From Waldorf in the Home – articles

Housework, Part I By Esther Leisher

Housework Part I: Confessions of a Waldorf Mom
by Esther Leisher
This collection of ideas about housework and Waldorf parenting got started when Nikki Stephens asked Esther Leisher what she had done about housework when her children were young. It will appear here in several parts. You can get to know Esther better by reading in the category "About the Authors."

We would be delighted if you would add your own ideas, your own experiences in the "Comments" section at the end of each article. You are busy at the most important job in the world--parenting--and have a wealth of wisdom to share.


Nikki, you asked about how to get the housework done. I expect you already know most of the usual things like:
1) Schedule a particular day for housework, then you don't have to think about it until then.
2) Get your kids used to doing things for themselves.
3) Have a shoebox-sized basket for each person's things--baseball cap, picture to send to Grandma, things they must take to school, unfinished crocheting, or whatever.
4) Do some of the cooking on the weekend and freeze it--double batches, triple batches, whatever you have room for.
5) Or make a main dish for supper first thing in the morning; then supper doesn't find you having to make do with tuna sandwiches.
6) Fill the kitchen sink with hot soapy water before you sit down for supper and have everyone scrape their plates and put them in the water after supper. The dishes are half done.
7) My favorite trick was the clutter-clearing basket. Carrying the basket around the house, I put in everything I found on floors & tables. Then I put away everything in the basket. If putting things away is just what you can't bear to do at that moment, put the full basket in the closet to take out and deal with at some less frazzled time. The peace-saving basket creates such a wonderful sense of order in less than 15 minutes. I often did not get everything put away, but every child knew where all the "lost" things were--in the basket! That basket restored me to my better self. Also, the system is the most wonderfully instant "company is coming" housekeeping. Fifteen minutes to pick up clutter, 15 minutes to hastily clean the bathroom, and 10 seconds to close the bedroom doors.
8) Make lightness, happiness, imagination--even in housework--a priority.

Deciding what to do about housework has to be so individual, tailored not to some ideal, but to the life you actually live. Nothing anyone says should make you feel guilty. You have your own way of doing things. Talking together thoughtfully with other women should not leave you discouraged, but should bring intuitions. Each person in the conversation begins to know what it is they want to do in their own situation. It's okay to say, "I just want to get it done without interference from the kids."

The following tales from my own family life are more moods and qualities than housekeeping tips.

With all you have to do, including all that wonderful Waldorf stuff, how do you get the housework done? Everyone comes up with an individual way of coping with it, a happy solution or a not-so-happy one. Mine was to involve the kids in whatever I was doing. In their early years children learn through imitation; they want to do what they see you doing. For my children that meant they were involved in sweeping, mopping, cleaning the bathroom, washing clothes, preparing meals, washing dishes. In a way they were apprentices, not so much in housekeeping, but in attitudes toward life. We did lots of other things besides housework of course, wonderful things, but housework was not separate, not a category of "unwonderful things".

Sweeping a floor meant an inner experience of the broom, the floor, the dirt. We had linoleum floors when they were young (four kids, remember) so sweeping happened often. The little ones wanted to help, of course, but the adult brooms were too awkward for them (small brooms satisfy some children, but not mine). So they took turns holding the dust pan, intently watching my Zen sweeping. I swept lovingly ('I am scratching the house's back', I felt, while listening to the sound of the broom scritching across the floor.).

Having listened carefully, I noticed, and mentioned, that the broom seemed to be saying not "sweep, sweep, sweep," but, "Peees, Peees, Peees," with the hard sound at the beginning. You could hear it, really. Were the little ones listening to the broom? Watching the dirt form a pile? Or learning that work can be entrancing?

The broom thing took on another dimension when I found a lovely, soft, strange-looking broom in an import store. We bought it, felt it, examined it. This broom was made by a human being and we thought with gratitude about the person who put it together. "We have a special broom," was the feeling. "How fortunate we are." The new broom, curiously enough, spoke differently. Its soft sound was at the beginning, not at the end. It said a genuine "sweeeP, sweeeP, sweeeP". Of course the children were allowed to use the broom whenever they wanted, but I was the one who loved using it most. Sweeping became a moment of soul restoration for me: a soft broom, a soft sound and a clean floor. The children felt it. They came running when I started sweeping, and one winter's day they told me with great concern that Daddy had used the special broom to knock snow off the car. The sacred broom!

I remember that I had three mops because three of us mopped the kitchen floor. Or one did--me--while the two little ones went through the gestures. (In this instance the older ones were at school. There was a wide gap between the first two and the second two children.) Even though the mops were identical, my mop was "better" because it went straight. Their mops went in all sorts of unexpected directions, so one child or the other continually wanted to exchange mops with me, so they could use the "good" mop. But then that mop would go in all sorts of directions so they would trade me again. I found it more amusing than frustrating, but by then I was years past the anxious feeling of "Just leave me alone, I have to get this done!"

