I reached into the dishwasher and pulled out a dirty cup, then sighed and said the name of the child who last washed dishes... but I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t even mad. I dug a little further and I realized, I was picking up a broken glass. It was one of my favorites, a vintage emerald green tumbler I’d found in a set at a thrift store. I let out a heavy sigh in frustration, proceeded to separate the clean dishes from the dirtier ones and began to fill the sink with hot soapy, bleachy water. I was relieved that I hadn’t cut a finger and I was thankful that one of the kids hadn’t cut their hand either. Besides the annoyance of rewashing two-thirds of the dishes, I realized that this was a great teachable moment, for them and for me.
Growing up I hated washing dishes, or “busting suds” as my friends and I called it. It seemed like washing dishes was a standard household chore for kids in my neighborhood. Some of my fondest school night memories included the kitchen phone and a sink filled with dishes at my house and my friends’. At our house, we didn’t have an electric dishwasher and I recall dreaming about the day when I bought my own home and had a dishwasher and I would never do dishes again. That time came, but somehow I found myself in my kitchen cathartically “busting suds” in an attempt to create a quiet moment alone, away from my family. Washing dishes had evolved into a time of day when no one made requests of my time and attention. I began to love my time “busting suds”.
Now that my kids are older, they volunteer or are assigned to dish duty. We’ve had our share of sink overflows. We’ve eaten from crusty utensils. We’ve found things stuck to the bottom of glasses after completing our drink… They’ve broken their share of dishes. Disgusting and alarming, I know, but I’m not upset. Broken, dirty dishes represent the importance of failure when trying to master new things. This is a growth moment for our family. As I begin giving them more responsibility, I’m also extending my trust and faith in their ability to complete an important task in our home. Each time someone finds a dirty dish, we point it out, and the person responsible often says “my bad, I’ll do better next time”... sometimes they actually do better next time. It’s taken me awhile to accept this, but letting my kids fail at chores so they can learn to do it right, is a long game I’m willing to play.
My kids help out around the house as best they can and with a pretty decent attitude. In our home, everyone is expected to contribute in some way to keep this ship moving forward. So whether you go to work, buy the groceries, or just clean up your area after dinner- we appreciate it, we accept it, we acknowledge it. And when we feel like you could contribute more, we call you out on it. That’s accountability. That’s teaching respect. It’s teaching people to pull their own wait, not for their own survival but to ensure that the environment remains stable and livable for everyone. This is what we are missing as a society right now. It’s not just accountability for accountability sake, but accountability that is communal in practice and ideology. What can I contribute, large or small, to make society better? What can I do to improve my environment for others? What role do I play in progressing our goals forward?
Yes, broken dirty dishes are a bummer. And yes, I do have high standards of cleanliness. However, I’m teaching my children habits and skills that they’ll need to carry with them for the rest of their lives. At this time, in their learning, I can’t expect perfection, but I can accept a job well done. Each parent knows in their heart what “a job well done” is for their child. As parents, we must give our kids tasks that they’ll grow to master, and lovingly encourage them to pursue mastery while appreciating their contribution as they grow. This may seem like a waste of time, resources, or energy, but in the long run, what they gain individually is immeasurable. As I rewashed those dirty dishes and cleaned up the broken green glass, I thought about how those broken dirty dishes were making our family more efficient, more team oriented, and more accountable.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working in edtech. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.