Silhouetted in the doorway, a group of about seven or eight kids were playing with the few toy cars Caleb had brought along, while Wilkister and I chatted about the day to come. At some point she offered me chai (tea), looked over the children and told them to go wash some cups for us. The boys remained, as they girls hurried off without an argument. (Wilkister explained to me that people believe that if the boys are given "girl" tasks, they will.. um... cough cough... be like a girl.)
And the kids, not much older than Caleb, washed those cups. And I'm not talking "Oh, thanks sweety for helping mama," pat on the head, plunk the still dirty cup back in the water for mom to wash thoroughly. Those cups were washed clean and set out for use again. Impressive.
Yeah... but Caleb does know the difference between a brontosaurus and a triceratops, so that's really usefu... Um... Yeah, I think I need to figure out how this happens.
None of this is new. If you'e traveled to a village in a developing country you cannot escape noticing the incredible responsibility given to small children, who do their tasks seemingly without a complaint and with expert efficiency. The 7 year old carrying her baby sister, the 6 year old peeling potatoes, the 10 year old boy chopping firewood. All of this makes me wonder if safety scissors are not somehow insulting our children's innate ability.
This observation is not a revelation, but what I've never heard is how this actually "happens."
How do parents get their young children to take such serious household responsiblity, do it well, and do it without argument? We have to bribe, threaten and cajole, and still our children, whine, "but mo...om!" drag their feet and then do a half ass job quickly so that they can move on to playing with their toys.
Some theories: First, there are not a lot of toys. Their environment is a functional household. There is no colorful playspace that implicitly tells a child, "Here. Have fun! You're a child." They live in a space that's communal and functional and everyone plays their part. But house work isn't just drudgery. I didn't see this as much, but I know anthropologists who have studied this often remark that small children take a certain pride and sense of accomplishment in their work and even ask for more. Especially if the task is something they've seen their older children do. Or maybe old Huck Finn got to them?
None of this is to say that children don't play. It's just that play is social. I mean, just look at this video....
And this brings me to my second point. Chores are also often social, and maybe there's an inherent motivation in that. I mean, if all the other kids are fetching water, you're kind of left out unless you join in. In fact, at one point Caleb came screaming up to me because he wanted to do precisely that task -- go fetch water. All his new friends were going, so he wanted to go.
But I can't discount that children do their chores because their parents tell them to, and parents are not disobeyed. I didn't see any openly defiant behavior, but I can't rule out that this kind of rebellion has been whacked out of a kid. Every single mother I spoke to told me she "beat" her child with a stick for discinpline.
Still, it's not as simple as that.
Children, generally, want to belong and be a part of things. They want to do what the other kids are doing. During our village stay, the family very generously prepared special food for us that was a cut above the greens and ugali they normally ate. Caleb wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted only to eat with "the kids."
|Caleb, much happier sitting with the children outside than eating "special" food with mom inside.|
So, if all the other kids are washing dishes, that's what Caleb wants to do. If all the other kids are playing soccer, that too. If they are all smoking meth, we're in trouble.
I'm happy to report that Caleb has, for the time being, carried this peer pressure-induced helpfulness home with him. Last night, as I was washing up after dinner, Caleb tugged on my leg and said the unprecedented: "Mom, can I help wash the dishes?"