The family is the original cell of social life…. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.[i]
A Context of Conversation and Solidarity
For the past eleven years, the drama of my family life has been unfolding in an old creaky house in an old Midwestern neighborhood on a street named after an apostle who cowardly denied his master three times, but then went on to doing some pretty good work. It is a pleasant and comfortable existence, but I’m sure guests to our residence never walk away with a perception of material luxury. One of the simple joys of our life together consists of spontaneous gatherings of family and friends on the side of our house. Recently on a Friday night, conversation among friends here turned towards the topic of children and work, especially work on Saturdays.
Saturdays on St. Peter Street have a distinct schedule. They begin with a father awakening a child and taking him or her to morning Mass, confession, and breakfast at a local diner. Then together they head home to rouse the slumbering masses and inspire them to crusade against the menacing shadow of clutter and filth.
In other words, children do Saturday chores at our house.
The morning after our conversation, after printing the master list of chores and the individual job checklists that have evolved over the course of many years, I put out some doughnuts to encourage the troops when they came downstairs. Just as the sound of footsteps upstairs began to signal their arrival, I got so enthusiastic that I posted a photo of the note and the list of chores on Facebook. At the time, I did not expect the reaction that this particular post was about to elicit. In the next four or five days, I had several online and offline conversations with parents (mostly mothers) who wanted to know more about these Saturday morning jobs.
From Saturdays Chores to Catholic Social Doctrine
Although children have been assigned chores virtually from the beginning of time, there are a number of reasons why kids doing housework in modern times seems difficult or not worth the effort to many parents. Children often have Saturday practices and activities that prevent them from being able to do their chores. There just isn’t time. Many parents want their children to be able to relax after a busy week. Saturday chores seem like too much. Even if these concerns are overcome, many parents cringe at the poor quality of the work that children often perform. Kids just don’t achieve the level of excellence that many parents want for their households. Finally, unless they are raised from the very earliest days doing chores, kids tend to have very refined and sophisticated resistance techniques, which cause tension and anxiety in the house. The drama and complaining is just too much! These objections can lead even the most ambitious parents to conclude that it’s simply not worth the effort to make their children contribute to the running of the home.
So why does the Kloska family insist on Saturday chores? As our children grow and mature and strive to become the people God created them to be, we believe that contributing to the common good is essential for our children’s proper formation. While certainly there is validity in all of the above objections, we feel that chores are so beneficial to our children that they are worth the hassle. Allow me to explain this from a catechetical perspective. Passing on our faith to our children is more important to us than anything else. Saturday chores contribute to this faith formation. Responsibility to contribute to our family life is a lesson in orthopraxis which embodies the orthodoxy that our children have yet to be taught explicitly. The faith is much easier to understand when it is “caught” before it is “taught.” In other words, no intellectual study of Catholic social teaching will resonate so loudly with a person as it will with a person whose family life was imbued with it. We don’t want our children merely to understand the theory of Catholic social teaching. We want them to “get” the internal logic from a lived experience of it.
Here is a sample of five concepts that our children will understand better because they have lived these realities. This list is not intended to be exhaustive.
1. Common Good. As Catholics, we believe that we have a duty and obligation to promote the common good. The common good comprises “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”[ii] [CCC 1924] As a family, we strive together to reach our fulfillment. Everything that happens in our house affects everyone who lives there. Thus it is understandable why in St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he writes, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Each member benefits from our life together, so each member must contribute to it. If members of our family are hindered in their lives because the house is not well run (i.e. laundry is not done, rooms are a mess, the kitchen is not kept clean, etc.), then they are less likely to reach their potential.
2. Gratitude. Gratitude is a cornerstone of Catholic theology. The very word to describe the source and summit of our Catholic faith, “Eucharist,” means “thanksgiving.” Saturday chores are an expression of gratitude. In appreciation for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon our family, our children are challenged to be givers and not just takers. In gratitude, we are all called to give back cheerfully. The material goods of this world, for example, are a great blessing. Cleanliness and organization show respect not only for these gifts, but in doing so, they also show respect for the Giver.
