Being the Maid: Doing for Your Kids Is the Problem
Excuse the mess, but we live here.
Never do for a Child, what a Child can do for himself.
If they can walk, they can work.
In chapter 2 we identified the two types of bullet wounds, training and relationship wounds, and why Band-Aid tactics are ineffective and interfere with the long-term changes you are looking to make. Let’s explore how “training” (or the lack thereof) becomes such a major problem for many parents raising kids in today’s busy, overscheduled world.
Maybe it started out as a harmless way to help your child keep his life together or get outside to play with his friends or show up prepared for school and sports. Or maybe it started because you are used to order in your life and when the kids were introduced into your world, your responsibilities increased and the family needed your help to stay in sync. Or maybe you have an idea of what it means to be a good parent and what kids of good parents look like, and you set out to accomplish your goal of being a good parent. Whether you landed here accidentally or purposefully, your role as parent has morphed into that of a maid. You are the person who keeps the family together, wipes down the counters, changes the load of laundry, and tidies everything up, household and otherwise. You stop for no one, especially when guests are coming over, the meeting starts at nine in the morning, or you simply can’t wait for the rest of the family to get things done. You make “tidy life” materialize for the entire family and there is no coincidence that you are often wiped out by day’s end and totally depleted of the joyful energy you envisioned when you started your career as the, well, for lack of a better word, the maid.
Four False Beliefs That Keep the Maid Employed
Parents continue day after day to do for their children what their children can do for themselves because they are driven by four key ideals that either consciously or subconsciously hold them hostage to this occupation as the maid.
1. Kids shouldn’t have to work. They will be adults soon enough and they should spend their time enjoying life while they can.
2. Kids will just mess things up. I have high standards, I want things done in a certain way, and the kids could care less.
3. Kids are a reflection of their parents, so it’s important that the kids leave the house with their stuff, in clean clothing, and with their lunches in hand.
4. The kids really need me to do things for them.
Fairytale Busted: The Maid Does Not Make Everything Magical
If you’re employed as the overworked maid, it’s important to stop and identify why you’ve accepted this job and to look beyond the sparkling surface into how it’s affecting everyone in the family. You may think you’re creating a “perfect” life for your children, but if you step back, it becomes clear that perhaps being the maid isn’t such as good idea. Let’s deconstruct the beliefs listed above with a little story to highlight the point that the maid doesn’t necessarily make life better by cleaning up everyone’s messes.
Belief Number One: Kids Just Want, and Deserve, to Have Fun
Many parents hold to the belief that good, loving, (perfect) moms and dads do everything for their kids, so the kids can enjoy their childhood without experiencing the pressures of the adult world. These parents run around serving food, tying shoes, allaying worries, and making life comfortable just to ensure the kids aren’t subjected to the stress and strains that come with life. These parents don’t mind doing for their kids, despite their own feeling of being overwhelmed; they really believe it’s worth it!
Jenny’s Exhausting To-Do-for-Them List
At the beginning of my career, before I was even a parent educator, I stayed with a friend whose life goal was to create a space for her children that insulated them from the pressures and responsibilities of the adult world. Here’s what I witnessed over the course of a three-day visit. I observed and learned a lot in a very short time!
Jenny, an organized soul, began every morning with a cup of coffee and a list of to-dos for herself and her three kids, in an attempt to make it easy for them to get out of the house on time. Her children slept a little later as she spent the quiet early hours stuffing backpacks, cleaning lunchboxes, and washing stinky soccer clothes in an effort to have everything ready to go. She packed three-food-group-minimum lunches and piled their things on the bench by the door. She untied laces and prepped the place so that all they’d have to worry about was waking, dressing without thinking, eating breakfast, and leaving with their backpacks loaded and ready for another day at school.
I watched her run through her routine, thinking, That’s a lot of work! But it was just the beginning. On her second cup of coffee, Jenny trotted upstairs to dress for work and get the kids up. I could not see what was going on upstairs, but I could hear every word. It was thirty minutes before any of them made it down the stairs, and the following is just some of what I heard as I sipped my tea.
