Taking out the trash is garbage


EVERY TIME I watch one of my kids take out the trash, I worry about the quality of my life in my golden years.

As parents do, I occasionally fantasize about the time when our kids will be grown, when they will be making big bucks and will, no doubt, be lavishing gifts, trips and sports cars on dear old dad and mom.

Whether you call it generational revenge, or payback, or dreaming, the notion that my kids will one day be spending money on me makes me giddy.

My reverie doesn't last long. It often ends as I watch one of my teen-age sons perform one of his assigned household chores. For instance, the other night I found myself wondering, "If it takes this kid an hour just to gather the household trash, how is he going to set the business world on fire?"

On other occasions I have wondered, "If this kid is really a genius, how come he can't remember to unload the dishwasher?"

When I remind my kids in a gentle, paternal way -- "Do it! Now!" -- of their responsibilities to the commonweal, I am dismissed, even "dissed." I hear two basic objections to performing household chores. First, I am told that these tasks are "no big deal." Second, I am told that these tasks are demeaning, labors that fall well below their talent levels.

I usually reply -- in a gentle, paternal way -- that these tasks happen to be "big deals" to their mother and me. I suggest that they pretend that timely completion of household chores is important, even if they don't believe it.

"Just fake your enthusiasm," I tell a reluctant trash toter, "until you buy a house of your own."

I scoff at the second objection, that young brains shouldn't be burdened with such mundane matters. On the contrary, I tell them that such tasks prepare them for the real world, where, in my experience, many top jobs consist of showing up and doing the dirty work. Moreover, I point out that there can be money in menial tasks. I remind the kids that during previous summers they have been paid to walk dogs, cut grass, water yards and engage in other forms of low-skilled labor.

Usually I feel pretty proud after I deliver one of these take-out-the-trash homilies.

The other day, however, I read an article that shook my faith in household chores and in my plan to live off the vast fortunes of my offspring. The article, in the New York Times, told of get-rich-quick kids, 12 to 18 years old, who have already made good money in the computer business.

One 18-year-old software whiz from Brooklyn, for instance, had a chauffeur who took him around town in a late-model luxury car. The kid was talking about taking his software firm public and becoming a millionaire. An 18-year-old kid in Washington state, who set up a Web site to review computer hardware, already had a staff of 20 writers working for him.

These kids, it seemed to me, were well on their way to becoming rich adults. What was alarming to me, however, was the lack of menial labor in their upbringing. The Brooklyn boy with the chauffeur said he never earned a dime from baby-sitting or from any normal teen-age labor.

And the father of the Washington state entrepreneur made some particularly hurtful comments about cutting grass. He said he had discouraged his son from "lawn mowing or anything less than he is capable of."

In other words, this dad had succumbed to the old excuse that a kid has better things to do than cut the grass. Subsequently, his kid had taken off along the road to riches, and the dad was along for the ride.

These success stories contradicted almost everything I had told my kids about the importance of doing household chores and threatened my plan for living the good life off their money. The stories of these teen-age moguls seemed to undercut my contention that performing menial domestic tasks somehow teaches kids how to succeed in business. The contrary notion seemed to be true. The stories also seemed to support my kids' argument that, in the long run, everybody in the family would be better off if we just let the kids do what they want, and let the household chores slide.

This was shocking. So I did what any thoughtful parent would do. I put the newspaper article about these kids in the trash -- the recycling tub -- and reminded one of my sons that it was his household duty to haul old newspapers out to the alley.

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