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Raising Sons Who Value Care Work: Healthy Masculinity in Kids Books
[Image: Spread from ‘Super Manny Cleans Up,’ by Kelly DiPucchio and Stephanie Graegin. Gertie the hedgehog stands with her fists to her hips, exclaiming “We have to do something.”]
In this post: What to do with kiddos in isolation when we’re spinning out and need to regroup.
Bonus: Story books teaching boys to value and take responsibility for domestic work.
I’m compulsively cleaning because therapy isn’t an option
I’m not surprised to find that keeping a grip involves a lot of compulsive cleaning. To gain a sense of control in a world where we feel more powerless than ever. This far into unschooling during self-isolation, I thought I’d have a handle on things. But I don’t!
I want to say that I completed this triage checklist below in the first 24 hours, and a month later, we’re making killer progress. I want to say we’ve created a SIS toolkit, connected with an impactful organization to crowdfund for, and identified three families to support during this time.
We haven’t. We step forward, and fall back. I’ve found myself returning to the basics of having to reorient myself to stave off anxiety, autistic shut-downs, and killer migraines every 36 hours or so.
There are little gnomes in my head who go ballistic if the dishes aren’t done. They won’t let me eat, sleep, or think of anything else if they notice a dust bunny. Convincing the gnomes to move on to bigger things just isn’t working right now.
Suddenly all the carefully crafted routines I had designed to get myself through the day have been upended with the kids home 24/7. But also our daily challenges, deadlines, and obligations remain. It’s that normal stew of impotence, obligation, and guilt that we all feel when we want to fix the injustice in the world. But super-saturated, sped up, and we have to find a way to fix it within the confines of a Zoom chat.
If your gnomes are distracting you too, don’t let this fool you. We still have power. We have more power than ever. We’ve just got to harness it and learn new ways to help. And there’s no shame in taking time to manage our disabilities and disorders while we do it.
Our systems are failing the same way as always, just harder and faster. But don’t panic.
I keep writing and deleting rambling paragraphs about privilege and luck and I told you so‘s about healthcare tied to employment, and the ways we deny power to disabled people, older people, and BIPOC – and how a culture of supremacy teaches us to view entire groups of humans as acceptable losses. How Black & brown folks & the working poor are left to fall through the holes or actively targeted on the reg but particularly when shit hits the fan.
How yes violence and racism against Asian people is Still. A. Thing.
But that is going to take WAY MORE than one article and I don’t have space or spoons for that now. Even though it’s more important than what we’re facing here. Because it’s more important than the issues we’re talking about here.
To do that work, first, we have to do the boring basics of taking care of ourselves so we can be powerful accomplices in rebuilding a better world even as it crumbles around us.
Our first priority, for the next 24 hours, is not making things worse for people who don’t have our privileges.
Survival & Triage
With my executive functioning disabilities and inability to prioritize on the fly, creating a triage procedure kept me from having a giant meltdown and becoming completely overwhelmed into a frozen paralysis.
Stuff that my neurotypical partner does on autopilot, I need to cram like I’m taking a standardized test at a disco. He can just make a sandwich. My sandwiches require 24-hours notice, a physical checklist, 30-minutes of prep, and 15 minutes of complete silence so I can concentrate on sandwich-assembly.
So neurotypical folks, you can feel free to skip this. But there are enough of us who are a puddle on the floor and need the basics spelled out just to get out of bed in the morning. Everything outside our immediate triage list, I ignored or pushed off until week 2 (or beyond) of our family isolation adventures. We can get to that later.
When I start to spin out, when the gnomes come knocking, I take a deep breath, and return to our triage procedure.
Identify 4 goals for the next 7 days:
- Simplify our daily tasks to the bare bones necessities
- Prevent anyone in our home from getting sick from the outside
- Prevent any potential germs within our home from getting out.
- Support folks within our immediate household with survival needs to get through the next 7 days (shelter, water, food, medicine).
