Are You Settled Yet?

The peaceful view from the front porch makes it easy to feel like we’re home.

“Are you settled yet?” Ever since we moved into our new place in late March, people every so often ask me that question. I never really know how to respond. What exactly does it mean to be “settled”?

For some reason, I have this irrational, nagging fear that if I say yes to the question, somehow people will instantly have x-ray vision into my house, where they’ll scan our rooms with a tally sheet and determine scientifically if we are indeed settled or not.

And when they walk in, they’ll see how I never really got my summer clothes out of the laundry baskets and hung up in the closet, see the boxes stacked in the toy room, notice that our stuff in the attic and basement doesn’t get addressed, and my perennial garden is really mostly a weed patch. Seeing all the “someday” projects, there will be an official woman in a schoolmarm outfit with a tight bun in her hair saying, “Ah ha! It appears as though someone’s NOT really settled, are they!” And then hanging my head, I’d receive my ten demerits.

These guys have many friends up in the attic, all waiting for some attention several months after moving.

If “settled” means life is organized, like a nice, smooth running machine…well, then that answer is no. Not only am I not settled here at our new home, but I’d have to say by that definition, I maybe haven’t been settled in my whole adult life.

Maybe feeling settled means comfortably knowing all the back roads and every nook and cranny of your town. Then the answer to that is no, too. Our house is just on the far edge of the Lanesboro school district, so our kids go to school in a town that is still pretty new to me. Growing up north of St. Charles, Minnesota, the town of Lanesboro,  though just a half hour away, seemed like a quaint little town in a faraway distant land. Turns out, it’s not so distant at all, and now it’s home.

In Lanesboro, my kids now know exactly where to find ice cream, the school there has become pretty familiar, and I’m very well-acquainted with the city park and playground. But I know I’ve got a few years before I have that insider local knowledge of where to find all the really cool things. Someday, I’ll show people around the town and say things like, “Just past the house with the three-legged dog, and right before the crazy lady with 50 cats and a purple porch swing.” (I’m not sure that exists in Lanesboro, but please let me know if it does.)

I don’t mind not feeling settled in that way. In fact, I love it. I’ve both moved back home, and at the same time, to a new place. It’s the best of comfortable familiarity and the excitement of new things to discover. In so many ways, though, I look around and see a to-do list that reminds me that we are long from “settled.”

On the other hand, maybe the question “Are you settled yet?” really means, “Do you feel like you’re home? Do you breath a sigh of relief when you pull in the driveway after being gone?” And then, the answer to the question is a big, resounding “yes.” This is home.

The notion really struck me on Labor Day. During the lunch time downpour that day, our kids sat outside dry and cozy under the shelter of the porch roof, eating chicken noodle soup on the wicker loveseat, wrapped in blankets. We had a quiet, lazy morning, tired from a busy weekend of my sister’s move. I had absolutely no desire for anything or anywhere else but being right there.

Unfortunately, though, our baby girl was sick with a fever and I also suspected a bladder infection. I made the call to take her in, and I headed to Rochester with her.

Sometimes it’s fairly enjoyable to head to Rochester and run errands with my kids. This was not one of those days. Sometimes I hate Rochester. It’s not Rochester, per se, it’s really any big town. And perhaps hate is too strong of a word, but I do certainly enjoy leaving when I’m done. There is something about traffic, continual stoplights, and endless stores that drive me crazy.

Add that usual town tension to carrying an antsy baby into a waiting room with a dozen sick and/or injured people ahead of us, and I really just wanted out. Out of the waiting room, out of town, out to our porch to listen to rain in the rocking chair on the last day of summer vacation.

On the way home, the further I got from town, the happier I felt. Turning south heading out of Utica, I felt my shoulders loosen. I pulled into yard utterly relieved, and it struck me how much this place feels like home. Like a refuge. Three kids lined up on the steps to peek over the railing to see me pulling in the driveway, just the sight I wanted to see.

It was supper time and the bowls of chicken noodle soup still sat on the porch from lunch, but I’d have to say I feel settled into our busy, peaceful life out in the country. It’s nice that we’re alone out here, and at the same time, also feel like part of the community. There are still so many names to put to faces, and faces to put on places along the roads by our house. But after just moving in at Easter, we are thankful to know enough friendly neighbors to have a full night of trick-or-treating stops for our kids on Halloween.

I feel like I’ve planted my feet into the dirt up to my ankles, and I have no desire to go anywhere. It is awfully nice black dirt, after all. So to answer the question, “Are you settled yet?”, the answer is yes. When we pull into the driveway, our three-year-old no longer says, “There’s our new house!” He simply says, “We’re home!” And we are, unpacked boxes and all.

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I ♥ Love Child Labor

Morning chore time for our young kids creates a cheerful, productive air to our mornings.  It’s now my favorite time of the day.  It simply feels good to all be working together to get jobs done and make our home a nicer place to be.  

For the last few months since we’ve moved into our house, I’ve been a fool. I thought sleeping even less and working even more was the solution to making progress on unpacking our things and managing the ordinary tasks of being a mom to four.  I felt like I was too busy to direct our kids in productive directions. Who has the time to make kids do chores when there is so much work to do? Hey, wait a minute…

When summer vacation started for our kiddos, I had a small revelation: our kids need to have daily chores.

