What Dishwashing Taught Me


“Mom, what’s Catherine going to do? You said we all have to do something to contribute to the family.”

Oops! She got me. “What can I have Catherine do?” I thought quickly. “That’s a great question, Sarah. What can Catherine do?” I said to fill in some time so I could think.

This rapid exchange happened one night while we were clearing the dinner dishes from the table. We’re trying to help Sarah learn the habit of clearing the table, and I had suggested she was old enough to put her dishes all the way into the dishwasher, not just in the sink. Then I added to it and said she was old enough to put all the dishes into the dishwasher, not just hers. She had no problem with the request. She simply calculated  that if she had to do something, so did Catherine. It was a reasonable point, and proof that she views Catherine as capable of carrying her fair share. If I really believed Catherine could do anything as long as we’re a little creative about it, I realized I needed an answer for this question. And fast!IMG_3097

Plus, what 8 year old doesn’t have a powerful sense of what is fair in the world – especially when it comes to siblings and anything even remotely similar to a chore?

Sarah proceeded with her stream of consciousness giving me time to make up something quickly. My brain vacillated between excuses for why Catherine couldn’t do something to thinking about what she could actually do. I confess I felt stumped.

As Sarah said, “Mom, I’m going to wash the dishes…” I realized at least I could help Catherine put them in the dishwasher so I finished her sentence. “And Catherine can put them in the dishwasher.” Sarah seemed imminently satisfied with this plan. All I had to do was figure out how Catherine could actually do that. I just kept pressing forward.

“Well, let me get Catherine over here next to the dishwasher,” I said, knowing this would buy me a few seconds to keep thinking. Sarah happily ran the dishes under the stream of water and started piling them by the sink. “I’m a good dish-washer, aren’t I, Mom?” She continued to chatter away as I positioned Catherine’s chair by the dishwasher, still wondering what exactly was going to constitute “putting dishes in the dishwasher” and wondering if Sarah would accept it as Catherine doing her fair share.

I picked up a plate and held it to Catherine’s hand and talked about it feeling wet and cold and then put it in the spines of the dishwasher rack. “Good job, Catherine. You put the plate in the dishwasher. That’s a big help. Here comes the next one,” I said. I can actually remember how it felt because I cringed wondering, “Is Sarah going to buy any of this? Is she getting ready to say, ‘Mom, you’re actually the one doing it, not Catherine’?” I held my breath and simply kept pressing forward.

Sarah happily rinsed plates and bowls and knives and forks and let us know that she was working faster than we were and we needed to hurry up. Frankly, she was right! I started moving items into Catherine’s hand faster and soon we were sloshing some excess water around and laughing and working together to make sure all the dishes got loaded. Technically speaking, all Catherine was doing was touching each item before it went into the dishwasher. And that was enough.

It was enough simply to include her. Rather than have her sit in her chair back at the table, we simply moved her a few feet, let her touch the wet dishes, talked about the task at hand and got the job done. Moments earlier, I had been filled with doubt about how this would all work. I wondered what I could possibly do to make a difference and make the most of this opportunity. I feared an 8-year-old meltdown that would send our evening into a tailspin of frustration and whining – and not just from Sarah.

I simply kept moving forward searching for an answer. Rather than stall and ponder and critique and analyze, I took action. I let the path unfold before me, all the while watching and hoping that it would. And I learned a big lesson that I seem to need to learn over and over and over again.

When in doubt, step forward.

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