Identify mandatory activities to get through the next 24 hours:
- What needs to happen in the next 15 minutes?
(Mediating fights, training kids to stay away from neighborhood kids who aren’t social distancing, attending to boo-boos)
- What needs to happen within the next 1.5 hours?
- What needs to happen today?
(Work deadlines, informing the kids about what’s going on & mitigating trauma)
Identify one thing for today day that will make us feel less overwhelmed and a little bit more in control of the situation
- For me, it was cleaning part of a room and removing evil dust that land my asthmatic kiddo in the ER.
- For my partner, it was getting time to connect with friends via video games.
- For the Earthquakes, it was getting a large chunk of undivided attention from at least one parent per day
You might also like: Books To Reassure Kids During Coronavirus Isolation
Since libraries are closed:
Since library books are hard or impossible to obtain now, I’m going be clearer during the pandemic on whether I think a book is worth paying for, if you should try to get your hands on a borrowed copy ASAP, or if it can wait until libraries are back open.
If your library is limited or shut down, check out the previous post about empowering kids during Covid 19 isolation for how I’m keeping our story time stocked up and germ-free.
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Who do our kids see taking on the bulk of domestic labor?
I’ve heard from a surprising amount of you who are also obsessively cleaning to gain a sense of control. If that is working for you (and I don’t mean to add another ‘should‘ to your overflowing list), we have to be mindful of who our kids see taking on the burden of domestic labor.
I hadn’t seen anyone of the masculine persuasion picking up a broom or cooking dinner until…well until just a few years ago. Not without some joke or comment about emasculation or justification for how he was ‘helping out’ the women whose real job it was.
Since the second shift by default tends to fall on women & girls, it’s imperative that we raise our next generation of boys to be good men. Let’s counter the popular image of women and girls cleaning and serving men and boys in books, media, and in our daily lives.
These books are the ones I’ve used over the past seven years to foster a sense of responsibility and pride in keeping house – and all but a couple of them feature masculine characters who are not asked to clean up by women – but internalize that responsibility as a normal part of being a decent co-habitating human.
Board Books For Toddlers: Cleaning Is a Normal Part of Daily Life
Clean It! (from Birkett’s Helping Hand Series)
First Choice (worth buying & saving for grandkids)
Bonus points for normalizing disability. Dad uses an inhaler, main character wears a leg brace. The text is bland so we skip it and focus on the stellar images. Although this isn’t a board book, the pages are durable and toddler-friendly. There is a bilingual Spanish/English version, but the pages in that version are less durable.
This entire series was way ahead of it’s time in disability, racial & gender representation and still holds up. Birkett’s ‘Cook it!‘ is the cornerstone book that made me realize the power of responsible representation in kidlit and the impetus for Books for Littles. If you can find them, get a copy of the entire series for your favorite toddlers & preschoolers.
Man’s Work (from Kubler’s All In A Day series)
Second choice: Worth buying used for cheap if you can’t get a copy of Clean It!
Disclosure: Amelia K. S. sent me her copy since it’s out of print and hard to find.
Unlike Birkett’s racially & ability diverse series, Kubler’s characters skew White & abled by default, and it doesn’t really cover more than Clean It! It’s not necessary tp get both, but either will do. Illustration only, so no awkward text to deal with.
Clean-Up Time (from Verdick’s Toddler Tools series)
I’d wait until libraries are open before checking this out
This was okay at 27 months but at that point my kids were bored of it. It’s worth a check-out from the library, but I wouldn’t buy this as a keeper. I’m including it here just to preemptively deal with all the folks who will ask if I’ve read this book. Yes. I have. It’s everywhere.
Trucks Trucks Trucks Board Book (Sís)
Worth buying for truck-focused autistic kids
Great illustration-only diggers book about a boy who cleans up his room. This worked for my neurodivergent kid who two-year-long hyper-focus on yellow trucks, so your mileage may vary if you have one of those weird kids who can not narrate the functions of an backhoe for hours. The allistic kid enjoyed it well enough, too.
