Now What Did I Do With My Parenting Manual?

“Man, this sucks!” I looked up to see my 11-year-old son, C, stomp into the kitchen where I was working at the table. Full of preteen disgust and frustration, he banged the dishes around as he cleared the sink out to run fresh dish water. “Why do I always have to do the dishes?”

At the now common sounds of anger, frustration and petulance for having to actually do something, I pushed away from my laptop and walked over to the sink. All these things I wanted to say flooded my head. Things like, “I don’t know, why do I always have to go to work? Why do we always have to cook supper?” None of it was helpful.

I stepped between him and the sink, finished running the dish water and started washing the dishes without saying a word. I was in my “I’m a mad, but calm, mom” attitude. As he reached to grab some trash off the counter top, I snapped, “Just leave it alone!” So much for calm.

He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, tears in his eyes. “Mom, I just don’t understand why I’m always the one that has to do the dishes!”

As I thought about a nice, or at least nicer, way to say anything, my dad came in. He looked at me, looked at my son, and said, “And no, your friend can’t come over.”

“Grandpa… I just want to know… I don’t understand why I always have to do the dishes!”

My dad said what I’d been thinking. “I don’t know – why do you always have to sit at my dinner table?”

As my son went to his room and I finished the dishes, I thought about what had happened.

C really is a good kid. For the most part, he’s helpful and loving, reasonably kind to his 6-year-old sister, and adores his 15-year-old brother. He’s in his second year of home school and finally settling in. He’s been trying really hard over the past few months to hold his tongue when he’s angry and just get the job done. He’s started trying to do what he’s been taught is right, and not what he wants to do.

As I thought about all that, I realized something. He’d asked almost the same question several times. Although he’s often whined when told to do something, this time he sounded frustrated and confused; he really wanted to know.

I finished the dishes and went to the room he shares with his brother, D, who was sitting at the computer and playing a game. C looked up at me from the bed where he was sitting. “Mom…” He swallowed hard and wiped his face. “I just really want to know why I’m always the one that has to do the dishes.” He gestured at D. “He’s here, too…” He struggled to find the right words.

I sighed and rubbed his knee. “It’s okay. I know you’re frustrated and angry. I know it doesn’t seem fair.” His eyes widened, and I almost laughed. I covered it with a cough and put my hand on my hip. “See, when you say things like that, our immediate reaction is to say, ‘Well, why do you always have to eat?’ Like Grandpa did – because we can’t help but think of all the things we always have to do.”

C nodded and looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry, mom…”

“It’s okay, son. But let me ask you a question.” He nodded and looked back up at me. “How long, on an average day, does it take you to do your school work?”

He thought about it. “I don’t know – two or three hours?”

“Right. – And from the time you’re done with school work until your brother gets home from school, what do you usually do?”

He looked at the computer where D was silently playing Minecraft, and then back at me. “Play.”

“Right. Your brother has only been home from school for a half hour, while you’ve played most of the day. See, you get your play time in, don’t you?” He nodded. “That’s why you’re asked to do the dishes – because we know you’ve already had your play time.”

He sighed and shoved his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry mom,” he said. “I just didn’t understand. I just wanted to know why.”

I hugged him. “Well, now you know. Does it make sense? Do you understand?”

He smiled. “Yes, but you know it doesn’t make it any better. I still have to do the dishes.” We laughed, I poked him in his side and the rest of the day went on.

Lessons Learned

I know I’m a work in progress, but I often forget my children are, too. They each have the opportunity to grow, change, mature, and overcome life’s difficulties. My son, who had always used “why” as a reason to argue, genuinely wanted to know “why” this time, and I almost missed it. He’s growing up.

As well, I was reminded that children have a deep sense of injustice, fairness and hypocrisy as it applies to them, while, for the most part, they have yet to master consideration of others. They’re so grounded in black and white.

My sons switch back and forth on the supper dishes, and that’s okay with C. Yet, when it came to doing extra dishes, he felt he carried an unfair share of the load. Black and white – D only does supper dishes; C does supper dishes and sometimes lunch dishes. That’s an unfair two to one ratio.

I know I’m not the first parent to wish children came with a manual… “When your child says they don’t understand, explain it to them.” Had I read that, we might have arrived at the explanation a little earlier. Ah, well – c’est la vie, non? That’s life…

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