“Justin [age eight], it’s time to get up. I’ve already turned your alarm off and hit the snooze button for you twice. You are going to have to hurry now, because I let you sleep an extra ten minutes.”
“George [age six], it’s time to get up. I’ll tickle your back for two minutes. See, I am setting the clock. When the alarm goes off you have to promise to get up, okay?” Tick, tick, tick, buzz. “George, I can’t tickle you anymore, we are going to be late if you dillydally. I have to get your sister up, George.”
“Grace [age four], it’s time to get up sleepyhead. I know you hate the mornings, don’t you? Let’s change your diaper and then we can cuddle for a few minutes. Come on, Grace, your diaper is full and you are getting mommy wet. Please, Grace, how about if you sit on my lap and I will take it off of you while we cuddle? Would you like that?”
In between I heard:
“George, are you dressed? Justin, did you go back to sleep?” And so forth.
Then, the “up-and-at-em” show moved into the kitchen. Nobody was doing much of anything except wandering. The kids weren’t being naughty, they just didn’t give a hoot that mom was working hard to start their day in joyful comfort. Even after all the preparing and snuggling, the morning was punctuated with whining, crying, pouting, playing, noodling, getting distracted, a bit of hitting, stubbornness, and increasing demands from the kids.
When Jenny finally got the kids in the car and drove away, I went back to bed. I was exhausted. After school, they returned home for a replay, which continued until the kids were in bed. After two more days of this, I asked Jenny bluntly to help me understand this frantic pace she set for herself that had her acting more maid than mom to her kids. She thought about it for a long time, and this is how she summarized her thinking:
Becoming a parent was part of my life plan. I knew that I wanted to be a parent and I had strong ideas of how I would parent, and that included giving my kids a magical childhood. Childhood is supposed to be filled with adventure, excitement, joy, discovery, and a feeling of security. Kids spend the majority of their lives dealing with adult matters. What harm is there in allowing them to enjoy their childhood?
Duct Tape Moment
Ask a nice friend who won’t think you’re nuts to hold the duct tape as you spin around—get those arms down nice and tight. Then have a seat and let your friend tape you to the chair. There is no reason to jump up, do everything, save, and make things “easy” or “perfect” for your child. You can still be a great mom by backing off! Remember, childhood is for learning—and through practice, kids learn skills for the real world. They also develop a solid sense of worth and self-confidence when they don’t have their “super mommy” catering to their every move. Give them some room—read a book or go for a run with that spare YOU time!
This question, “What’s the harm in...?” answered itself over and over through the twenty years I’ve spent as a parent educator.
There’s no harm done if:
• You don’t mind feeling resentful as you wait on your munchkins.
• You don’t mind raising kids who seem oblivious to all that you do for them in order to make their lives more comfortable.
• You don’t mind raising kids who believe they are entitled to around-the-clock maid service.
• You don’t care that your kids won’t really know how to run a dishwasher or clothes dryer when they head off to college.
• You don’t mind not having any fun as a family because everyone’s floundering around with no real responsibility.
• You’re willing to take valuable learning away from your kids that will connect them to the world and the community around them.
Ironically, even as Jenny was doing everything for her kids, she was nagging and reminding and lecturing them about how they should be doing more. It didn’t add up. She didn’t want to bother the kids by expecting too much or putting them to work, but she did in fact wish they’d magically offer to help out.
This false belief perpetuates a cycle of overwhelmed, overextended, emotionally unavailable parents. It also delivers to the “real” world ungrateful, overindulged, spoiled children who grow into demanding, dependent, and insecure individuals with little training or experience at handling life’s simplest tasks.
It may sound harsh, but my experience shows that children who grow up perfectly protected, catered to, and hovered over are at a complete disadvantage for growth into successful, healthy adults. Maid service offers children little substance or wisdom to draw from later in life, as they discover the world is the opposite of their “perfect” family haven.
