My children have never known a life without a washing machine and dryer in their home. A few years ago, I started teaching them how to do their own laundry – sort, settings, start, switch, dry, then fold and away. It’s important to me that they have an awareness of how the work of a house gets done, and that they learn those skills to do it themselves when they are able. There is a ripple effect that happens with the transfer of responsibility, like realizing how much harder it is to find a pair of socks in the morning when you chose not to match them up when putting them away the other day and then choosing to do it differently the next time.
Teaching my kids this skill was something I always intended to do, and the day my sons asked how to work the machines I, fortunately, recognized the learning opportunity for what it was instead of putting them off in favor of expediency. It’s impossible to teach the whole of being an independently functioning adult all in one sitting, but by continuously teaching and transferring these skills one by one, we (they) will get there.
I was reflecting on this the other night when my oldest son (9) and I trekked to the laundromat due to a broken washing machine and a not-soon-enough repair date given by the warrantied company. I told him how much I appreciated that he could actually help me with this task, and as we loaded the machines I shared stories with him about walking down the street to the laundromat with my mother and sister when I was young.
“Did your washing machine break once too?” he asked.
“No buddy, we didn’t have a washing machine in our house until I was about your age, and we only had one car,” I told him.
“Wow, really? Nana had to do this all the time?”
“Yup. We lived in an old house that didn’t have the right plumbing or electricity for a washer and dryer, and it was too expensive to change that when we were young.”
While starting our wash cycles, I had him do some mental math practice. “If we have six loads and each load costs $4.25 to wash, how much will the total cost be?”
“Excellent! And what if we had to do this every week for a month?”
“$101. No, $102,” he calculated.
“And if it costs about $2 to dry each load, what is the total cost per week?”
For a while, we both looked through our magazines. And then: “Mom? Is there a laundromat that we could walk to from our house?”
“Nope. It was lucky that we lived where we did growing up. We could walk to the grocery store, the library, school, and the laundromat,” I answered.
“And we are lucky we have a car,” he responded.
“We are, buddy,” I put down my magazine. “You know not everyone does have a car, or sometimes they have cars that break down and it costs too much to get them fixed right away. And not everyone lives where they can walk or take a bus to get where they need to.”
“Well, they could move to a better spot,” he suggested.
“Could they? Let’s think about it. You know what a lease is. If someone rents they can’t just leave. And it costs money to move; you have to pay a big deposit up front. If someone can’t get enough money together to fix their car, they probably can’t move very easily.” I let him think about this for a minute.
“They could save like $40 a week by not going to the laundromat, and use that to buy a washing machine and dryer or fix their car!” he said finally. I looked at him, with the look he knows well by now to mean, “keep thinking.”
“But then you’d have dirty clothes all the time,” he finally concluded. “That’s a hard problem.”
“It is,” I said. “You know, that’s something I think of when little things don’t go my way. That even though our washing machine is broken, we have a car and the money to just come here and wash our clothes. We don’t have to make a hard choice between clean clothes and something else.”
“And electricity!” he said, “We have electricity and clean water here. Did you know that some people in Puerto Rico still don’t have power? They can’t wash their clothes, even at all!”
“That is so true,” I responded.
“I have to wash my baseball uniform like three times this week,” he said, a worried look on his face. “I never even thought about that.”
“We’ll figure it out, buddy. This week I’ll take care of it, okay?” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “That’s a lucky thing. I’m a lucky kid, I think.”
I gave him the one-armed side hug that he would allow before he scooted away and asked, “Do you have any more stories about the olden days when you were growing up?” with the grin of a 9-year-old experimenting with being a wiseguy.
We moved on to other topics, but the importance of the exchange wasn’t lost on me. Lectures in the abstract rarely breakthrough, but a conversation like this about relative privilege as applied to laundry is something that will stick. Thinking about the totality of what I want to teach my children about the world before they leave me can seem so overwhelming. Staying present and focused on what my children are asking to be taught at any given moment is a much more possible thing.