be able to eat it all?). I’m agreeing to help with some chores (taking out a few extra bunnies takes more time than it did to just put out the original six).  

I’m learning to love the sound of three alarms going off, and I’m working hard to just stay out of their way!

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.  Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..