In the Shadows of Competence

I realized something about my parenting lately.

Elle, my oldest, is so dang capable and competent that my other children might not be.

It’s not her fault. It’s not their fault. It’s mine.

I did an awesome job raising Elle. She was my only child for 3 years and I had lots of energy.  Plus, I was no longer teaching and needed to put my training and creativity somewhere. We did Letter of the Week; she ate lots of fruits and veggies and little sugar; there was no DVD player in the car; we were regulars at library story time.  She was fluffing pillows and tucking sheets on her bed by age 3, as well as unloading the dishwasher. She had chores and responsibilities. I was all over it.

Fast forward 12 years, and now I am tired and old and busy. I haven’t been able to put the same kind of time into my other children, so they just bask in Elle’s competency or shrink in her shadows, depending on how you look at it.

I realized what I was doing to my other children during one of our Spring Break cleaning projects.

The kids were sitting at the kitchen bar and I said, “OK. Today we are going to clean the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms including all the drawers.  I am going to assign 2 kids per bathroom.  I will give each of you a chance to plead your case on what bathroom you would prefer to clean and who you would like to work with. I will listen to your points, consider your reasons, but I will make the final decision.”

I had kind of planned on putting Elle and Crew together downstairs, and I would put my two youngest on the upstairs bathroom so I could monitor them better.  I knew Elle would take care of the downstairs so I wouldn’t have to worry about monitoring that one.

Croft spoke first and said she and Locke should take the upstairs bathroom because it is smaller and they are littler.

Crew didn’t care.

And Elle was willing to do anything but work with Locke. (It had been a rough morning between those two.)

As I listened to their requests, I had a clear vision of how I wanted to divide the jobs.

It hit me that Crew needed to take the lead. If he were assigned with Elle, Elle would lead.  She would nag and make assignments and control the pace. Elle would shoulder the burden and the responsibility of completing the bathroom, and Crew would just be along for the ride.  Oh, he would do some of the work, but there is a difference between owning the assignment and just following the leader.

But if Crew were to be the oldest on the team, maybe he would step up. Maybe he would set the pace. Maybe he would feel the responsibility instead of letting Elle shoulder the burden. I needed to know if Crew really knew how to clean a bathroom, or did he just know how to do what Elle told him to do next?

So I assigned Crew and Locke to work together on the upstairs bathroom.

I put both girls on the downstairs bathroom because that is where all the girl stuff is: hair accessories, make-up, elastics, nail polish, etc.

As the boys got to work, I was pleasantly surprised.  Crew pulled out his notebook that delineated the steps to cleaning a bathroom. He got out his dry erase pen and went to work checking off box after box as he cleaned the mirror, wiped the sink, scrubbed the toilet, etc.  He even added two other tasks to the list. I didn’t have to ride him to finish.  He swifted the floor, cleaned up pee, and emptied the garbage all on his own.

bathroom checklist

Crew had been in the shadows of Elle’s competence for too long and when allowed to go out on his own and lead, he was completely capable. I am glad I finally gave him a chance to shine.

When Sunday dinner came around, I remembered this great lesson that I had learned earlier in the week. We were feeding grandma and grandpa and usually I have Elle set the table because she does such a nice job for company.  She’s fast and thorough and neat.

But this time I put Crew on setting the table exclusively by himself. Elle balked at first, not trusting that Crew could do an adequate job for company.  We both knew Crew going solo would be interesting because usually it was Elle and Crew and a fighting match.  Elle barking orders and Crew taking his sweet time.

The question was “Could Crew set a table for guests without Elle’s help?”

And the answer was a big “Yes!” He got out a tablecloth and made name cards. He put the napkin on the left and the knife on the right. The table looked nice and orderly and there wasn’t a fight.

I thought about how it had become easy for me to ask Elle to clean the bathroom or set the table because she did everything so well and so thorough. It had become easy for me to ask Elle to unload the dishwasher because she knew where everything went and put stuff away neater.  It was easier to ask her to wipe the counter because she did a better job.  It was easier to have Crew just keep clearing the table or taking out the garbage because he had those skills down.

I wanted to write this post to remind us as parents to not let our other kids live in the shadows of one child’s competency. I tend to give the same jobs to the same kids because they have them mastered and I have less training or checking up to do. It is easier for parents this way, but it does more harm in the long run for all the children involved.

The ones that are asked to do everything either get cocky or resentful.  The ones that are underestimated either start to believe they can’t do anything or they get lazy.  The former feel used or burdened, and the latter can’t grow and reach their full potential if not given as many opportunities.

As parents, we tend to concede to the easier, quicker route, thinking we will train or teach another day.  But the next time work needs to be done, we are just as rushed to get the job done. But limiting my children’s responsibilities limits their skill sets as well.

So (assuming the child is at an appropriate age),

Every kid should set the table, not just the one who puts the silverware on the correct side.

Every kid should empty the dishwasher, not just the one who puts everything away in the right spot.

Every kid should clean the bathroom not just the one that doesn’t leave any streaks on the mirror.

Every kid should fold clothes, not just the one that does it neatly.

Every kid should make his/her own bed, not just the one that can do it wrinkle free.

I realize not every chore is appropriate for every child, and some chores are more appropriate for younger kids and some are better for older kids, but let’s stop assigning chores based on who does it best or fastest or without the least supervision. Let’s give all the kids a chance to grow in skills.

Crew is coming out of the shadows of Elle’s competency and proving his own. He cut strawberries and bananas for dinner last night because I am letting him come out of the shadows.  I worried about him losing a finger the whole time, but he shined.  He even went the extra mile and decided, on his own, to put the fruit in cute little parfait cups.

crew strawberries_Fotor

Now I need to make sure that Croft and Locke aren’t withering under two shadows. They need a chance to shine as well.


3 thoughts on “In the Shadows of Competence”

  1. Great reminder! I’d love to look through that work binder sometime. That’s a great idea. 🙂 Love the way you think!

  2. I loved this post! Such a great reminder to let my kids do things they may not be “perfect” at. I would also love for you to do a post on your binder. Do your kids have certain chores they do every day and others they do for an allowance?I would love to hear your thoughts on this


  3. Angela Granthem

    I love this post. From the thought provoking subject matter, to the evaluation of future results, wow!! Thank you!!

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