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Jabari Asim

No Charge for Children's Chores

By Jabari Asim
Monday, December 13, 2004; 10:55 AM

WASHINGTON -- Robert Frost memorably defined home as "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." That kind of plain-spoken philosophy rings true everywhere, from the revered poet's pastoral New England to crowded, concrete inner cities.

Even so, the elders in the community where I grew up would have expanded a bit on Frost's keen-eyed observation. Home, they often made clear, is also the place where you earn your keep.

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Almost from birth, children were taught to make meaningful contributions to their households in whatever ways they could. Chores were commonplace. It was understood that you could not go outside and join your friends until you had made your bed, swept the kitchen floor, washed the dishes or performed any other tasks that you had been assigned. Your buddies required no explanation because most of their homes operated according to similar routines.

I don't know much about the Deltona, Fla., neighborhood where Ben and Kit Barnard are growing up, but it appears that things are done differently there. Ben, 17, and Kit, 12, have developed such a strong aversion to housekeeping that stacks of dirty dishes and clumps of soiled clothes have cluttered their living space. Anyone with kids will readily agree that the Barnard siblings' situation is hardly one of a kind. What is unique is Cat and Harland Barnard's response to their children's inertia. The elder Barnards have grown so disgusted with their children's unwillingness to help out around the house that they have moved into a tent in the front yard. They're on strike, they say, until Ben and Kit straighten up and fly right.

So far, Ben and Kit sound more chagrined than shamed. Maybe the clamor of curious journalists has prevented them from listening to their consciences. "It's extremely inconvenient," Ben told a reporter. "Every time the phone rings we have to run outside to give it to them." Hmmm, sounds like Cat and Harlan may be tenting for a while.

Parents were more resourceful in my youth; they had time-tested methods for convincing their offspring to see the error of their ways. My friend Kevin would come around to his mother's logic after she made him go cut a switch from a weeping willow tree. She didn't have to hit him with it. The simple, terrifying act of having to cut it usually did the trick.

My mother preferred provoking guilt instead of fear, and her technique was more dramatic. Any time we balked at performing some duty, she would start belting like Shirley Caesar. One of the all-time gospel greats, Caesar had recorded a popular song called "No Charge," which my mother promptly purchased and proceeded to play until the needle gave out on our exhausted hi-fi. Caesar sings about a woman's response to her money-hungry son, who attached a price to every household job he was expected to perform. His fee for mowing the yard, for instance, was $5.

Ma seemed to think the song had been composed just for her.

If we seemed to clear the kitchen table a little too slowly, she'd begin to sing: "For the nine months I carried you growing inside me, no charge."

If we showed the slightest reluctance to run to the corner store for a crucial ingredient? "For the nights I sat up with you, doctored you, prayed for you, no charge."

And if we had the nerve to ask for money to subsidize some dubious venture?

"For the time and the tears and the cost through the years, no charge."

We'd groan, we'd give in, we'd do what she asked.

I get the impression Ben and Kit Barnard would not be persuaded by such a tactic, even if delivered at Broadway-level volume. "We've tried reverse psychology, upside-down psychology, spiral psychology and nothing has motivated them for any length of time," Cat Barnard said.

The Barnards' work stoppage has attracted the counsel of numerous experts, who are drawn to cameras like athletes to steroids. The exasperated couple might do better by simply recalling the little old lady who lived in a shoe. She gave her kids broth without any bread, spanked them all soundly and put them to bed. In contrast, the Barnards stocked the freezer with food and left the kids inside a warm house with a phone and a TV. There may be wisdom yet in that old nursery rhyme. It ain't Robert Frost but hey, what is?


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