10 Kids/10 Minutes
By Johanna Banham
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #46, 2002.
Johanna Banham tells us how to get the housework for a family of twelve done every day by harnessing the energy of ten kids for only ten minutes at a time.
“I don’t know how you do it!” friends and strangers wail. The homeschooling mother trades six hours of relative stillness each weekday for the melee of togetherness. Add several hours of academics to the mix, and we have lives that are admirable, but seldom enviable.
Strangers are quick to give us credit for our hard work, and we should not shrug off the compliment implicit in their wailing. Homeschooling is a big job! Most of us have relaxed our schedules and expectations over the years, but still find that keeping schoolwork on track, meals coming, laundry moving along, bathrooms clean, and little ones out of the glitter glue is as hard as it sounds.
Some cope like the horse in Animal Farm by saying, “I must work harder.” Others lean heavily on their oldest children, loading the burden an experienced mother is finding too heavy onto their slim shoulders. Still others lower their expectations so far that uneasiness and guilt dog them. But we have a tool in our hands - and the bigger the family, the more powerfully it operates. It’s called, “Leverage.”
When my seven oldest kids work with me for an hour, we accomplish eight mom-hours of labor, the equivalent of full-time maid service! The children learn the rudiments of housekeeping, the eldest are not burdened with more than their share of work, and I hush my grumbling.
I was impressed with the power of division of labor ten years ago when I heard Julie McKim, a mother of 13, speak about time and home management. Mrs. McKim put up an overhead transparency listing the jobs that her family did in 45 minutes a day - impossible things like “sort the linen closet” and “clean out the RV.” An epiphany! Housework advice may not seem like material to stir the heart, but I had six kids seven and under, was homeschooling the oldest three, and was beginning to wonder if I could keep up the pace.
Since home maintenance is tedious, we don’t do it all in a single marathon session each day. Meal times come with regularity and are natural times for everyone to be busy, so I divide our workload into ten-minute snatches before and after each meal, with a slightly longer stretch right after breakfast. While a couple of us are busy preparing food, pouring drinks and setting the table, the rest can be working at other tasks around the house.
I have ten kids, but only those older than six have chores. The littlest ones generally get a free ride, knowing their day will come. Before breakfast one child brings down the laundry, another empties the dishwasher, while three older kids each tidy up a bathroom. One teenager picks up toys and straightens up the bedroom shared by the littlest girls, and the youngest of the working-age kids sets the table with bowls and spoons for breakfast.
Everyone is finished in less than ten minutes, yet a significant amount of work is out of the way. Following breakfast we clear and wash the table, load the dishwasher, put away things left out in the living room, vacuum the stairs and living room, and sweep the dining room. Another ten minutes. Then we each do an additional “weekly” job. These are tasks that only need doing once a week (cleaning the bathtubs, mopping the dining room, changing sheets, dusting furniture and the like). Within a half-hour of breakfast we are finished with housework until lunchtime.
My husband finds it discouraging to see how quickly all this cleaning is undone in the course of a normal day; he’s more of a “clean as you go” kind of guy. A toddler and a preschooler can undo the work of ten in a very short time if we are too busy to notice, but I don’t panic at mid-morning entropy. We’ll have it picked up again before our next meal.
The hardest part of making this system work is our natural aversion to work. I ignore most griping. Kids too weary to raise a dust cloth will revive to bounce racquet-balls off the ceiling, spray Pledge on the hardwood floors for sliding, and gather fifty pairs of clean socks for an indoor snowball fight. These little nuclear power plants can do an enormous amount of helping and have energy left for play afterward.
In an emergency (such as a phone call in the middle of a busy school morning to let us know someone will be dropping by) we do a “Five Minute Pickup.” This is a panic-driven, adrenaline-fueled sweep of the living areas. When I read Kathy von Duyke’s account in The Homeschool CopyBook of a massive clean up she and her nine kids managed as an older lady from church drove up their long driveway, I recognized a kindred spirit. We can move from hearing the dog bark and the crunch of wheels on the gravel to having toys and books picked up, a tablecloth spread, counters wiped, laundry baskets stashed, and everyone poised casually over neat stacks of school work before the doorbell rings. Now and then we are caught flat-footed, but one of us can stall a visitor on the porch for a few minutes while a stealth team puts away games, toys, and stray socks in the background. I think that anyone visiting a home with ten children comes with low expectations, but my kids have determined among themselves to avoid a “Grapes of Wrath” look.
How to keep track of who does what when? We tape two lists on the refrigerator door. One lists the chores we do every single day chronologically: “Before Breakfast,” “After Breakfast,” “Before Lunch”, “After Lunch” and so on. Each child’s name is followed by his job for that time frame. The second list shows the once-a-week jobs. These are listed Monday, Tuesday, and so on. My husband notes wryly that the chore charts are mostly helpful for knowing what someone isn’t supposed to do. Savvy kids learn to answer him with something other than “That’s not my job,” and avert the lecture about their futures as union shop stewards.
For years we rotated jobs once a week; currently we trade just twice a year. This gives each child time to become very good at what he or she does while making it hard for a slacker to go undetected. Stop cleaning a bathroom sink for six months, and someone will notice!
Like anyone who manages a workforce, I must check the work. When I am running someone out the door to the dentist or have been up all night cleaning up after the stomach flu, I delegate this checking to the older kids. Other days I may just spot check and depend on the element of surprise to keep everyone honest. In a perfect world everyone does his or her work without being asked, cheerfully and thoroughly. At my house - I have to look.
Some mothers can manage their work force on the spot, directing kids to various tasks. I get confused trying to remember what needs to be done, decide who ought to do it, argue with one convinced he has more than his share, and all the while keep an eye out for any who might slip off to read a book or play with Lego bricks. Dividing the work on chore charts ahead of time gives me a chance to balance the work in relative peace and quiet. I adjust them a bit every few months as the kids grow and their availability to help changes.
Time and energy put into designing an elegant time management system with delicately balanced workloads is wasted if we don’t get moving each morning. We must roll up our sleeves and start working. But even a mother who has been sidetracked by weariness and discouragement can take courage. She will find that her smallest efforts at getting back on track can be leveraged into success by recruiting her children and working together in ten-minute increments. By dividing her work, she can conquer it.