Jenny’s parting shot to me when I left was, “If you figure out a better way to do this, please let me know.” Upon my departure, I spent a great deal of time pondering this dilemma and wondering how I was going to avoid wearing a maid’s uniform and feeling resentful in it. This question became a founding principal of my program.
Belief Number Two: I’m Faster, Better, Neater, and a Bit of a Perfectionist, and It’s Just Easier If I Do Everything
For many parents, becoming the maid evolves not because they want their kids’ lives to be full of magic and wonder, but because they want to drive the car, steer the boat, and fly the plane 365 days of the year. We all know at least one or two moms like this, the strong ones manning the controls because, in their words, if they didn’t, the family would most likely crash and burn. I can relate to this personality. I consider myself a reformed control freak. I get the idea that asking a kid to be involved in the running of the house is a sure bet that things won’t get done the “right” way (in other words, my way).
My Way or the Highway: Mother Knows Best.
Meet Toni. She’s the classic Type A, in charge of everything, mother of two children. She’s stern, involved, and, overall, pleasant. You’d say she’s that mom who has her act together. She knows what’s going on at all times and she makes the final call on just about everything, including the shopping, scheduling, and rule-setting for her family.
Unlike Jenny, who was tiptoeing around, making it easy for the kids with little expectation, Toni is moving fast and furiously with little pushback. Her kids know what their mother wants from them, and they do it. While everyone’s eating a balanced breakfast, she’s busy choosing clothes for her children, lining up their things by the door, and e-mailing a teacher before class. As the kids finish eating, they run upstairs, throw on their clothes, brush their teeth, and come back down. They pull it off every morning. Toni again is on time, with her coffee cup nestled in the cup holder as they jet off in the minivan. And if anyone forgets anything, she’s got a backup plan or can swing home before heading to work!
Toni is also a planner. She recites what the kids are doing after school as she reads them a list of what they will need and where they can find it. Every day, like clockwork, she reminds them to get the water bottle, fill it. Get a snack, bring it. Find your uniform, pack it, and so forth. The kids have little or no say in any of the extracurricular activities they are involved in, but Toni is fair, to a point. She won’t force them into every sport or activity, but she believes children need to grow up well-rounded and it is her responsibility to see to it that it happens. There is little negotiation in this arena. This includes birthday parties, school events, and fundraisers. They don’t miss anything!
Nutrition is important to her and so is a clean kitchen. If she were to allow her kids into her domain, it would result in pancake-battered, sticky messes! That’s not happening, so instead, she’s got a neat cabinet system and designated eating areas, because she’s not interested in cleaning up messes all over the house. This is not a place Toni is willing to share her time, energy, and space. It gets cluttered and unhealthy stuff creeps in. Inviting her kids into the kitchen (and into the decision-making process) would create an opening for argument, and to her, it’s not worth the effort.
Toni also values education and hard work, and she’s been known to correct a few assignments in her day. She makes every conference at the school, sends personal notes to the teachers, and logs into the grade portal regularly. She has a special place for the kids to do their homework and makes sure they have all the proper supplies. She’s noticed fights stirring about getting homework done, especially as the kids get older and have more to do, but education is important and if she has to demand, threaten, bribe, and lecture them for forty-five minutes, then so be it. Plus, she’s not going to let the kids get bad grades, jeopardize their college options, or make the family look as if they didn’t know the importance of a good education. This is just not an option.
This Type A maid–mother wears a smile on her face (in public) while giving commands and commenting on nearly every detail of what’s going on around her. She doesn’t ask, she tells. If the kids try helping out or doing something on their own, she unintentionally micromanages or criticizes. It’s usually not long before she wears them down, they quit, and she can do it her way again.