This concept of daily chores for children isn’t exactly a new phenomenon I just invented.  As commonplace as the concept is, it just didn’t occur to me to assign regular chores.  No, putting our kids to work for the greater good of the family, that’s an idea that came from my friend. At a BBQ, my friend since forever mentioned that using “chore sticks” has been extremely helpful in preventing disputes over chores with her own two children.

A chore stick sounds like some sort of punitive device employed when someone needs a little extra encouragement to do chores, as in, “If those dirty clothes aren’t picked up in the next minute, I’m going to get out the chore stick…”  But no, a chore stick is simply a Popsicle stick with a specific chore written on it.  Her kids draw chore sticks to determine their daily chores.  Drawing sticks prevent disputes over division of labor, and gives an easy visual of what needs to be done.  When I heard her describing her two kids, similar in age to our own, productively helping around the house, it wasn’t just a light bulb that lit up in my head, it was more like fireworks.  Eureka!  What we need is some good old-fashioned child labor!

So one morning over a cup of coffee out on the porch at the beginning of summer vacation, I sat down with our three oldest kids and we made a list of 12 daily summer chores.  The chores ranged from the quick and easy, like Feed Spot (the dog) to more daunting tasks, like Clean Living Room and Clean Toy Room.  I created chore cards out of summery orange construction paper, with words for the readers and simple pictures for the non-readers, and stored the cards in a clear plastic bag in the dining room.

Each morning, our new kid routine is have breakfast, get dressed, and do chores.  Our oldest, a six-year-old event coordinator and manager by nature, took charge of dividing up the chore cards each morning.  She flips the cards over and randomly divides them among herself, and her five- and two-year-old brothers.  Each child has an envelope with their name on it, and she lays the chore cards on the respective envelope to make an easy distinction of who has what chore. Our oldest gets the most chores and our two-year-old gets the least, and they all are ok with that, because they understand that being older means being able to do more things, work included.

Getting water for Spot is one of the coveted “easy chores” around the house.

So basically, each kiddo finds his/her name, looks at his/her chore cards, and gets busy.  After completing a chore to Mom’s standard, the child puts the card away in the bag with great satisfaction.  “Ah…done.”

It doesn’t take a degree in child psychology to make it all work, it just takes knowing each child and how they operate.  I use the same chore cards for all of them, the chores just evolve to an age appropriate level.  “Laundry” for our two-year-old means helping me load or unload the washer and dryer.  For our very capable five-year-old, “Laundry” means collecting all the dirty laundry upstairs and hauling it downstairs to the laundry room, sometimes proudly making four trips down the stairs with a wash basket of clothes.

Proudly showing off the collected laundry.

I also vary the amount of guidance I give to each child, depending on abilities and temperament.  My six-year-old daughter loves being in charge of things, and does almost all of her chores by herself with just a little verbal guidance here and there.  My littlest helper, not quite three, gets lots of guidance with me by his side.  He also prefers to clean as a robot, so I heavily use robot voices on his morning chores.  In my drone, monotone voice I’ll say, “Put. the. shoes. on. the. shoe. shelf. Beep. Boop.”  And he’ll respond, “Ok. Mom. Beep,” and off he’ll scamper to put the shoes away. We do what works.  Beep. Boop.

And the results of our new daily chore routine?  In one word: fabulous.

Morning chore time for our young kids creates a cheerful, productive air to our mornings.  It’s now my favorite time of the day.  It simply feels good to all be working together to get jobs done and make our home a nicer place to be.

I especially love that the chore cards create a visual, tangible guide of what needs to be done.  Even our two-year-old can tell what jobs he needs to do by a quick scan of the pictures.  The cards help eliminate Mom as Task Master, and enable the kids to be independent and self-guided in getting their work done.  I’ve even heard some work management skills going on, like “I’m going to do my hardest/easiest ones first” and “I’m going to feed Spot, and then water the plants while I’m already outside.”

The work our kids do isn’t particularly fast or efficient, but the sum total of a morning of chores means a much more livable house for all of us.  We all feel less stressed in a tidier house, and when someone shows up unexpectedly at the door, it’s great to not have that sense of embarrassment when scanning the living room before opening the front door.

My husband noticed that after a morning of chore time, our kids are more pleasant through the rest of the day. Laying on the couch too much makes anyone sluggish and irritable.  Our bodies are meant to be used, and we feel better when we use them.  Working, and the sense of accomplishment that goes along with it, feels good at any age.

Our children are also learning life skills, like good old cause and effect.  If you make a big mess in the toy room, it takes a long time to clean it up.  If you mess around instead of working, the chores don’t simply go away.  Man, I still struggle with that as an adult.

Finally, our new child labor…ahem…morning chore time, ties in with the ultimate goal of parenting: planned obsolescence.  The best thing we can do as parents is to give our kids the skills they need to eventually not need us around.  Chore time is just one more step in raising kids that are self-sufficient, independent, and capable.  As my daughter describes chores, “They make me sweat, and they’re sometimes a little fun.”

So there you have it.  A little child labor is kid-approved.

Written June 18, 2012.

© 2012