The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching my kids to be responsible and appreciative, one Popsicle stick at a time.


When I tell people that I work from home, they usually look at me with a hint of envy.

Usually. But not during the summer.

With four kids at home, there isn’t much working going on in the summer. Between breaking up fights and making grilled cheese and washing endless loads of swim towels, there isn’t much time left for anything.

This summer, though, we’re in a new house in a new city, and we’re ready to start some new routines. And, frankly, I need the paycheck that comes from those quiet mornings spent at my desk. That’s why I decided to make this our Popsicle stick summer.

The children, ages 8 to 17, are old enough to pitch in around the house. They don’t help much during the school year — everyone is busy with homework and sports, so I consider it a victory that they pack their lunches, make their beds and put away their laundry, while my husband and I take care of most everything else.

There’s a whole world of things that they don’t know how to do, though, things they haven’t even noticed need to be done, because I do the chores while they are in school. But it’s time they learned, so I bought a bunch of oversized Popsicle sticks and used a thick black marker to label each one. On the last night of the school year, I brought an old jar to the table, stuffed with the sticks, and explained to the kids what our summer would look like.

Every morning, they will go to swim practice, come home, eat breakfast and do their summer school assignments. After that, they’ll each pull two sticks from the jar — no peeking allowed. And they’ll do whatever chores are written on the sticks.

I don’t expect these chores to go smoothly, or well. I’ll have to show them how I expect each chore to be done — a time-consuming task itself — and even then, I’ll likely have to redo the chores after they’ve finished, at least at first.

Worried that my kids would only remember me as a stressed-out mom, I tried this

The chores I’ve listed aren’t even things I do on a regular basis. Dust the baseboards? Who has time for that? But this summer, my kids will be dusting baseboards, because I want them to notice the dust that accumulates when baseboards go untouched. “What’s a baseboard?” my youngest child asked when I read this chore aloud. By the end of the summer, I expect she’ll know, and I hope she’ll take some pride in knowing they are clean because of her efforts.

These chores are meant to highlight things I want them to notice, and realize need to be done. Things they might think just stay clean or get done without any effort. So our list includes little things such as wiping the bathroom counter, watering plants and cleaning the refrigerator door. These aren’t onerous tasks, but they need to be done regularly, and I have grown tired of doing them alone. I also included a few non-chore tasks that I’d like them to start doing: Write a letter, for example, or perform a random act of kindness.

As an added incentive to let me get my work done, the kids have been warned that the jar of sticks will sit on the desk next to me during my workday. Anyone who dares to interrupt me for anything less than a bloody head wound will be handed the jar of sticks. Anyone who interrupts my workday by quarreling with a sibling will earn a stick. There are 25 sticks in the jar, and some tasks can be repeated. Folding the laundry, for example, is a never-ending task.

It’s early in the summer, and we’re still at the point where I have to stop what I’m doing each time a stick comes out and show them what I want them to do. Perhaps I’ll abandon the whole project partway through the summer, out of frustration. But so far my plan is working. We’ve written letters and pulled weeds and scrubbed toilets and sorted dirty clothes by color. No task takes more than 10 minutes, and the kids know that once they’ve finished what is written on the sticks, they are free to spend the rest of the day as they wish (as long as they don’t interrupt my work).

I expect within a few more weeks we’ll all have adjusted to the routine and they’ll be in the habit of stepping up to help with the little things. My children will be a few steps closer to becoming responsible, independent adults. And who knows? I might even manage to get some work done.

Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer and the author of “Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse.”

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting.

You may also be interested in:

Dear recent high school grads: Don’t waste your summer

5 things that make communal parenting easier than going it alone

Summer break is hardly a vacation for parents, but here’s how it can be