One of the staples of my childhood growing up in the 80s was listening to Free To Be… You and Me on our Fisher-Price record player. While most of the songs revolved around creating an egalitarian society where boys and girls have equal opportunities and are treated the same, one of the songs that still stands out is “Helping”, about kids helping each other with all sorts of activities.
However, the last verse of the song is about a kid whose help isn’t so helpful:
Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug And Jennifer Joy helped shake it Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy And Zachary Zugg helped break it And some kind of help is the kind of help That helping's all about And some kind of help is the kind of help We all can do without
My wife also grew up on Free To Be… You and Me, and we often find ourselves repeating that last line in a sing-song to each other: “Some kind of help is the kind of help… we all can do without.”
This phrase comes out when one the kids decides to “help” with cooking or home repair or some other task. For example, I might be mixing some salad dressing when one of the kids jumps in wanting to participate. I just need a teaspoon of salt, but they want to pour and hold the spoon, and I find myself struggling to avoid a huge mess. A five minute task ends up taking 20, once you factor in the clean-up.
Last weekend, I was finishing up putting together a fundraiser mailing for a non-profit organization I help out with. Over the course of a few days, I had printed and stuffed 140 envelopes. Now I just needed to seal them up and stick on the address labels and stamps.
I was home that afternoon with my son Rafael, age five. I was planning on finishing up that evening, but he was having lunch and I thought maybe I could get some of it done early while he ate. He watched while I worked, and then made the dreaded announcement:
“I want to help!”
“Um, okay,” I said. Rafael is quite diligent, so I figured I could keep him occupied and get a head start on the mailing.
The envelopes needed to be sealed. These are the easy self-sealing envelopes where you just pull off a wax cover and fold the pre-glued flap down. In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard, so I handed Rafael a stack of five envelopes and started sealing my own.
“I’m ready for more!” he soon announced. I looked over, and sure enough, he had them all sealed up and ready to go. I handed him 10 more and he kept going. I was probably sealing 5x faster than him, but when all was said and done it did reduce the number of envelopes I needed to seal.
The next step was to put the stamps and mailing labels. He was still eager to help, but now the job was more difficult. Placing stickers is more error prone and hard to fix if misplaced. I was torn between the stamps, which were simpler to place but cost money, versus the mailing labels which could be reprinted but larger and harder to orient. I took a gamble a handed him a roll of 100 forever stamps worth $49.
I showed him how to lay out several envelopes at once and where to put the stamps, and he got started. One after another, he placed the stamps in the right spot and was ready for the next set. I kept giving him more envelopes while I put on the labels as I worked next to him. Sure, I went faster, but he was doing a good job.Within an hour, we got the whole job done. If I was working by myself, it probably would have taken me an hour and 20 minutes. It wasn’t a huge savings in time, but it was net positive. He was actually helpful.
A few days later, I was making salad. I started peeling a carrot, and my seven-year-old daughter announced she wanted to do that. She has done this before, so I handed it over. However, when she was finished she announced she actually wanted to eat the carrot now that it was peeled. Oh well.
I peeled another carrot and was about to start slicing it when Rafael suddenly jumped up and said that he wanted to cut it up. I looked at him, remembered the stamps, and said okay.
Now, I must admit that handing over a cutting board, a knife and a carrot to a five year old takes some nerves, but he is a careful kid. I was confident he could handle it. When my daughter saw this, she lost all interest in eating her carrot and announced she wanted to cut a carrot too.
Soon I had the two of them sitting with their own cutting boards, peeled carrots, and knives, chopping them up. Once I confirmed they were being careful and doing a good job, I turned my attention to making the rest of the salad. By the time they were done, I had the rest of the salad put together.
Were the carrots cut perfectly? No. Some pieces were a little large, but overall they did well. I had them slice the larger pieces in half again, and then we dumped them into the salad. No one cut themselves, and I actually got to do work while they were cutting the carrots. The salad really was a team effort.
Help that is actually helpful! This is a whole new world.