How Taking Children Seriously helped me solve my housework-hating problem

“No creativity is needed in doing housework, so housework time is time spent indulging myself with thinking time.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: Posted on 24th May 1997

I used to have terrible conflicts about housework, but thanks to help from the wonderful folks on the Taking Children Seriously list [forum], I have solved that problem and no longer feel any conflict at all.

Here are a few things I said in the days when the very thought of doing a bit of housework would have me yawning so much I’d have to go off and take a nap (that was before doing the chores; afterwards I’d need a good ten days to recover from the ordeal):

Posted 7th December 1994:

First, I know I have a problem with housework: I don’t like doing it at all. The stress I sometimes suffer when I engage in such dreary activities is completely out of proportion to the time taken (sometimes…). Yes, I am irrational in this area.

Unless, when I do housework, I do something else too, such as listening to good music or holding a good conversation with someone, I find myself wanting to go off and do something interesting instead. And I do. Of course when I am holding a stimulating conversation, the last thing I want to be doing is cleaning up some ghastly unidentified evil-smelling Substance that has been left on the floor, or attempting to get the results of someone’s Experiment To See What Happens If One Places a Plastic Bowl With Mixture of Interesting Liquids and Solids In The Oven And Turns It On High For a Number Of Hours off the oven, or attempting to remove the results of my very own explosion (a tin of condensed milk…) off the ceiling, walls and floor (a guest did that yukky job for me in the end—well—all except the ceiling, which is “sadly” too high to get to easily….).

Consequently, my house is to tips what a nuclear bomb is to explosives. But you know what? It is liberating to live in a tip. (People who stay here are requested to keep quiet about the moments when I can’t bear any more and fulminate loudly to myself (no one takes the slightest notice…) against the disgusting mess I see everywhere, before disappearing into my library, slamming the door behind me, only to emerge an hour or two later to an even bigger tip, which by then seems not to matter.)

[“tip” = rubbish dump]

Anyway, one good thing about all this (one has to look for the positive side sometimes) is that when I ask someone for help and they say “No” I sympathise with them wholeheartedly and don’t try to make them do whatever it is. Now what I should be doing is neither riding roughshod over their wishes, nor allowing them to do that to me, but instead, working with everyone to find the common preference in any given housework situation.

My advice, as opposed to my own highly imperfect irrational behaviour in this area, is to try to work together to create solutions each party prefers to his initial idea. For example:

Parent’s Initial Idea: Teenager X must load the dishwasher.
Teenager X’s Initial Idea: “What? Are you mad? I’m thinking. That’s why I’m playing Tetris. (I’m trying to decide whether Popper really did solve the problem of induction or not.)”

A conflict of ideas. Now what?

Could it be this:

Parent: “Teenager X. You will put away that video game and load the dishwasher this minute, [glowering menacingly] or will I have to put the video games machine away for a while…”?

Teenager [thinks]: “Why don’t you get off my back, you ******? The sooner I get out of this prison camp, the better. [crash] Ooops. Just dropped her favourite vase. What a shame. She can punish me, but that won’t put the vase back together. Good.”

Let’s hope not.

How about this:

Parent: “Oh really? How interesting. Do you think he didn’t then?”

Teenager X: “I’m not sure. Why does it seem as though we use induction all the time, for example? And how can we justify acting upon the best available theory unless inductively?”

Parent: [starts walking to the kitchen, Teenager X following] “I think the reason it seems as though we induce things from experiences is that most of our conjectures and refutations occur unconsciously…”

Teenager X: “How do you mean?”

Parent and Teenager X get involved in a fascinating conversation and clean the kitchen while they talk. They found the common preference (unconsciously!).

I think that we should not be seeing this in terms of “getting help”. We should abandon our preconceived notions about what housework must be done, open ourselves to criticism (by this, I mean that we should be genuinely open to the ideas of others in the household, irrespective of age) and we should all be working together to create solutions to the problems that arise. And if it turns out that (having been damaged by the coercion in our childhood perhaps) we have an irrational, entrenched need for a clean and tidy house, and so sabotage any possibility of finding common preferences in this area (because if one has an entrenched idea, by definition one is not seeking a better idea) then we should at least have the decency not to inflict our irrationality upon our children, by making them act out our own entrenched idea.

Housework does not seem a chore to children raised non-coercively. They don’t seem to have the same conflicts about it most adults have. I have a friend whose house is not that tidy, but who never seems to feel the slightest conflict about loading the dishwasher or whatever. She just gets on and does it, while we talk, and seems to view it in the same way one might view the “job” of getting a glass of water when one is thirsty—in other words, without internal conflicts about doing the “job”. If I myself were more rational in this area, I think the house might be quite a lot cleaner, but as I said, this is one of my least creative areas.

Personally, I’d rather live in a tip or do it all myself than risk making a child feel the sort of conflict I feel about these everyday activities, but, as I said, that is not the thing to aim for.

Posted 26th February 1995:

Someone asked: “Out of curiousity Sarah, how are spills and wall writing incidents handled in your house? I really am curious.”

Wall writing incidents:

My response (without any hint of a threat): “Ummm, I’d rather you didn’t write on this particular wall, so could you write on your wall, or on one of the other walls you have already written on? Or how about doing some more wax-crayon-melting artwork on the radiator upstairs?”

Child: (happily) “OK”

We once had about 20 small home-educated children having a mass “Paint-In” on the kitchen walls. It was the greatest fun imaginable, and I was quite sorry to paint over it with white emulsion a week or two later. Walls can be painted over, or the art work can be admired. But before you all jump to conclusions, children who paint my walls do not draw on the walls of other people. Somehow, they know that most adults find the whole idea completely unnacceptable, and they are kind children. 😉


Often, I enter the room to find small child balancing precariously on some high shelf or something, ask whether there is anything I can get for child, and the child’s response is: “I am just getting a new sponge to wipe up the mess I made over there.”

