Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book Review: Cleaning House

One afternoon I found myself with an hour to spare in a part of town that made it inconvenient to go home before I had to pick up a kid. There happened to be a bookstore right there. And so I found myself, for one glorious hour, browsing a brick-and-mortar bookstore for no other reason than that I could. One whole hour spent just wandering shelves, looking at titles, flipping through cookbooks and pondering new releases.

Which is how I found this:

We're preparing for a cross-country move with three kids, and I thought Kay Wills Wyma's Cleaning House: A Mom's 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement would be a great resource for how to motivate the kids to give me the help I need to make this process go smoothly.

Wyma claims her Experiment was prompted by her 14-year-old son's off-hand request for a Porsche for his 16th birthday. She came up with a twelve-step program to teach the children the hows and whys of self-sufficiency. Each month was assigned a step (see below for a list).

Each month she announced, via a pseudo-democratic family meeting, what the project of the month was. She heard the groans, the protests, and the eyerolls, and she persevered. She gave each child his or her own container, put a dollar for each day of the month in it, and then set them to work. If they failed to do the required job they lost a dollar for that day. At the end of the month they kept whatever remained. As the year progressed, the chores that had been practiced the month before were retained, so that in the first month they were earning a dollar a day just for keeping their rooms neat, and by the end of the year they were keeping their rooms neat, doing their own laundry, helping to plan, prepare, and clean up after meals, and more, all for that same dollar. Halfway through she also instituted a jobs board that enabled kids to earn extra on additional projects.

It was generous of Wyma to give readers insight into her family. I always appreciate hearing how normal my kids are -- other people's kids give more or less the same kind of trouble in more or less the same proportions as mine.

It also was reassuring; my kids have been helping set the table, clear dishes, make beds, dust, sweep, empty the dishwasher, sort dirty laundry, fold and put away clean laundry, and help out with the grocery shopping since they were very small. Wyma's kids didn't know what produce was. So at least I knew I hadn't been slacking as much as I feared in the personal responsibility aspect of child-rearing.

But as interesting as I found Wyma's insights, the book was lacking as a parenting guide. It really is just an account of how things went for one family. Her kids never failed; the dollar and her word seemed to be sufficient motivation for them. If I promised my kids a dollar a day to clean their rooms and make their beds, I'm pretty sure they'd earn only maybe half the money (at best), because they are so unaccustomed to having a regular income. Not getting a dollar they wouldn't have gotten anyway makes little impact on them. Nobody in her family ever seemed to balk at whatever she was asking of them, or if they did she didn't talk at all about how she coped with the resistance. They complained and maybe rolled their eyes, and then they did it.

They also never seemed to fail even when they made the attempt. Failure happens, even when the kids are moved by a generous spirit, as when my six-year-old broke a glass while emptying the dishwasher. He was so excited to help and show how capable he was that he was moving fast. The look on his face when he dropped it was heartbreaking. Of course he was barefoot, so my reaction was "DON'T MOVE!" because I was afraid he would step on the glass and cut his feet. But he heard yelling and thought he was in trouble. When we got everything cleaned up he said "I guess I should just go back to putting away the silverware." Of course I reassured him and he got over it; the point is that her kids rarely failed at what they attempted, except from resistance or laziness (as when they were cleaning the bathroom), nor does she address how to draw the line between a job done poorly but with good intentions and a job just flat out done poorly.

Another difficulty I had with this book is that her conservative political bent sometimes manifests as though her kids are liberals (she actually uses the word "socialists") who expect handouts, while she, the responsible conservative, wants them to be responsible for themselves. As a liberal, I really object to her position, but since it doesn't cover the majority of her book, just kind of flavors it, it is not a reason to avoid it altogether. I do want to point out,  however, that liberals want their children to be as empowered and capable as conservatives do, and that if she does continue writing like this that I would find her work more compelling if she left the liberal-conservative thing out of it. And also, used the word "socialists" correctly.

I'm not sure if Wyma meant Cleaning House to be a parenting book or a memoir; she did almost no research to support her assertions. She mentioned Michael Gurian's Wonder of Boys a few times, but it sounded like she had heard it recounted to her, rather than read it herself. There were a few other snippets of professional advice scattered throughout, but mostly it was the anecdotal sort from other families, so helpful, but not necessarily authoritative. Surely over the course of a year she could have read his book herself (especially since he blurbed hers for her)? And perhaps one or two others on similar topics?

Overall, I'd give Cleaning House 3 1/2 stars out of 5. I take a full star off for not being specific enough about resistance and failure, and half a star for putting a conservative slant on a topic that does not need to be politicized. If you'd like a jumping off place for helping teach your children to be useful, confident adults, you could do worse than this book. I just wish that Wyma had done rather better.

*Kay Wills Wyma's Twelve Steps: 
  1. Making beds and keeping clutter off the floor
  2. Planning and cooking a meal, cleaning up kitchen afterwards
  3. Working outdoors
  4. Making income
  5. Cleaning the bathrooms
  6. Laundry
  7. Small maintenance/repair jobs around the home
  8. Hospitality
  9. Working as a Team
  10. Running errands
  11. Service to others
  12. Good manners

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a helpful review. I do think it is distressing that all aspects of life can become politicized. If only life were so simple as black and white... left and right.