We have six kids. It turns out that’s a lot of kids.
Running our household is an exercise in patience, steadfastness, and the turning of a merciful eye toward anyone who is not living their best life in a particular moment. Part of the way we keep the wheels on the bus is through clear responsibilities and clear expectations.
Our kids range in age from three up to 14, so the responsibilities vary widely. From each according to her ability, and all that. The family only runs smoothly when everyone contributes, but everyone’s contribution is necessarily different.
Every person has tasks that are expected regularly. The little ones unload the dishwasher; the bigger ones handle things like trash and yard duties; the parents feed and bathe and maintain, in addition to a lot of heavy lifting and picking up slack. The three-year-old mostly makes us laugh, finds various ways to endanger his life, and gets in the way.
Every person also has tasks that vary from day to day depending on the overall level of chaos in the house. There is no way to anticipate which day our youngest will choose to toddle around the house smearing unmentionable body fluids throughout three rooms, at the exact same moment that the contractor creates an epic and decidedly unprofessional mess, at the exact same moment someone lets the horse-manure-covered dog in the front door. (Yes, that actually happened.)
But regardless of the age, and regardless of the particular responsibility, the clear expectations never change. In the Wilkens house, everyone is expected to complete his or her tasks right away, all the way, and with a happy heart.*
This expectation is a natural outgrowth of our family’s devotion to the Blessed Mother, who demonstrated the ultimate “right away, all the way, with a happy heart” moment with a single word:
Let it be done.
“Yes.” Yes is such a simple, powerful word. In that moment, in an obscure, poor house in Nazareth, a teenage girl changed the entire world with it.
Our yeses may not hold as much power as the Blessed Mother’s, but we as parents define the boundaries of the world for our children while they live in our homes, and especially while they are young. As families, we work together to create the world we inhabit, and our yeses, from the biggest to the littlest, have as much power over our small and finite worlds as Mary’s did over all of creation.
Is it more pleasant to live in a house full of cheerful yeses? Decidedly so. I shudder to think what would have happened that fateful messy day if my children had refused to bring towels or hold the dog or shut the door when I asked, right away, all the way, and with a happy heart! I shudder to think of that day anyway, but, well, more shuddering.
But more than that, when we teach our children to give a joyful yes — and the primary way we do this is by modeling it ourselves — we teach them to love abundantly and selflessly. We teach them to love actively.
We teach them to prefer virtue to vice, industry to sloth, kindness to apathy.
We give them an opportunity to be vessels for God’s abundant yes, his abundant love pouring out upon his creatures every day through the work of our hands and our feet.
Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Learning about the right to the dignity of well-done work can and should start young. Catholic social teaching on work is a beautiful, vibrant doctrine that emphasizes the opportunity to create, to provide for oneself, to contribute to society, and to honor God at one fell swoop.
When we ask our kids to put their toys away, then, we are actually asking them to participate more fully in the life of grace, not just to keep us from tripping over Transformers in the dark of night.
Saying yes to work is a skill that comes more easily with practice, so we give lots of opportunities to practice in our house. (And our kids, in turn, give us plenty of our own practice.) This month, as we return to the familiar rhythms of fall, let’s think about embracing our chances to re-create our worlds with tiny echoes of the Blessed Mother’s fiat, putting our hands to our work right away, all the way, and with happy hearts.
* I must confess, for the record, that this doesn’t actually happen each and every time.
Copyright 2019 Christy Wilkens