This is how I hurt my kids by helping them

hand in purple glove holding spray bottle

By Andrea Askowitz

Since March, since we’ve been locked down with our kids, every other Saturday is cleaning day. Our nanny hasn’t been able to come to work, so I thought I’d use this moment to teach my kids self-reliance. Also, with all of us home all the time, the house is always a disaster and I didn’t want to do all the cleaning myself.

On our first cleaning day, I made a quick list—tidy bedrooms, scrub down the kitchen, wash and fold laundry, sweep, mop, and water plants. My wife and I would take care of the bathrooms.

Sebastian started with good energy. He took a rag to the kitchen countertop but soon got sidetracked by an avocado pit. He rolled the pit over the ridges of the stovetop. Avocado pieces lodged into the creases of the stove. Then he took out our biggest knife, but I got to him before he could test if avocado pits can be machetied in half. Sebastian is 11.

Tashi, who’s 16, ambled out of her bedroom at noon. She poured coffee, sat, and drank it. I had cleaned the bathrooms and was onto the sweeping. I was moving quickly, getting it done.

When I finished sweeping, I pulled out the mop and bucket. I told Tashi mopping was her responsibility. She said, “Fine,” and went to the bathroom. Twenty minutes passed.

Then she stood in front of the mop and bucket, apparently stumped. She asked if dish soap would work.

I pulled out the proper soap from under the sink and told her how much water, how much soap, how to wet the mop, and how to wring it out so it wouldn’t be too wet.

With one hand, she pushed the mop in slow motion. I waited. I said, “Please use two hands.” Another twenty minutes went by before she finished a ten-by-ten area.

I wanted to grab the mop and smack her with it. Instead I grabbed a mask and went for a run.

I was fuming. Just the day before, Tashi asked if a mango sitting on the counter was ripe. I said, “Touch it. It looks ripe to me.” Without touching it, she went into her room. Later, I asked if she knew how to cut a mango. She said no.

This kid loves mangoes. We live in Miami. We have a tree. Every June we eat mangoes daily. How the hell did she go years eating mangoes without ever once cutting one open?

As I ran, I got more and more angry thinking about how Sebastian still can’t tie his shoes. Or fold a shirt. Or tuck a fitted sheet around his mattress. Or pick up his wet towel off the floor and hang it up.

How can my kids be this lazy and incompetent?

Of course, I knew. I’ve watched our nanny cut mangoes and bag pieces to freeze for smoothies, and put perfect slices in Tupperware for all of us to enjoy. Every single morning, I pick up Sebastian’s towel because it’s just easier than wrestling him to do it.

And just when I got winded, it occurred to me: Tashi acted like she’d never seen a mop because she hadn’t. I was angry, but the anger was misdirected. I was pissed at myself.

I’m mad that for sixteen years this kid had a nanny to clean up after her. Sixteen years! I was a single, working mom when my daughter was born. I wanted help. Then Vicky came into the picture and our son was born. Vicky and I both work, so a nanny was a godsend. But years passed and we got lazy, spoiled.

Now our nanny is on an extended paid leave. Without her, I realize my kids can’t mop.

Years ago, I dated a woman who was frat-boy disgusting. Coffee mugs on her night table grew hair. Who knows what grew under her pile of newspapers. She was charming and beautiful, but I wondered what her mess signified about her. We were in our early thirties, but I felt like I was living with a lazy, incompetent child. I remember being mad at her parents. Why hadn’t they taught her to clean?

The thing is, I don’t remember learning much about cleaning from my parents either.

Maybe kids learn to clean not from learning how to clean, but by having the freedom to learn how to do things on their own.

My parents were hands off. My mom was always there, but after school I made my own snack. I rode my bike a mile to the tennis courts. I got no help with homework. If I wanted a new tennis racket, I had to wash cars in the neighborhood. If I didn’t know what soap to use, I had to figure it out.

My problem is, I want things done a certain way. I want things done. So, instead of letting my kids do things on their own and learn from their mistakes, I do everything myself. Or I hire someone else to do it—and not just the cleaning.

Now, when I ask the kids to heat up frozen peas or go online to order carpet squares to put down on the stairs so our old dog doesn’t slip, they have no idea where to start. I don’t know why, but I thought they would somehow know how to do these simple things. 

Have I taken away their initiative and their resourcefulness? Will they grow up to be as incapable of taking care of an apartment as my ex? What else won’t they be able to do?

I spoke to psychologist Dr. Jill Stoddard, the founder of The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management. She’s also a mom. “Yep. It’s called snowplow parenting. Snowplows go beyond the hovering of a helicopter parent and push every obstacle out of the way. It’s a problem.”

She sent me an article by Lori Gottlieb, psychotherapist and author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Gottlieb has treated countless unhappy and unmoored young adults with adoring, helpful parents. According to Gottlieb, doing too much for kids renders them helpless.

Oh God. I hurt my kids by helping.

For the last seven months now, quarantine has forced me to turn off the snowplow, otherwise I’d spend my entire day cleaning. I’m trying my hardest not to jump in and do the work assigned to the kids.

Because we’re all pitching in, daily chores have been instated: everyone clears the table; Sebastian unloads the dishwasher; Tashi folds the clean laundry. And every other Saturday, there’s cleaning day.

I can’t say the kids do their chores willingly. Or well. They’re in charge of their own dirty laundry. A few days ago, I saw Sebastian’s hamper overflowing and fought my instinct to swoop in and load the washer for him. Instead, I let it go.

The next day, Sebastian scrambled to get ready for school. Even though school is online, uniform shirts are expected and he couldn’t find a clean one.

“Bummer,” I said, and watched him dig through his dirty clothes.

Then yesterday, a Saturday, I got a small win. After I went grocery shopping, I told the kids to unload the car, then I went to the bathroom. When I came out, I heard Tashi yelling at Sebastian: “Help me put the stuff away. You can’t expect Mom to do everything.”

Andrea Askowitz is co-host of the podcast Writing Class Radio  During the pandemic, she’s trying hard to curb her snowplow tendencies. Twitter @andreaaskowitz and @wrtgclassradio. Andrea is at work on a memoir called Entitled.

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