We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.
Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.
I’ll tell you.
My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.
How to wash the dishes
If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.
This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble legal evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.
Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup in the shape of an ear of corn that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glitter glue on it. Maybe a whisk, but sideways.
And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?
How to vacuum
A vacuum cleaner is a handy time saver, but like all tools, it has its limits. For instance, you can use it to suck up dirt, dust, dog hair, cat hair, sister hair, glitter, sister glitter, and sister dirt, but do not attempt to use the vacuum cleaner to suck up hair that is still attached to your sister. Why? Because girls are always screaming about something, who knows why.
Other than that, just sort of push the machine around the middle part of the floor until it starts making whining, gasping noises, and that’s the sound of being done. Shove it toward the corner of the room and leave it plugged in, with the cord flopping all over the place, as a courtesy to the next person. Man, that is some courtesy. You are awesome.
How to clean your bedroom
Spend all of Saturday morning begging and pleading to watch cartoons because you never get a chance to watch TV anymore because you work so hard. Watch cartoons for three hours, turn it off, think about cleaning your room, and announce that you never got to have breakfast. Eat breakfast for three hours. Turn on the TV again. When your parents notice you are still watching cartoons and demand you turn it off, shriek that it is a two-parter and it’s unfair to turn it off now, and anyway, your room isn’t even that bad because you just cleaned it.
Turn the TV off. Slither up the stairs like you were born with some kind of abnormal tendons, and announce that it’s impossible to clean such a messy room in such a short amount of time. Lie down on the floor and start playing with dolls.
When your parents come in to see how you’re doing, explain that the whole entire mess isn’t even yours, because you keep everything on your bed anyway, and everything else isn’t even yours! Throw three socks down the stairs, because they are laundry. Ask if you can have a little break. Turn on cartoons. Suddenly announce you never had lunch, and it’s unfair.
How to clean the bathroom
Don’t even go in there. Seriously just lie about it.
How to clear the dining room table
A place for everything, and everything in its place! Mail goes on the kitchen counter. Books and papers can be placed on the counter in the kitchen. Jackets and hats, straight to their spot in the kitchen, and why not on the counter? Laundry, apple cores, dog toys, a single roller blade, a puppet covered with very loose glitter, a broken table fan, a small plate of chewed-up mushrooms, a large paper mache model of Machu Picchu, a fleece blanket of Our Lady of Guadalupe with oatmeal on it, someone’s job application, and a curling iron: counter, obviously, kitchen-style.
A coffee mug: UGH, there’s nowhere to put this. Who’s supposed to be cleaning the kitchen counters? DO YOUR JOB, LAZY.
How to wash windows
I can’t believe they let me have a spray bottle of ammonia. We’re all gonna die.
And that’s how we do it at our house. Hope this helps. We feel that training children in household cleaning chores not only teaches them responsibility, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride, which sounds great, and someday we hope to get started on this. But right now, we’re watching cartoons, and it’s a two-parter.
Image: Detail of The Galley by Arthur Young (public domain)
A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in 2021.