Putting My Foot Down

I finally put my foot down yesterday! I have been very appreciative of all of our domestic help and yet I have been increasingly uncomfortable with how our whole family, especially the kids, has been slipping into doing nothing around the house, while our housekeeper cleans up after us.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is pretty normal here. That’s a housekeeper’s job. And I am not the neatest person. In fact, I hate domestic work and I don’t enjoy having to repeatedly tell the kids to clean up their toys and clean up after themselves. It was easy to just let it go.

But if we just let it go, what are we teaching the kids? How are they going to take care of themselves when they grow up? How are they going to learn responsibility? How are they going to deal with life when we get back to the States? Again, this might sound like a real “problem of abundance”, but it really is a problem for expatriates living in countries where domestic help is plentiful and affordable: how to raise grounded and responsible children in a culture where you can hire people to do everything for you.

Our nanny is also pretty messy so she hasn’t been much help in this department. She leaves her own dishes all over the place. She leaves Saige’s clothes on the floor after she changes her. She is basically as bad as the kids. I have talked to her about it a few times and things get better for a little while but there is still a stack of dishes left for me to wash after each pijamada (the slumber parties she has with the kids when Esteban and I go out).

So all this has been on my mind and then yesterday, I snapped. I came downstairs about a half of an hour after the kids and the nanny left the house to go to a park. Our housekeeper hadn’t arrived yet. Here is what I found on the second floor: the lights were left on in all of the rooms even though it was light out (they were all just too lazy to open the curtains); the nanny had once again left Saige’s dirty clothes on the floor, less than five feet from the laundry hamper that I asked her to use; the kids’ room was a mess with toys and clothes all over the floor and the bed.

As I ventured down to the first floor, I almost tripped over Saige’s puzzle pieces and other toys. There were dirty breakfast dishes left on the table and food left out on the kitchen counter. There was a half eaten apple on the living room floor, next to toys and stacks of books. OK, this was gross, even by my less-than-meticulous standards! And I have to admit that I was pissed. The nanny is supposed to be a model to the children of how to behave rather than a fellow piglet.

I also have to admit that if I am to be really honest with myself, I could also be more careful in the behavior that I model to my children. I could clean up more after myself. I decided right then and there that something has to change, right now, before these bad habits become engrained in the kids. I am not too worried about Esteban and I because sooner or later, we will be back in the US and will have to adjust to real life. But for the kids, this is the time to learn good habits.

So I sat down and made a list of all the things I wanted the kids to do from now on: set the table, clear the table, wipe the table after each meal, sweep the floor, keep their rooms clean, throw clothes in the laundry hamper, clean up their toys. Then I decided that I needed to talk to our housekeeper and our nanny and then have a family meeting. I told the nanny in no uncertain terms what I expect of her. No more dirty clothes and toys on the floor. No more dirty dishes. Her job is to model good behavior to the kids. End of story.

I also asked our housekeeper for help in reminding the kids to set the table, clear it, etc. I gave her clear instructions that if she finds clothes or toys in the floor, she is not to pick them up. She is to call the kids to come pick them up. She seemed uncomfortable with this. When I asked her why she said that she sees this as her job. Her job is to clean. How can she ask the kids to clean? I told her that her job is to help me and that it would be a great help to me, if she could help me raise responsible kids. She told me that she supports this idea although “in Colombia, the moms do everything” (at least those who can’t afford housekeepers).

Next, I had a family meeting with the kids and the nanny and the housekeeper and explained to everybody how it’s going to be from now on. It’s funny, the kids didn’t protest. In fact, Siena especially, took great pride in washing the table with a soapy sponge after lunch… and after dinner… and breakfast today. In fact, she got so into it that she sponged down the oven and the kitchen counter top and the tile walls. She kept telling us how much she cleans up at school too. I guess what they say is true – kids do need responsibilities to feel good about themselves.

Thirty-six hours later, the system is working well. The kids and nanny are cleaning up after themselves and the house is orderly. The trick now will be to have the discipline to keep it up. Wish me luck in staying on top of everybody (and myself)!

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