The Value of Chores And Work
“Didi, Amma ke liye paani leke aao….”
And just like that, effortlessly, my son had delegated the work (given to him as a distraction) to his nanny. A manager in the making… or a brat? I suspect the latter.
Ok, so not really. He is just 2; he only does what he sees. Often we get water ourselves, but many times we ask the nanny or the maid for it. And even though it is a request, my son probably notices that the nanny or the maid never ask us to do the same for them.
There are other things he notices, too. He sees that, more often than not, the maids eat after our family has eaten, and not at our table. He sees they don’t sit on the sofas or the beds. He sees worse when he goes out: Maids carrying the backpacks of boys and girls old and capable enough to carry their own bags, maids waiting in the corner of restaurants as families eat, or feeding and minding children so they are left without the opportunity to eat themselves.
For now, he may not fully understand what he sees, but he comprehends enough to know there are people around to do things for us, particularly for him.
When they are young, children need minders at all times. But because of the way our homes are set up, chances are they will continue to depend on minders longer than they need to. In time, they will learn more problematic lessons. They will observe and learn that some kinds of work are lesser and may infer that the people doing them are lesser, too. They may never understand the idea of dignity of labour and will perhaps never learn to appreciate hard work.
This, unfortunately, will probably be true for my son. Like most households, mine has an assortment of domestic help – a nanny, a driver, a maid, a cook, etc. It feels like an army sometimes, but this is the minimum I need to keep the wheels of my household (now a menagerie with two dogs and four puppies) running. It is also the nature of life in India. There is more dust and dirt, so the homes have to be cleaned more often. There are fewer resources and things don’t work as they should, so we need support and back-ups. We can certainly run our lives and home with less, and at some points, we have, but in the process, we accomplished less. There is always a trade-off.
A manager in the making… or a brat? I suspect the latter.
My cousins abroad grew up differently. They loaded the dishwasher every night, helped offload it after school the next day. They would fold the laundry, put out the trash, shovel snow from the driveway. These were simply their chores, duties as expected as studying. During the summers, they worked at the mall folding clothes, cashiering, or bussed tables at the local Indian restaurant, scooped ice creams at a parlour. They may not have liked everything they did, but they did it anyway. While not always prudent, they understood the value and the economics of money.
They also enjoyed an astounding amount of freedom, particularly from the perspective of someone brought up in the conservative India of the 80s. They owned cars and went anywhere they wanted. After a certain age, their curfews were relaxed, and they could date and party. Pampered and protected as I was, I was in awe of their lives.
It wasn’t until I lived abroad as a (young) adult, that I did the kind of chores we have staff for here. It was a jarring experience — I had very little idea and appreciation for labour until I did it. My cousins were my peers, but had lived and experienced so much. They were like adults, while we were perpetual, dependent children.
Their freedom came with a lot of responsibilities I didn’t have to worry about, though. Most of my American friends had student loans they were expected to pay back themselves. Most took up sundry jobs on campus, never refusing ‘lesser’ work as long as it paid well. Years of working odd-end jobs had trained them to be disciplined and particular about what they did and how they did it. They knew how to hustle for the good jobs on campus. They knew how to manage their time. They were still teens, so, like my cousins, they didn’t always use the money well. But all this put them on the path to adulthood – the real kind – where they would own their life and their decisions.
As adults, they may have moved on to paying mortgages, instead of student loans, building careers, instead of hustling for small jobs. But because of their experiences, they understand the importance of work, big or small – and now that they are in a position to pay for the small work, they know to extract value from the person doing it and they appreciate it enough to pay for it’s worth.
These are valuable lessons that I want my son to have, but I can’t derail the efficiency (such as it is!) of the household and sacrifice my sanity at the altar of a life lesson. Perhaps we start with things he shouldn’t learn – attitudes we can call out easily – and model alternative behavior. And as he grows older, like the Westerners, we can maybe use freedom as a currency to teach him responsbility.
I will have to push myself against my cultural grain to offer that freedom, and to balance with raised expectations — not in academics or extracurriculars (the quintessential Indian virtues), but in the things that really matter: managing money, making sensible decisions, taking on care and pride in a home.
And if none of this works, there is always university. Like me, he can start his lessons in real adulthood by scrubbing dishes in his college cafeteria. It may not pay well in money, but it pays in other ways.