Between the heaving sigh he let out and the way he threw his head back in exasperation, it was as if I were asking my almost-18-year-old son, Luke, to dig a ditch with his bare hands. In reality, I was making the minor request that he run across the street and pick up a gallon of milk.
You’d never know I was talking to a young man who’d been doing community service since eighth grade, coaching younger kids in sports during his free time. Recently, Luke volunteered twice to go to post-Sandy Rockaway to help those in need shovel out what’s left of their homes. What’s more, he even traveled to Tennessee six months ago to build a house for Habitat for Humanity.
I could not stop him if I tried from going to the aid of those in need. Yet I cannot seem to get him to pick up some milk, let alone clean his room consistently. Sure, he does some of the same chores asked of other teenagers without major protest or complaint: taking out the garbage, unloading the dishwasher, and picking up his younger sister, Meg, from afterschool and weekend activities. But that’s where it ends in our house.
While I concede that shoving a Hefty bag full of kitchen debris down the incinerator does not hold a candle to swinging a sledgehammer when laying the foundation for a new home, I just wish the obligatory milk run was done with a modicum of the enthusiasm now reserved for strangers. It got me thinking, why aren’t we as conscientious or thoughtful at home as we are in the outside world?
There’s the obvious answer of boundaries and familiarity: With family, we know the ones we can cross and still benefit from that whole unconditional love thing.
But I think that with teens especially, there’s a really strong need for social validation outside of their immediate family. From birth, they know the admiration that comes with a parent’s love; being told they throw like Eli Manning on the football field, move like Jagger on the dance floor, are the next Matt Damon after just one line in the school play, and that their artwork belongs in the Met (but the fridge door will have to do for now).
They reach a certain age where they need to know that someone besides a parent (or, of course, grandparent) thinks they’re worthy of accolades, and they actually deserve recognition and praise. In order to get that, they have to do things that merit acknowledgement. Sometimes those things are jobs that they avoid at home. (I once heard about what a hard worker Luke was from his girlfriend’s mother, who said he cleaned out her walk-in closet. We have a walk-in. He usually gets what he needs from it, and then walks out.)
To be fair, I remember long ago and far away believing life outside my family’s home was more exciting, interesting, and deserving of my attention. I eventually grew out of it. As an adult I found a way to devote time to volunteer work, while still making home my priority.
I know someday Luke will be able to find this kind of balance as well. Until then, I will engage in unconditional love for someone who, in the very near future, will be cleaning out my closet–even if enthusiasm is an afterthought.