Who Does The Laundry in Your Household?

“So, how many of you do your own laundry at home?”

I posed this question to six 13-to-15-year-old campers with whom I was having lunch last August. My tone was casual, but I was eager to deliver my speech.

I was prepared to tell them that they should have started doing their own laundry years ago; that assuming responsibility for their own laundry is an ideal way to develop time-management and planning skills that are invaluable as they face increasing demands from school and other activities. I wanted to tell them that with gadgets in their hands virtually from day one, young kids are perfectly capable of learning how to run a washing machine and dryer (and if they were to deny it, suggest it might be best for their parents to take away their phone for safe keeping).

Many years ago, taking a cue from Tom Sawyer, I told our daughter Abby—who at age 11 was eager to be regarded as grown-up and responsible and deserving of more freedom and privileges—that when she turned 12, along with some of the things she was asking for, she’d also be allowed to take over doing her own laundry from then on; because when she was 12 I’d know she was mature enough to manage the clothes washer and dryer. Suddenly the washer and dryer took on the cachet of machinery run by adults; earning the privilege of operating them became her keen desire.

And so, following her twelfth birthday party, the Celebration of Laundry took place. Abby carried her laundry basket full of clothes, sheets, and towels to the clothes washer where, to her great satisfaction, she engaged in each stage of choosing settings, twisting dials, and pushing buttons. Her pleasure in the task grew over the next couple of weeks as her little brother Daniel claimed that, since it was so easy to run the machines, it wasn’t fair that he wasn’t allowed to do his own laundry until he was 12.

No surprise; it didn’t take long for reality to set in. One hectic school morning, Abby remembered she had gym that afternoon for which she would have to change into her required green shorts and t-shirt or else suffer the humiliation of “getting points.” She dashed upstairs to her dresser with only minutes until the school bus was due to appear at the end of our street.

“Where’s my gym uniform? It’s not in my drawer!”
“Did you do your laundry last week?”

Abby shot me a look that I will politely translate as, “I can’t believe you’re serious about this.” When I suggested that her choices appeared to be digging through her laundry basket to unearth her (wrinkled, sweaty) gym uniform or getting points for wearing something else, the situation bordered on tragic.

I don’t recall which option she chose. But suffice to say that, having bestowed the same 12th birthday gift to Dan a few years later (by which time he wasn’t as eager, but at that point it was a given), I can count on one hand the number of loads of laundry that I’ve done for either of them in well over a decade. All it took was not stepping in to do the task—even when there might be consequences—combined with the conviction that they were perfectly capable of the chore. Over time and, yes, with a few mishaps along the way, each learned to plan ahead, create schedules, anticipate their needs, and ultimately take satisfaction in being responsible for a very basic and ongoing personal task.

So, back to last August in the messhall and my question, “How many of you do your own laundry?”

Four of the six campers nodded. They were quick to point out that their parents “had made them.” We laughed over the felted wool sweater and bleach-splotched jeans disasters. But they were just as quick to admit that doing their laundry had become routine and they actually preferred being in control. I didn’t even get to give my speech. I figured the two who didn’t do their own laundry were getting the message from their peers, much better than from me.

It struck me that the four boys doing the talking came from different parts of the country, attended both public and private schools, three had siblings and one did not. It came out in the conversation that one had a housekeeper who did all the cleaning but not the kids’ laundry. Interestingly, what they had in common was that these four were longtime Pemi campers, whereas the two teens that did not do their own laundry were new to summer camp.

Senior campers on "Laundry Crew"

Senior campers serve on “laundry crew”

Whether or not there is a connection between the fact that the guys who did their own laundry were longtime campers or not, I like to think that most parents who specifically choose “the Pemi experience” believe that age-appropriate opportunities to take on responsibility not only go hand-in-hand with privileges, but also give children the chance to develop valuable life skills. While doing laundry isn’t always fun, kids who assume ongoing responsibility for it get far more out of the experience than clean clothes.

If you think this might make a great birthday gift to your son or daughter, just remember Tom Sawyer. Sometimes it’s all in how you present it.

~ Dottie Reed

Feel free to post your own suggestions or thoughts on ways to help your kids take on responsibility (which in some cases might mean not helping them!)…

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