One of my favourite Albert Einstein expressions runs something like this: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”. I am not sure if I have used his exact words, but that’s the gist of it. It’s a perspective I have appreciated many times in schools. In a culture of T-charts, balance sheets, rubrics, and assessment tables, an emphasis on the wrong things can sometimes distract us from what matters most.
We can hear evidence of this if we listen closely to our own children. There is nothing as legalistic as a kid who’s “keeping score” – especially if that kid is keeping score with a brother or sister! Walking the dog, feeding that cat, carrying the laundry, or clearing the dinner table. In the olden days (!), these simple tasks were usually referred to as chores and every child had them. Even though I didn’t grow up on the prairies in 1870, I had them and do you know what? I’m glad I did.
Routine tasks that are necessary in daily life can be important teachers. In an age where hired house cleaners are increasingly commonplace (when I was a kid, only “the Brady Family” had one!), kids can float along with surprisingly few responsibilities around the home (and bring this same expectation to school!). My parents were born in 1937 and 1940 and I still enjoy hearing about their lives as children. While they had electricity, their families cooked on woodstoves and had a pump that needed to be primed for water. During the winters, my grandmothers melted snow on the stovetop for bathing and washing. And all of the children in those families were responsible for carrying in firewood, washing dishes, doing laundry, and, of course, meticulously tending to their own few belongings. There was no friendly lady called “Alice” trundling around behind them to make sure they didn’t forget what was theirs to remember in the first place!
While I certainly had central heat and all the modern conveniences growing up, we did have a wood stove that heated some of our house and guess whose job it was to make sure there was always dry wood in the wood box? And that the wood chips and ash were cleaned up and in proper order? That’s right. My brother and me. When we arrived home from school, it was always our first task and it could become a drudgery, not to mention something to bicker about: “I did it yesterday. Today it’s your turn!” Sound familiar?
If we’re not careful, it’s easy to become resentful about all the responsibilities of daily living. This is especially true if we are the kind of person who “keeps a running tally” of all we do. Isn’t it astounding that some people are able to keep such an accurate count of every task and chore they complete each day – while at the same time conveniently forgetting all the things that other people are doing on a daily basis?
There are many benefits to “chores” for people of all ages, but it’s very difficult to become a contented person if we’re always keeping score of all we do. Keeping track only discourages us by cluttering our mind with who’s doing what. As psychologist Richard Carlson reminds us in his little book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, keeping track of who’s done what is the epitome of “small stuff”.
It is easy to see this tally mindset in a classroom, particularly when tidying up a room at the end of a messy lesson. It is always fascinating to see the students who simply do what needs to be done without pointing out how “…it’s not their mess”! I admire these children because they have learned the art of family and community living without arguing about whose turn it is to take out the garbage!
They have also learned that making things like garbage less relevant in their lives frees up more time and energy for the truly important things.
Things that actually count!