Tom McKone: What we learn as children cultivates the attitudes we take through life

This commentary is by Tom McKone of Montpelier, a former English teacher, principal and library administrator. He has two daughters and three grandsons, but only one Mom.

Backpacking equipment wasn’t as rugged in those days, back when I was 21 and walking the Appalachian Trail 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. In Pennsylvania, a little past the midpoint, my waist belt — the crucial piece of gear that shifted the weight of my 35-to-40-pound pack from my shoulders to my hips — failed.  

I knew how to fix it, and I had an emergency sewing kit to do so: a 35mm film canister with a spool of thread and two needles. It was an easy sewing fix — one of a few I did during that four-month hike — and it impressed another hiker. “How’d you learn to do that?” he asked, watching me at a lean-to campsite that evening.

“My Mom,” I told him.

My Mom, still going strong at 92, taught me many important domestic skills, including some that boys usually didn’t learn. Learning those skills taught me to take care of myself, to do my part in the family, and to have a progressive view of the relationship between men and women.

As in most homes, my two brothers, two sisters and I had responsibilities, though they were less gender-specific than in many families. When we were small, there was a schedule on the fridge for who set the dinner table, who cleared it afterward, who washed the dishes and who dried them and put them away. We all learned to clean our own rooms — the weekly vacuuming and dusting and the seasonal deep cleans. 

We learned how to clean common areas, including bathrooms and the kitchen. For two years while I was in high school, every week I thoroughly cleaned the kitchen; it took a couple of hours, and I usually did it late at night, starting at 9 or 10, when no one was in there and it didn’t interfere with other parts of teenage life.

Over the years, we learned to change sheets and to do laundry, ironing, grocery shopping and basic cooking. We didn’t do everything at once and were never overburdened. We learned many practical skills from our Dad, too, and many “bigger” life lessons from both of our parents, but as Mother’s Day nears, the focus is my appreciation for the everyday skills she taught me and the effect they have had on me.

Does it make a difference whether a mother (or father) teaches a son to clean up after himself and to do household chores that once only girls did? Yes, I think so. They are useful skills that help us to be versatile, self-reliant human beings and to contribute to the common good, but the lesson goes further than that. What we learn at home as children cultivates the attitudes we take with us to school, work and life beyond. 

If a boy grows up thinking that he isn’t responsible for the messes he makes and for the routine jobs that keep a household running, aren’t we teaching him that girls and women are there to take care of him? If we teach a boy that domestic chores and serving others are for girls and women, how can we expect him to think and behave differently outside the home? How can we expect him to grow into a man who treats women as equals at school or work or in future relationships?

A few years ago, I was taken aback during a conversation with a well-respected man who in passing let on that he did all the family laundry, which I thought was fine; I was surprised, though, when he immediately asked me not to tell anyone, because it embarrassed him.

We have centuries of tradition behind us, traditions that began under much different circumstances and that, in many cases, no longer fit. It no longer makes sense to assume that domestic jobs are automatically the realm of girls and women, and it would be nice if we lived in a society where a man who does the family laundry isn’t embarrassed about it. Although there are plenty of single men who do these things, sometimes there’s still an assumption that, if they marry, they no longer have to do them.  

However a family works out a blend of traditional and contemporary domestic roles, it’s helpful to the full emotional, social and personal development of boys for them to develop domestic skills and to accept responsibilities that entail taking care of both themselves and others.

For Mother’s Day, I want to thank the woman who taught me how to bake an apple pie — from making and rolling out the dough to putting a fancy design on the top crust. While I’m grateful that she taught me to sew, that doesn’t come close to knowing how to bake a pie. Thanks, Mom. Thanks for everything.


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