Duct Tape Moment
Okay, perfectionists, this one will be hard but give it a go! Grab the roll of tape (they make it in pretty colors now, so you can still look fabulous while doing this!) and tape your eyes closed and your mouth shut. This means it’s time to refrain from inspecting the effort your kids have made and correcting it to your liking. You’ll have no idea if the socks match or the bedroom is spick-and-span. You won’t know if the project is glued together perfectly or if a shirt has been worn three times in one week. You must trust that the little details don’t matter as much as you think and that kids can make decent decisions—your child may wear his favorite shirt three times this week but it’s his preference. Give him your trust and see what happens (that is, after you take off the tape—watch the eyelashes!).
Toni takes this approach (and possibly you do too) not because she’s against the kids working hard or helping out, but because she doesn’t want to experience the mess and errors that come with training and inviting the kids to help. Involving the kids more sounds good in theory, and she’s thinking, “Maybe I should be letting the kids do more for themselves and be involved around the house, but I like things a certain way and it’s just easier to do it myself. I have a routine, a system that works for me. Plus, I’m a perfectionist. My kids will never get it right, so why put us all through that? Is there something wrong with everyone just trusting me and getting through the day as I’ve planned?”
There’s nothing wrong if:
• You aren’t worried about sending your son out into the world with little or no training on how to navigate tasks and make choices that work for him (not you).
• You aren’t concerned he’ll accept direction from people who are “in charge” regardless of whether they have his best interest in mind (“Do this because I say so, okay, little boy?”).
• You won’t be surprised when he decides that he will never be controlled again and sets out to ensure this by instead controlling others.
• You don’t mind raising a child who lacks the confidence to try new things and take reasonable risks and who never develops his own unique set of preferences, styles, routines, and solutions.
• You don’t mind telling your child every day (through your actions) that you don’t trust him to make decisions, perform tasks, or accept responsibility for his work and choices (because you’re doing things he can do, but won’t let him try!).
• You don’t mind the increase in fighting between your kids and between you and the kids because they don’t have anything more interesting/substantial to do.
Parents in this cycle readily overlook the increase in fighting, power struggles, discord, resentment, and disconnection at the expense of a clean house and prompt schedule created by an accomplished maid. Essentially, the message is: If everything’s done my way right now, so what if my child is upset with me? He’s dressed appropriately and his room is clean.
The truth is, this belief perpetuates a cycle of overbearing, overpowering, micromanaging parenting that leaves little room for the kids to learn how to navigate their own lives, contribute in positive ways, and feel valued by their parents. In turn, the kids feel useless and undermined and start to make mischief. The mother who does everything for the child turns her child into a young adult who can’t do anything for himself. This is clearly not what parents intend when they put on that uniform.
Belief Number Three: If My Kids Don’t Look Good, Behave Politely, Play Fair, and Do the Right Thing All the Time, I’ll Look Like a Slacker Parent with Loser Kids
Here we have the parents who pick up the apron because they believe that their children are extensions and reflections of them. These parents are interested in looking composed, clean, and put together and will sacrifice individuality to avoid public error and to keep a polished exterior. This may sound superficial, although it’s not necessarily. Many parents say they feel judged as good or bad parents by how good or bad the kids are in public.
My Kids Are My Image: Make Mother Look Good
Meet Katie. Katie’s just as busy as Jenny and Toni are. She runs around cleaning and sweeping and wiping and saving and making excuses and letting kids off the hook because she thinks if her kids are messy or her house is dirty, her friends might consider her a neglectful parent!
I met Katie in a workshop, where she admitted she did everything in her house and she was wiped out. When I asked what prompted her to take on the role of maid, she said, “I am being judged as a parent based on how my kids look, behave, how well they do in school and on the sports field, whether they are respectful to adults and cooperate when asked. I am even being judged based on whether my kids say please and thank you, and that’s only the half of it.”
Katie believed her kids had to look good, sound good, and be good, her home had to be organized and orderly, and her life needed to reflect that she was on top of everything in order to consider herself a good mom. “My kids and my home define me.” That was the fear that pushed her to drive herself into the ground, worrying about everything from neat and tidy jeans to clean toilets to matching socks.
