Vacuuming: A Lesson in Devotion

Let me tell you about me and the vacuum. We’re not pals. We don’t get along. When the hose twists and makes that high-pitched whining sound, it takes all of my self-control to not yank it as I straighten it—OK, I do yank it. When the vacuum gets hung up behind the door, I take it as a personal affront.

For a while, I was granted a reprieve by my son, who vacuumed the house every weekend for years—with good cheer. I still haven’t figured out how he managed that. But he is off and away now, and I am back at it (I do the downstairs, my husband does the upstairs). And clearly, I have not developed a more mature approach. I open up the closet door, and I swear, that vacuum is leaning against the corner with a surly look in its eye.

I know this is nuts.

And that is what I told a group of parents recently, who had gathered to hear me talk about the crisis of will.

We were discussing chores—how important they are to the child’s developing will—and I had spoken about how the parent can set a good example by doing his or her own chores in the presence of the small child and by doing them with care, with joy, but mostly with devotion.

At one point in the discussion, I asked the parents what “devotion” meant to them: joy, attention, taking time to slow down, gratitude, love.

But I also wanted those parents to know that they didn’t have to set a perfect example, just a good one. And I always seem to have a ready anecdote to show them how that works: being imperfect. The vacuuming could be Exhibit A. Any other chore—no problem—I can find something to love about it. But the vacuuming is just a hurdle that I haven’t been able to jump. Yet.

But then it occurred to me that we had missed an important element of devotion, and the story about my utter disgust and admitted bad attitude about vacuuming held a little grain of important truth.

I hate vacuuming, but I still do it, and I do it reasonably well. I don’t pretend to not hate it—I’m not that good an actor. But I do it, nevertheless. And my kids know that.

And that is part of devotion, maybe the most basic part: showing up. Showing up every time, when you want to, but even when you don’t. And that is part of a healthy will: learning to balance want with need.

It is a true gift to be able to make the doing of mundane household tasks meaningful, to invite a young child to sink his hands into the soapy dishwater or to teach him to master the trick of folding a shirt. Done with devotion, those tasks can be nourishing instead of draining.

But showing up to do something necessary and important (I like a clean house, so vacuuming is therefore necessary and important to me) even when you don’t want to, is a sign of devotion, even if it is only in an infant stage.

So all is not lost for me and the vacuum. And not only because my son will be home for the summer and might be convinced to take up that chore again.

What do you show up for, even when you don’t feel like it? Are there any areas in your life where you haven’t really shown up? What about other people in your life? When/where have they shown up?

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Children and Choices: An Interview with Barry Schwartz

In my new book, Parenting in the Here and Now, I reframe many of the issues and challenges that today’s parents face. One of those issues concerns the role that choice plays in raising children.

Choices seem to be the all-purpose go-to remedy now. An article in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of chores—a topic that is very close to my heart—included, almost as an afterthought—that parents should offer their children choices about what chores they do. A recent article in the Washington Post suggested that parents model boundaries and consent by offering their toddlers a choice between chewy dinosaur vitamins or gummy robots. Faced with a temper tantrum or a power struggle? The answer is always the same: offer choices.

Our misunderstanding of the role and value of choice has had a profound impact on families. By digging deeper into how children learn to make choices and by asking questions about not only how much choice is healthy, but also about when choice is appropriate, we can dispel common myths and find practical steps that parents can take in their own households, steps that will bring their families into more balance, steps which will help form the foundation for building their children’s capacities to make good choices.

And so I turned to Barry Schwartz to add his insight and perspective to the discussion of this issue. He is a professor at Swarthmore College, where he has been teaching in the fields of psychology and economics since 1971. In his book and TED Talk of the same name: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In his estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.

In our interview, Barry Schwartz discusses his thoughts on why we hold freedom of choice so dear, on the challenges of making good choices, and on what parents might consider when they are choosing when to give choices to children.

Barry is warm, funny and wise. I think you will enjoy hearing what he has to say. Click here to watch our interview, and I encourage you to watch his TED Talks, The Paradox of Choice and The Loss of Wisdom, and if you have the time, to read his books by the same names. The questions he asks are the questions that we all need to ask.