My children were fascinated just by the gesture of mopping when they were younger. But by the time Paul and Laurel were about 2-1/2 and five years of age, we were making wet patterns on the kitchen floor with the mops. (Would you call it a prelude to form drawing or just a movement experience?) By age five or six they could mop alone (with an audience). By age eight they were choosing mopping the kitchen floor as a chore they did alone on Saturday morning.

Laundry was another activity they gladly participated in. By two they were helping me sort out the clothes in front of the washing machine: white, dark, light, delicate. (I also did some unobtrusive re-sorting, of course.) Then, while the machine was filling up, they got to put the powder in and then the clothes. The gesture of picking something up and tossing it in some pile appealed most when they were younger. By the time they were five, they wanted to learn how to turn on the washing machine. I showed them and stood by. By the time they were eight, they were washing their own clothes. (I know, nobody believes it. Recently I had to assure my son Craig's wife that he really did wash his own clothes from a very early age.)

Bathrooms: Even a two-year-old will gladly help with the bathtub. A wet sponge, a can of Bon Ami (no chlorine) and the challenge of shaking the powder only onto the sponge--one of those many things that you show them rather than tell them. (The baby gets just a wet sponge to fiddle with) Lots of scouring powder gets spilled by a young one who is not yet well coordinated. You don't say a word beyond, "Thank you for helping me." You will rinse the tub again the next time you are in the bathroom.

With bathrooms you also have the magic of water. "Water magic washes our sink and carries away the dirt," you might say. "See, there it goes." Amazingly enough, water, this very special stuff, flows out of our faucet. (I'm sure your house is just as magical.) Here again is the Zen feeling and the reverence. In our dry land [New Mexico], water especially matters. I never see running water without a sense of wonder. How often I said to them, "Look, running water!" Wonder, thankfulness, the inner experience of water sets a mood. By experiencing mood, gestures, example, they soak up inner qualities--without any preaching on your part.

Another water experience was washing windows with rags and squirt bottles-fun, but messy. The result wasn't very impressive, but the kids liked the process. And it's always the process and the meaning that count. Laurel, at four-years-old, assured us that we had wonderful windows that never let any bad thing in at night, only starlight. Washing them was special.


Housework, Part II

Housework, Part II: The Kids Get Older
by Esther Leisher

This collection of ideas about housework and Waldorf parenting got started when Nikki Stephens asked Esther Leisher what she had done about housework when her children were young (she has four grown children, two older ones and tw that were much younger; she homeschooled the younger two using Waldorf methods. It will appear here in several parts. You can get to know Esther better by reading in the category "About the Authors."

We would be delighted if you would add your own ideas and experiences in the "Comments" section at the end of each article. You are busy at the most important job in the world--parenting--and have a wealth of wisdom to share.


The time arrived when the kids were older and could do pretty much everything I did. Then I suggested they do one thing while I was doing something else. If they got discouraged, I helped. As they got older we had so much else to do during the week that Saturday morning became the cleaning time. Saturday morning meant chores (we didn't have TV). No playing with other kids until the chores were done. They avoided me all morning as I went about doing my work (a quiet morning!), and when neighborhood kids began to call, my children rushed to get their chores done. It never took more than half an hour.

Nothing every stays the same, of course. When enthusiasm waned and the children felt overburdened by chores, I typed out all the household things that had to be done. Then they chose each week what they wanted to do--one big job (e.g.. cleaning the bathroom) and one small one (e.g. emptying the trash baskets). I read the List to them if they were not yet reading. (Laurel didn't read until she was nine.) In the beginning they chose differently every week. Eventually they decided the easiest chores were mopping the kitchen floor and cleaning the bathroom, so those were choice jobs that had to be rotated.

Having a typed list of all the things that had to be done each week brought an unexpected asset. They were very impressed with the fact that they did only two chores and I did all the rest. Children live in images, not in facts. They see a long list and choose only two things. Without me telling them, they realized that I had a lot to do. Consequently they were tender toward me and sometimes protective. Once Mark, the oldest, told someone, "We let her sleep late this morning; she has a lot to do today." And Craig (the next oldest) would already have supper started if I returned late from town with two cranky little ones. Also, if I was ill, he would give them breakfast and get them dressed before he caught the school bus.

People ask me what did I do for myself? What can I say? Everything I did was for myself. This job, being the mother of these four remarkable people, was what I most wanted to do. I did yearn for time alone (and got it), and I did want and need adult companionship. But I also wanted my life to be spiritual. Over the course of raising four children I learned to meet my own needs. I used my outer life as the medium for creating my inner life. That's what I did for myself. I did not feel I was making great sacrifices, giving away all of me to my children. I had the job I most wanted and found ways to make it satisfying.

By the time the satisfaction of combining the outer and the inner wore off, I was looking into homeschooling and kept myself happy by learning to do the most amazing things. I learned to create my own stories, wrote simple little pentatonic songs and made dramas out of things like "The Three Billy Goats Gruff".