When I spent one-on-one time with Katie, I noticed she was on high alert, watching for what the kids might do that needed correcting. She was monitoring to make sure she didn’t need to step in and redirect, straighten a shirt, prompt a replay, or give “the look.” Katie was so concerned with how people would judge her that she orchestrated everything she could in her children’s lives so that none of them would look foolish, ill-prepared, lazy, or unintelligent. Her value as a mom was essentially tied up in how other people rated her and how well the kids measured up.
Duct Tape Moment
Cover the peephole to the outside world. It doesn’t matter what’s going on out there or who will be waiting on the front porch, at the school, or in your church or community to judge you. Then, cover your ears and secure your feet. You don’t need to be so worried that everything your kids say will embarrass you or tarnish the family’s image. Stop listening for what to correct or rephrase! Let them discuss, chat, argue, tell you “no” if they’re really against something (it’s good practice for the real world), and have a say in who they like or don’t like.
Once you stop listening for what’s wrong, you’ll stop stepping in and redirecting your children in the direction that makes you look best. The outside world will not be there in twenty-five years when your child returns home to visit you for the holidays. The relationship comes first because it’ll eventually be just you and your family at the table—none of the rest will have mattered.
When I asked Katie what she thought of letting go and caring a bit less about what everyone else thought of her as a mother, she said, “I would love to let go a little, but I just can’t risk my kids being ‘that family’ with their ends unraveled. It can’t hurt to keep a good image, because it will only help them down the road.”
I thought of all the parents I’d met over the years who worked so hard to please the outside world. If this were really what good parenting was about it would make sense, but it’s not and it doesn’t. Katie and I discussed the following points.
It can’t hurt if:
• You think kids are possessions, not individuals who have a right to develop and grow and create their own preferences and personalities (even if they like less “upstanding” activities).
• It won’t bother you when your teen rebels, sending a very clear message she could care less about your image.
• You aren’t concerned that your kids care more about what others think and less about how they view themselves as individuals.
• You aren’t worried that your kids will become critical and judgmental of those people who do not care about their image.
• You want to drive home a message that who your kids are right now isn’t “good enough” and will understand when they seek out others who treat them the same way in a relationship.
• You don’t care that your kid senses you’re trying to make her into “the perfect child,” something fake, something she’s not.
• You’re okay with having your kids lose their spunk and enthusiasm for life because they view themselves as trophy kids and base their value on whether they make you look good.
• You don’t mind having your child describe you as an overbearing mother who cared more about her own image than she did about the self-image her daughter was developing.
Parents who believe this myth are so caught up in looking good that they lose sight of what’s really important: investing themselves in the life they are creating with their children and the memories that will define them as a family. Life with kids is about accepting that kids and parents make mistakes, and mistakes make all of us look a bit messy around the edges. And yes, it’s true, showing up for life and all it has to offer can sometimes expose our flaws to the world. It also offers parents a chance to teach their kids about resilience, acceptance, and choosing family over an image.
Belief Number Four: I Don’t Want My Child to Grow Up and Not Want Me around, So I’ll Just Make Sure She Needs Me Enough
And finally, there are parents who need to be needed by their children and think that the best way to ensure they are needed is to keep their kids completely dependent on them for as long as they can, in as many areas as they can.
Mommy Needs to Be Needed
Joan is a mother of one. When I first met her, she didn’t really identify with the other beliefs, but when she got here, she knew right away why she did everything for her child. She shared this with the class:
I’ve just had an aha moment! I figured it out! I know why I do everything. It’s all about me! I didn’t even think about Ava, my daughter. I do all this so I feel needed. I’m involved in everything, whether she technically needs me or not. I thought I was doing her favors and making our bond stronger, but I see that I haven’t been doing that at all. I am the maid to give myself a job that makes me feel valuable and important, and as a way to keep my child close to me, but parenting isn’t about me. It’s not necessary that my nine-year-old still depends on me to pour her cereal in the morning, to help her get herself up and out of the door on time, to organize her closets and pick out her clothes. It’s not necessary, and it certainly isn’t good for her to look to me for constant direction and to make every decision about her life. It is time that she do this without believing that she needs her mommy! I have to stop asking her if she wants help all the time. I’m guessing she doesn’t! I never thought it was a big deal to be in her space all the time, but now I get it.
