Creative Parenting 101: Put Your Kids To Work

Some of the best (and funniest) moments in parenting for me have been when I suddenly figured out why my parents did something a certain way when raising my sister and me. Let me give you an example.

Our mom loves to put on garage sales.


I don’t think she’s a fan of the work (sorting, pricing, displaying) before the sale–not too many people are, I imagine–but she loves making money from stuff she’s had sitting around the house (and who wouldn’t love that?).

Back in the 70’s when we were kids in the south suburbs of Chicago, Mom had a couple of garage sales each year. Each time, while she was sorting and pricing, she gave my sister and me the “most important job”: making the signs that we’d help her hang up on lightpoles all over the neighborhood and at the nearest intersections of major streets early the next morning.

We worked so hard on those signs. Mom told us that they had to be pretty and inviting, because more people would come to our garage sale if the signs were just right. Spending the entire evening before the sale working on them, we stenciled out the letters (a different color for each one, of course) and drew intricate flowers and other designs on the posterboard, covering every available spot with an explosion of color. I have replicated the type of sign we would have made back then for your viewing pleasure today.

garage copy
A pretty good representation of what our signs looked like, though my sister says her signs weren't this symmetrical. (She's probably right. I'm the symmetrical one, she's freestyle.)

Mom would “ooh” and “aah” over our signs, but she would also say, “They’re so pretty…but they need more! More decorations! More flowers!” We would sigh–because by then we had been coloring for hours–and then keep going until we could barely keep our eyes open. It was at that point that the signs were “finished”.

By the end of those evenings, we would have created between six and eight full-size posterboard signs that were probably the best gosh darn garage sale advertisements you have ever seen in your life.

As we got older, there was no question about what our job was, each time the garage sale rolled around: it was to make the signs. Period.

The summer after I became a parent myself, I partnered up with my mom to have a garage sale. The night before the sale, I was alongside her, sorting and pricing my own stuff. There was nobody to make pretty signs; D was only a year old and certainly couldn’t do it.

Late that night, I grabbed some posterboard and neatly wrote out “Garage Sale” with the other important information. By force of habit, I started to draw some flowers on the signs before I remembered how long it would take me to decorate them.

I said to my mom, “I’m just not going to decorate these this time. It would take me hours.”

“I know,” she said, smiling.

That’s when I smacked my forehead as I finally figured out–after all those years–that it wasn’t the pretty signs she wanted when we were kids: it was the peace and quiet she needed in order to get her work done.