3. Sanctification. A job well done can be an offering to God if it is consciously performed with that intention. Good work cheerfully done is a beautiful prayer. “By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. It can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.”[iii]
4. Obedience. The fourth commandment binds children to a proper respect and obedience to parents. “Observing the fourth commandment brings its reward: ‘Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.’ Respecting this commandment provides, along with spiritual fruits, temporal fruits of peace and prosperity. Conversely, failure to observe it brings great harm to communities and to individuals.”[iv]
5. Virtue. “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”[v] Cultivating a habit of work and service to others is something that builds virtue and helps perfect a human person. Virtue practiced over time makes it easier and easier to continue on a positive path. Chores performed consistently and repetitively have the additional benefit of leading to a habit of success. It is a nearly universal human experience that too much dirt and clutter lead to frustration and depression. Order and cleanliness facilitate the opposite.
Theory is one thing, but to truly understand the principles, it is helpful to have some concrete examples. In a nutshell, here is what we do each Saturday. We have five children and five rotating job sets: 1) First Floor; 2) Basement / Porch; 3) Kitchen; 4) Bathrooms; 5) Stairs/Hallways/Cars. In addition, every bedroom must be cleaned and each child gets an outdoor job when necessary. Chores may begin whenever desired, but no recreation is allowed until that child is finished. This all started when they were younger with more simple lists. The older they get, the more capable of good work they become. The 17-year-old is capable of doing more chores well than the 9-year-old. It's important to ease each one into it and not completely overwhelm them.
Some Final Advice
Perhaps the greatest challenge is simply to set the expectation that Saturday morning means chores. I'm very calm and encouraging and I spend a lot of time doing nothing but supervising. Periodically, I must actually work beside them because the only way they can learn to work well is by example. So I've done most of these chores with them over the years. This is a VERY important part of teaching them how to work.
The detailed checklist has evolved over time. Not enough detail and they do a poor job. Too much detail, and they get frustrated by the tedium. Formal inspections are important. If they didn't do something properly, I try to show them how I want it done without making them feel stupid. Sometimes I simply stop and help them do a particular task; but inspections do cause tension and frustration because the job isn’t done until it is done properly. I am constantly walking the line between setting high expectations and allowing reasonable imperfections. It's not an easy task to be patient and teach them how to work, but it is VERY rewarding. Eventually they feel proud of the good work they do.
Let me be clear about something. Not a single one of our children has ever admitted to enjoying Saturday morning chores (quite the opposite), but I do believe that they have grown to hate them less as I have grown more skilled at managing the process. I do sense that they deeply appreciate it when I compliment their work in a specific and detailed way.
It would be good at this point to mention the fruits of this work in the character of the children. I’m hesitant to say too much here, as everyone is a work in progress, but as time goes on, it is easy to see that they now have much more peace with respect to work. Intuitively, they seem to sense the dignity and sanctifying power of performing meaningful tasks. Occasionally, they take a great step forward. For instance, while raking leaves together last week, we seemed to fall naturally into a focused and efficient spirit of cooperation. Anyone who has ever overseen children’s work periods will know that this is pretty unusual. We got done so quickly that all the kids were stunned at how easy the task became. What had taken us hours of tedious labor in the past now took us forty-five minutes. There was joy in the realization of what we could accomplish together, and one began to sense a true spirit of comradery forming amongst them. Not only did they finish early, they took the time to jump into the leaf pile and goof around together. Much merry-making and Tomfoolery ensued, and it was well deserved.
Whether they realize it or not, their work, their comradery, and their joy are all a participation in the creative work of God.
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2207.
[ii] [CCC], par. 1924.
[iii] CCC, par. 2427.
[iv] CCC, par. 2200.
[v] CCC, par. 1803.
Robert Kloska has served the Church as a high school teacher, college campus minister, professor of philosophy, college administrator and most importantly father of five children.
Art credit: "Dad's Helpers" Pawel Loj, Flickr.com Creative Commons.
This article was originally on pages 31-33 of the printed edition.