In this moment, I knew that she was on her way to redefining her role as a parent.
It’s only a big deal if:
• You want your child to feel shackled because of her mom’s need to be needed.
• You’re looking forward to the rebellion that is sure to come as your child cuts the ties and distances herself from you.
• Your purpose is to raise a child too scared to try anything without parental assistance.
• You’re up for raising an extreme risk taker who makes dangerous choices in order to gain some kind of control in his life.
• You’re okay with a child who’ll sabotage her own success to keep mom happy.
• You can accept that your child will find a replacement for you once she outgrows her dependency on her mother.
• You are looking forward to the insecurities and frustrations of your child down the road.
• You don’t mind needing to help support your twenty-something with her basic needs, even though she’s well capable.
In this case, there’s nothing more to say. Mom is the maid because it makes her feel important; it has absolutely nothing to do with the child’s needs. This is the easiest belief to recognize and also one of the easiest to stop, once you realize that you’re not doing an ounce of good by tethering your child through her formative years!
If Kids Don’t Want a Maid, What Do They Want?
Here’s a simple list for you to go back to when you realize you’re working as the maid! It’ll help you remember why it’s a good idea to take off the maid uniform and instead invite your kids to participate more fully in their own lives.
1. Kids want to be self-sufficient.
From the moment our kids arrive on the planet, one of their primary goals is to become self-sufficient. They let us know this with “I can do it” or “I don’t need your help” and all of that pushback. It’s not about you. It’s about your child becoming self-sufficient, which is something that won’t happen if you’re always doing everything! When this drive is interrupted, children become discouraged and frustrated. Not to mention, it affects their self-esteem, which is based on two factors: (a) their ability to take care of basic needs and (b) their ability to contribute in positive ways to the group (in this case, the family). Take these two opportunities away and you have a discouraged kid who’s ready to make mischief and cause trouble!
2. Kids want to feel capable.
Believe it or not, kids are just like adults. They want to feel like they are capable of handling life. This means, at the simplest level, to take care of their basic needs. That includes getting up in the morning, picking out clothes, choosing what to eat for breakfast, and deciding what snack to bring to school and what to pack in their lunch. When kids feel less than capable, they begin to act as if they are less than capable. You know, the “I can’t do it, you do it for me” drill. Then you do it and it isn’t exactly what they wanted or how they wanted and a fight ensues. The more you can learn to omit yourself from their daily tasks, the more independent they grow and the more willing they are to take on greater responsibility.
3. Kids want ownership.
When you do things for children that they can do for themselves, kids begin to think it’s your job to do everything. If you don’t do it all, you become the focus of their blame, rage, and frustration. The kids don’t enjoy this any more than you do, but they become frustrated that you let this happen to them and that they aren’t able to do these things themselves. A third grader may blame you and cause a fight because you forgot to pack snow pants, but he’s also probably wondering why he can’t be in charge of his own stuff. However, the expectation that “mom will do it for me” keeps kids in this idle, angry place. If they had to be responsible and take more ownership, they would have less reason to blame you and at the same time gain more experience to build confidence.
Here is a recap of the faulty beliefs that get us into trouble:
° Mother makes it easy.
° Mother knows best.
° Mother looks good.
° Mother needs to be needed.
Perhaps you believe a bit of each of these. Take some time and make your own list of the things that influence your decision to keep wearing that uniform. Is it a messy house or a fear of looking disorganized? Is it that you want things done your way or that you have no other purpose? This will help you discover some good information when you get to the next section and get to throw in the towel and quit your job as the maid.