Since there were no longer any young children around, the daily housework was often done by using a deadline to get things done. "Before we go out walking, we need to get the clothes folded." Or, "We have to leave for town in 10 minutes. Quick let's get things picked up" or "the dishwasher unloaded" or whatever. The weekly housework was done on Saturday.

By then we were into a few years of Waldorf home schooling for the younger two children, and life was a continuous adventure. (The older two went to public school, and my time with them came in the afternoons and evenings.) Housework was imbued with inner qualities, for sure, but as the children got older we certainly didn't focus on it much. Saturday chores, the catch-all basket [see "Part I"], a few things done before doing something more interesting--and the housework was done. You can imagine that I rarely did any very thorough cleaning in those homeschooling days. Once in a while the cleaning mood struck me when they were playing or had gone to someone's house, and then I cleaned the oven or sorted out closets. But people come first and I am a person. Generally there were so many other things I wanted to do while the children were busy. Home schooling is extraordinarily challenging if you are using Waldorf. I said to myself a number of times, "Doing little housework does not, I assume, have eternal consequences. Bringing up children does. Besides, I need to keep the lady (me) who is bringing them up, happy".

My children are all grown up now. Oddly enough the children still think of me as a good housekeeper. I haven't heard any bitterness about all the work they did, even though they did as much or more than kids with a working mom. They all four feel that they had an unusually happy childhood.


Housework, Part III

Housework, Part III - Picking Up Toys and Having Time Off
By Esther Leisher

What about picking up toys or keeping their rooms clean? I would say, again, that people are more important than things. I very much like to have the house in order--as long as it benefits all of us. If I feel resentful or they feel nagged, then somewhere I lost perspective, or the imagination to find better ways of doing things. Children will help you pick things up when they are small if you make it rhythmical or imaginative. Sing as you pick up toys: "This lives in the little basket. This lives on the shelf." Or "I'm giving the shelf back its toys." Or "The car wants to go to its home." Children love movement and rhythm and imagination.

Concerning cleaning their rooms, you simply do it with them when they are younger. With older children it becomes their choice, their responsibility; it's none of your business. But they sometimes need help. "I think your messy room is making you feel restless. I'll help you put things away". The whole subject of making children keep their rooms clean sets me off; it's a bee in my bonnet. It's a matter of priorities. What do you want to be talking to your children about, cleaning their rooms? Not me. We had a dozen other wonderful things to talk about and they lined up at the stove to talk to me or sat in the kitchen pretending to read until they found some opening. What if all I had had to say to them was "Did you clean your room?"

Also, I don't think children ever need to be told that in a family, everybody has to work. It makes life sound so grim. The work does have to be done and you, as the mother, are not going to be able to do it all alone and remain happy. But why make it heavy? Life is such a wonderful adventure and we get to live it with these amazing beings called children. They certainly have their faults (human beings do), and they seem particularly disinclined to do anything that sounds like work. That's human beings for you. Let's celebrate anyway. We're here and we're together. That in itself is a most remarkable and wonderful happening. And you have enough imagination and good cheer to demonstrate how everyday things can get done without making life grim.

However, you are not going to find living with children pleasant unless you get some breaks. If I were to do it all over again I would add to my half-day off on the weekend two afternoons a week off ON A REGULAR BASIS. I found ways to leave the children somewhere or have someone come in now and then, and it helped enormously, but I couldn't count on it. Trade with somebody. Get a neighborhood teenager to come one day a week after school and stay until 7pm. You cannot be the person you want to be with your children unless you take a breather.

Staying home with children and doing things in a Waldorf way can make you feel really isolated.
It also helps to go to a one- or two-day conference on Waldorf parenting, or have a group of like-minded mothers who meet fairly often. I wish I had had more of that when my children were growing up.
[Editor's Note: If there is a Waldorf school in your area, be sure to get on their mailing list so you can find out about festivals and conferences. Also, if you are not on our mailing list for the spring and fall "Waldorf in the Home" conferences, please send us your name and address via "Contact Rahima and Cynthia," on the right.]

Nikki's Comments on "Getting the Housework Done"
I treat my home with reverence, as I would a church. I smudge with sage regularly--my kids especially enjoy this process--to cleanse the house of bad energy from a person or from arguments that may have gone on in the house. I also use Feng Shui in my home and have seen a great difference in the energy. I use the Waldorf principles for kids rooms for the whole house -- simple, natural, beautiful.

I have a great cleaning book I picked up at the library which has recipes for making your own environmentally safe cleaning products. I have saved a lot of money this way and because the products are safe the kids can help me clean . Also, I have a special apron that I made that helps me get into character. Books I recommend:
Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan
Mrs. Dunwoody's Excellent Instructions for Home Keeping by Miriam Lukken. This is a fun and kooky book; some things are dated or just not necessary, but I loved reading it and got some great ideas from it. Not having a grandma to pass down any tips on homemaking, I found it a good substitute.
The Western Guide to Feng Shui by Terah Kathryn Collins.

These books are not just about cleaning but about Home Making and have been very helpful for me. Colors in the rooms, for instance. The Waldorf approach to classroom colors applies as well at home.

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