My first post in this series was about doing dishes with my dad in Alaska. Now we move on to the less happy teenage years.

My mom met my ex-stepfather when I was in 5th grade. The summer between 6th and 7th grade we moved from Chugiak to San Jose, California and where they got married. (They separated my second year of college).

In San Jose my sister, my stepbrother and I had to do the dishes. Once my stepbrother moved out it was just Annie and me.

My stepfather would tell the story repeatedly of how when he was growing up “mom cooked it, dad put it on the table” so the kids did the dishes. I always thought that was weird, since my mom was both the main cook and the primary income earner, so by that logic he should be washing dishes with us…

Some thoughts:On teaching kids to do chores

I think my stepfather was correct to believe that my sister and I should be doing more to help my mom around the house, but I see a lot of problems with the way he went about it.

First, I think I would have responded better to a gradual ramp-up of responsibilities rather than the “there’s a new sheriff in town, you soft, spoiled kids are going to learn to work” approach. (He never said it like that, but I think it summarizes the attitude).

Second, I think there may have been an understanding of work as suffering, rather than simply something that’s part of life, something that we can even enjoy sometimes. If you see work as suffering, it makes sense that you’d want someone else to do some of it so you don’t have to suffer as much.

Third, I think presenting household chores as something we do together rather is more effective. I’ve seen with my niece and nephew of they often want to help when given the opportunity. There certainly were periods when we worked together, but I remember a lot of simply having him tell me what to do, which brings us to…

On adulthood and authority

Of course parents need to be in charge, but there’s the question of how they think about that authority.

The older I get, the more I understand the fundamental importance of relationships. Often, a problem that’s apparently about something concrete is really about the inter-personal relationships lying under the surface.

Yesterday I gave an example of how work can be a chance to build a relationship. But you can also need a healthy relationship to be foundation for working together.

My stepfather liked to explicitly assert his authority—“I’m the adult, you’re the kid.” (I think part of this was that he was insecure and didn’t really feel like an adult and knew he often acted like a moody teenager, probably because that’s when he started abusing drugs and alcohol).

The thing about authority is it’s not enough to have formal authority and to assert it; people have to accept it. They can do that because they respect you, or they can do it out of fear.

My stepfather worked from an authoritarian, fear-based place. Do this, or else. When people follow out of fear, they acknowledge the reality of the authority and often comply with your orders but they don’t actually respect you.

The alternative would be to earn respect for that authority. This takes time. It also requires, in the language of Stephen Covey “making deposits” before you try to make withdrawals.

Next post in series: Memories of dishes: college semester in Ecuador.