Housework Part I: Confessions of a Waldorf Mom
by Esther Leisher
This collection of ideas about housework and Waldorf parenting got started when Nikki Stephens asked Esther Leisher what she had done about housework when her children were young. It will appear here in several parts. You can get to know Esther better by reading in the category "About the Authors."
We would be delighted if you would add your own ideas, your own experiences in the "Comments" section at the end of each article. You are busy at the most important job in the world--parenting--and have a wealth of wisdom to share.
Nikki, you asked about how to get the housework done. I expect you already know most of the usual things like:
1) Schedule a particular day for housework, then you don't have to think about it until then.
2) Get your kids used to doing things for themselves.
3) Have a shoebox-sized basket for each person's things--baseball cap, picture to send to Grandma, things they must take to school, unfinished crocheting, or whatever.
4) Do some of the cooking on the weekend and freeze it--double batches, triple batches, whatever you have room for.
5) Or make a main dish for supper first thing in the morning; then supper doesn't find you having to make do with tuna sandwiches.
6) Fill the kitchen sink with hot soapy water before you sit down for supper and have everyone scrape their plates and put them in the water after supper. The dishes are half done.
7) My favorite trick was the clutter-clearing basket. Carrying the basket around the house, I put in everything I found on floors & tables. Then I put away everything in the basket. If putting things away is just what you can't bear to do at that moment, put the full basket in the closet to take out and deal with at some less frazzled time. The peace-saving basket creates such a wonderful sense of order in less than 15 minutes. I often did not get everything put away, but every child knew where all the "lost" things were--in the basket! That basket restored me to my better self. Also, the system is the most wonderfully instant "company is coming" housekeeping. Fifteen minutes to pick up clutter, 15 minutes to hastily clean the bathroom, and 10 seconds to close the bedroom doors.
8) Make lightness, happiness, imagination--even in housework--a priority.
Deciding what to do about housework has to be so individual, tailored not to some ideal, but to the life you actually live. Nothing anyone says should make you feel guilty. You have your own way of doing things. Talking together thoughtfully with other women should not leave you discouraged, but should bring intuitions. Each person in the conversation begins to know what it is they want to do in their own situation. It's okay to say, "I just want to get it done without interference from the kids."
The following tales from my own family life are more moods and qualities than housekeeping tips.
With all you have to do, including all that wonderful Waldorf stuff, how do you get the housework done? Everyone comes up with an individual way of coping with it, a happy solution or a not-so-happy one. Mine was to involve the kids in whatever I was doing. In their early years children learn through imitation; they want to do what they see you doing. For my children that meant they were involved in sweeping, mopping, cleaning the bathroom, washing clothes, preparing meals, washing dishes. In a way they were apprentices, not so much in housekeeping, but in attitudes toward life. We did lots of other things besides housework of course, wonderful things, but housework was not separate, not a category of "unwonderful things".
Sweeping a floor meant an inner experience of the broom, the floor, the dirt. We had linoleum floors when they were young (four kids, remember) so sweeping happened often. The little ones wanted to help, of course, but the adult brooms were too awkward for them (small brooms satisfy some children, but not mine). So they took turns holding the dust pan, intently watching my Zen sweeping. I swept lovingly ('I am scratching the house's back', I felt, while listening to the sound of the broom scritching across the floor.).
Having listened carefully, I noticed, and mentioned, that the broom seemed to be saying not "sweep, sweep, sweep," but, "Peees, Peees, Peees," with the hard sound at the beginning. You could hear it, really. Were the little ones listening to the broom? Watching the dirt form a pile? Or learning that work can be entrancing?
The broom thing took on another dimension when I found a lovely, soft, strange-looking broom in an import store. We bought it, felt it, examined it. This broom was made by a human being and we thought with gratitude about the person who put it together. "We have a special broom," was the feeling. "How fortunate we are." The new broom, curiously enough, spoke differently. Its soft sound was at the beginning, not at the end. It said a genuine "sweeeP, sweeeP, sweeeP". Of course the children were allowed to use the broom whenever they wanted, but I was the one who loved using it most. Sweeping became a moment of soul restoration for me: a soft broom, a soft sound and a clean floor. The children felt it. They came running when I started sweeping, and one winter's day they told me with great concern that Daddy had used the special broom to knock snow off the car. The sacred broom!
I remember that I had three mops because three of us mopped the kitchen floor. Or one did--me--while the two little ones went through the gestures. (In this instance the older ones were at school. There was a wide gap between the first two and the second two children.) Even though the mops were identical, my mop was "better" because it went straight. Their mops went in all sorts of unexpected directions, so one child or the other continually wanted to exchange mops with me, so they could use the "good" mop. But then that mop would go in all sorts of directions so they would trade me again. I found it more amusing than frustrating, but by then I was years past the anxious feeling of "Just leave me alone, I have to get this done!"
My children were fascinated just by the gesture of mopping when they were younger. But by the time Paul and Laurel were about 2-1/2 and five years of age, we were making wet patterns on the kitchen floor with the mops. (Would you call it a prelude to form drawing or just a movement experience?) By age five or six they could mop alone (with an audience). By age eight they were choosing mopping the kitchen floor as a chore they did alone on Saturday morning.
Laundry was another activity they gladly participated in. By two they were helping me sort out the clothes in front of the washing machine: white, dark, light, delicate. (I also did some unobtrusive re-sorting, of course.) Then, while the machine was filling up, they got to put the powder in and then the clothes. The gesture of picking something up and tossing it in some pile appealed most when they were younger. By the time they were five, they wanted to learn how to turn on the washing machine. I showed them and stood by. By the time they were eight, they were washing their own clothes. (I know, nobody believes it. Recently I had to assure my son Craig's wife that he really did wash his own clothes from a very early age.)
Bathrooms: Even a two-year-old will gladly help with the bathtub. A wet sponge, a can of Bon Ami (no chlorine) and the challenge of shaking the powder only onto the sponge--one of those many things that you show them rather than tell them. (The baby gets just a wet sponge to fiddle with) Lots of scouring powder gets spilled by a young one who is not yet well coordinated. You don't say a word beyond, "Thank you for helping me." You will rinse the tub again the next time you are in the bathroom.
With bathrooms you also have the magic of water. "Water magic washes our sink and carries away the dirt," you might say. "See, there it goes." Amazingly enough, water, this very special stuff, flows out of our faucet. (I'm sure your house is just as magical.) Here again is the Zen feeling and the reverence. In our dry land [New Mexico], water especially matters. I never see running water without a sense of wonder. How often I said to them, "Look, running water!" Wonder, thankfulness, the inner experience of water sets a mood. By experiencing mood, gestures, example, they soak up inner qualities--without any preaching on your part.
Another water experience was washing windows with rags and squirt bottles-fun, but messy. The result wasn't very impressive, but the kids liked the process. And it's always the process and the meaning that count. Laurel, at four-years-old, assured us that we had wonderful windows that never let any bad thing in at night, only starlight. Washing them was special.