For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.
Last Day: Friday
The food has been delicious, but the housekeeping has been somewhere between minimal and non-existent. We are under pressure because we have a friend, Brian, coming over for dinner this evening. I stomp around pointedly muttering about monetary rewards and their direct relationship to performance levels. This doesn’t work and myself and John both begin shouting. Soon all five of us are shouting, vacuuming, dusting and sweeping piles of toys under rugs. Our dinner guest arrives just as we have finally pulled it all together. Mary has been simmering beef chilli in the hotpot all day and whipped up some rice and homemade guacamole to accompany it. Michael and Seamus have set the table on the terrace nicely and sit chatting to our guest and fetching us drinks while we wait for dinner. Five minutes after Mary serves up it starts to rain. No one can be bothered moving the whole shebang inside, so we take turns to huddle under our canopy and I notice with alarm bright orange and green rivulets pouring off the edges. So the paint wasn’t waterproof. Oops.
The final task of the week is to do the dishes, after which they are free to watch inane cartoons until they lose consciousness and reawaken into normal life in the morning. But instead they stick around. The rain eases off and we light a fire. Brian shows Michael how to use wax to keep a little stick-torch alight. We’ve been playing with fire all week, what’s a few more hours?
Aftermath: Back to Porridge
It took a day or two of slipping back into the comfortable bed of old habits to appreciate what had really changed during our adventure. I can’t say that I was surprised by how well my children could cook and clean. I knew they were capable of that. The biggest surprise was myself. I hadn’t realised until I stopped how relentlessly frustrating, stressful, exhausting and downright depressing it is to try so hard to manage another person’s life. To schedule a week. To organise a day. During our experiment there was a subtle shift in responsibility that had nothing to do with whose job it was to do the dishes. I didn’t see it until my books were stolen in the train station. I was so upset with myself for forgetting them, I sort of froze for a moment before I even started looking for them. It was Mary who organised the search party, assigning us each a section of the station. She took charge. Her brothers followed her lead in a symphony of perfect cooperation. In case you think my kids are just saints, or freaks of nature let me say with haste that this is usually not the case. We have suffered protracted bouts of sibling rivalry. Hours of teasing, arguing and fighting. I’ve also wasted hours on lectures advocating personal responsibility that were intended to engender the kind of initiative I saw that day, to no avail. I had expected this initiative and responsibility to show itself in clean bedrooms and walked dogs, all on cue and in fulfilment of clearly communicated expectations. And I had often been disappointed. So what was different now?
The most common and fundamental mistake we make in bringing about change is to focus first on changing other people’s behaviour instead of looking first to ourselves. The missing ingredient my kids needed to really practice responsibility was for me to let some of it go. Giving your children a job is easy. Backing off and letting them carry out in their own way is harder. Doing it badly. Doing it wrong. Doing it as quickly as possible and then watching cartoons for four hours. It’s all infinitely better than not doing it at all. This can be hard to swallow in a culture where both children and parents are constantly under surveillance and constantly being judged. But kids, please! Give the grown ups another chance. We can eventually learn to back off. We just need some practice.