Or (also very common) I enter a room to find small child engaged in cleaning up a spill—possibly with a rather delicate silk dress of mine that just happened to be waiting to go to the dry cleaner—but probably with an appropriate cloth.

My response to the silk-dress-as-a-cloth thing is: “Ah I see you are doing a spot of cleaning. Ummm, may I give you a cloth instead? That dress is rather delicate and might become damaged if it is used as a cloth.”

Child happily accepts cloth, and if the child is interested, we might then talk about how some fabrics are more delicate than others, and why some clothes have to be dry cleaned rather than washed.

Or, I might enter a room to find a teenager efficiently attacking a small child’s spill—just because it seemed like a sensible idea.

But if I find an unattended spill, my response on a good day might be: “Ooops, shall I get you a cloth?”

To which the child might respond: “yes please” (then wipes it up)

Or possibly the child might respond: “No thanks. I am doing [something else].”

My response to that is: “Right-ho. I’ll do it then.” (cheerfully)

My response to finding a spill on a bad day:

“Oh, NO! I just stepped in something! This place is a tip! [=dump] And no one has loaded the dishwasher today!”

Further fulmination is interrupted by:

Small child (mildly): “Sarah, would you mind moving out of the way? I am trying to watch this programme. Oh, and what does “xenophobia” mean?”

My response? I melt, all grumpiness gone, and (possibly) clean up the mess, while discussing xenophobia and all sorts of other things arising out of that.

Posted 11th February 1997:

ROTFL! That reminds me of the time I had spent three days cleaning my house for the visit of a rather particular multi-millionaire relative whose houses are always spotless (domestic staff you know) and look like something out of one of those glossy magazine about dream homes—unlived-in if you ask me! Anyway, as we sat down to my beautifully-presented Cordon Bleu meal in my (I thought) spotlessly clean and tidy dining room, we got into a discussion of tidiness, and, looking around the room, this relative said to me “Well you know, Sarah, I could never live like this. I don’t know how you do it.” She thought my house frightfully untidy! This was a very long time ago. I’d never clean up for a guest now. If visitors think my house needs cleaning, well hey, I shouldn’t dream of stopping them cleaning it—as indeed some have (“anal retentive” types I’d say 😉 ).

But seriously, what I meant was that although it is true that housework is not intrinsically interesting, because it is so repetitive and mindless, it can allow the mind to be focused on more interesting things, and that that in itself, is indeed pleasurable and valuable. Thinking time is important, to me at any rate. I have not always thought about it this way. I used to have the same conflicts about it so many others have (hence the need for three days of cleaning before my relative’s visit). Over the years, I have written posts on this subject, and when placed in chronological order, they make quite an interesting illustration how people can sometimes solve their problems, even if the problem is hating housework.

Solving such a problem is an individual thing, but here are some things I personally found helpful:

  1. The idea that housework is work for oneself (two Taking Children Seriously subscribers wrote marvellous posts on Taking Children Seriously that helped me see it this way). When I do housework now, I think of it as nurturing myself. Keeping my home how I like it is something I do for me. I think of the time spent on housework as time spent pampering myself, making things how I myself like them.
  1. Years earlier, my teacher at Cordon Bleu had told me that she considered her twice-daily long train journey to and from Cordon Bleu to be the best time of her day, because it gave her daydreaming and reading time. Later, that helped me solve my housework problem, but only when it addressed my problem-situation. (I fear that what helped me solve my problem will be of no use to others. Solutions to problems are very individual things.)
  1. The idea that housework is such that no great creativity is required—unlike many jobs for example. Since no creativity is required, that means that housework time = time spent indulging oneself with thinking time. One person on the Taking Children Seriously list said that he used to read all the Taking Children Seriously messages, then plan his replies while doing otherwise-mind-numbing manual labour, then write his replies. The same principle applies to housework. One can think about other things while doing it, and in effect be in another world while the dishes get done or the house gets cleaned. I found that idea incredibly helpful.
  1. This idea was underlined for me when I thought about housework in the light of the ideas in David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Fabric of Reality. The book does not mention housework at all, but what it says about virtual reality really spoke to my housework problem! (Seriously.)
  1. In response to a post saying rather sarcastically something like “Oh and I suppose with Taking Children Seriously is a case of “if you want it done, do it yourself”, someone answered something like “Well actually, yes—in that if you do, you might find that it becomes a virtuous circle.” The Taking Children Seriously poster then went on to relate a wonderful anecdote about how, now that her family has servants to clean up after them, they have all become tidy by choice, they all LIKE things to be tidy and are now tidy themselves. That was such a cool post. Hi Mary. 🙂
  1. I noticed that a friend of mine appeared entirely conflict-free when doing chores while I sat around not lifting a finger to help.
  1. Damage to children’s autonomy seems to me a monstrous and undesirable risk, so I’d much much MUCH rather do it myself. I slightly worry about children who like helping around the house, because to me, this suggests that they might possibly be developing conventional self-sacrificial (i.e., self-coercive) tendencies. This is a real danger with girls in particular. Autonomy is the thing we are striving to nurture, and self-sacrifice is inimical to autonomy. So when I see a child doing the washing up or other cleaning, I say something like “Hey, do you really want to do that more than anything else? Shall I do it instead? Are you feeling all right? ;)” I ask this last question as a joke, but really, I mean it. I feel concerned about the child’s autonomy. Chores, I’d say, are usually bad for children. This is not a joke.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘How Taking Children Seriously helped me solve my housework-hating problem’,

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