Serving Others as a Gift

The Big Book of Unschooling
pages 176-177 of first edition; 200-201 of second edition

Do you like your dishes?

Would you wash your dishes even if you had no children?

I'll get back to those questions.

When a mother lives with a thought like "These kids owe me…" it's unlikely that she will get very far toward generosity with her time and energy. The feeling that you're giving and giving to someone who will never repay you can be deflating. Perhaps it's just not right to send our children the bill, though. I remember being told I should respect my mother because she gave me birth. The unhappier she was making my life, the less sense that made. When I learned more about where babies came from, the idea that I should be grateful made no sense at all. I started to understand that she resented my presence and wanted to get whatever work or praise out of me that she could.

With my children I turned it right around. They didn't ask to be born. I was the one who wanted children. I invited them here by my actions and decisions. I owe them. I owe them food and friendship and protection. I owe them comfort if I can arrange it. I owe them the best of me, and to help nurture the best of them.

Before I was married, I had dishes and I washed them. When I was married, I had dishes and I washed them. I have children, and sometimes they help me, but they're my dishes, and I wash them. When my children leave, I will still have dishes. I will still wash them. Should my husband and I not die at the same time, the one who is left will wash the dishes.

Where in there does it make sense to make children wash dishes?

And seriously, if you have dishes you don't like, get rid of them and get dishes you enjoy. Look at thrift stores or ask your friends, or learn to make dishes. But don't confuse the simple washing of a dish with the worth of a child.


Dishes seem to symbolize the intersection of housework and helplessness to many people. They can understand that children can learn to read without lessons. They're sure science and history can be discovered in fun ways. But they "have to" do the dishes, and their children "have to" help them. And after they fight about that, there's not enough energy or love left to make anything fun.

Over the years when people have said, "But I have to wash the dishes," people such as Deb Lewis and Joyce Fetteroll have made many sensible and sometimes shocking suggestions. People could get cheap dishes at garage sales and throw them away. They could use paper plates and burn them for fuel, or throw them away or compost them. They could eat over the sink or stove. They could make food that doesn't need plates, and use paper towels, or newspaper or printer paper. They could eat out.

Some people say "But cockroaches will come," or "our house has ants" or "mice."

Submerge the dishes in water until morning, and they'll be easy to wash. Get a dishwasher.

But the attitude that someone has to wash the dishes gets in the way of seeing options.

Wash dishes because you want to. What would make you want to? Love. Generosity. A desire to have an available kitchen, a clean slate, a fresh canvas. The wish to do something simple and kind for yourself and others. The wish to keep peace in your house. The preference of singing and feeling warm soapy water over accusations and threats and tears. The intention to build loving relationships rather than antagonism. The hope to make a haven of your home, rather than a dangerous trap everyone would love to escape.

If you offer service with the hope of reward or praise or indebtedness, it will create resentment in you and in those who received the service. If you offer service without sending the bill, anything others say or do will be an honest expression of gratitude, not the last-minute submission of the bare minimum payment for services rendered. A "thank you" that's scripted is just noise. A "thank you" you didn't expect is true communication.

As with all changes, it might take a while. If the path you're on is working really well, ignore all of this and keep on it. If the path you're on is causing rifts in relationships, or arguments, or if people are trying to avoid work or doing a crummy job so that the dishes aren't really clean, consider taking a different path.

SandraDodd.com/chores/gift

Service Dishes Thinking about "Have To"

The Big Book of Unschooling