You might also like: Raising Tomorrow’s Fathers – Children’s Books With Feminist Dads
Toddlers & Preschoolers – Cultivating cleaning as a way to exercise agency
From 2-5, kiddos are dealing with feeling small and powerless in a big world. They want to have control over something beyond themselves. Particularly during times of stress, I give my kids more control over their environment – such as which basket they want to keep what toys in, how to arrange their bedroom furniture, etc. This gives them a sense of power, agency, and self-protection.
For more like this, check out our unpolished book list for kiddos who need help managing frustration from feeling small & powerless.
My Do It (Asquith)
Wait for a copy from the library
This is similar to All By Myself by Aliki, but more engaging, more durable, and not as long and comprehensive. Plus, this one has flaps! Everyone loves flaps.
George Shrinks (Joyce)
Wait for a copy from the library
This was just fantastical enough at age 3 to be riveting, yet unnerving. Apparently my literal and reality-focused 3yo got the idea that a kid can actually shrink down to the size of a hamster and manage a household, and that we parents would abandon him to care for his infant brother alone. So that was a point of some confusion weeks after we returned this to the library.
But if you can scaffold the real/unreal in the story, it was cute and fun to read together. The new revised version has cleaner design and is more fun to read. The 3yo loved the sense of agency and power realizing he could do things like gather mail, feed and dress his baby brother, and prep a simple breakfast.
Since the protagonist magically shrinks even smaller than a regular kid for the duration of the book, it hooks into that primal obsession with things in miniature that hits many kids around preschool age and helps them feel big and powerful in contrast.
William Wakes Up (Ashman)
Wait for a copy from the library. Caveat for problematic content re: disability
Ages 5+ (older than the recommended range so they are cognitively available to discuss the problematic aspects)
Pros: William cooperates patiently with each animal while the others sleep, allowing everyone to wake in their own time. William is a white boy who doesn’t expect parents to clean up. So there is that.
Caveats: Raccoon actively sleeps in and we’re meant to assume he’s being lazy and opportunistic. HOWEVER – the rest of the group says he can’t have any cake until it promises to contribute labor later. This goes against our values of inclusion and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.
Without knowing why he needs more sleep, it’s hard to assume he’s just taking advantage of everyone’s hard work. Basic life needs (food) are a right, even if folks have say, a sleep disorder or disability like narcolepsy.
Which makes this a surprisingly helpful book to have uncomfortable discussions on why people have deeper needs but that doesn’t make them less deserving of human rights and necessities. How it’s not effective or fair to make presumptions about what we can see of outside abilities and contributions.
We use this book to discuss the ethics withholding resources based on assumptions. And from that – to discuss our culture’s obsession with early-risers, and the stigma that comes from naturally needing more sleep, or a later sleep rhythm than others and how that ties into wealth inequality (ex: night shifts, ex: Night Job & A Different Pond) and disability.
Both kids adored this book as toddlers. I particularly liked how each member works within their unique abilities, no chore is lesser. Every contribution matters. It’s particularly helpful as a book to prepare kids a gathering – helping them take responsibility not just for the party itself, but the clean-up afterward.
You might also like: Books About Poverty Inspiring Kids To Give Back
Taking Responsibility & Contributing To the Household
Sir Simon (Atkinson)
Worth buying if you can find a copy.
This is fun read with a witty stories about taking responsibility for your own chores – a message we desperately need now that my 7-year-old keeps trying to offload chores onto the eager-to-please 5-year-old.
Sharing The Bread (Zietlow Miller)
I’d buy this – we need to revisit this theme frequently, plus it’s helpful to prepare kids before gatherings.
I am so tired of nagging and reminding my kids to do the same daily chores over and over again. I want more stories where kids step up and do chores without being asked. This book does this nicely, and so well that I am willing to get over my reservations about the whitewashing and the bland cover.
If this Christian & White-centered Thanksgiving story (they even say Grace before eating and pray) seems like a weird recommendation given that I advocate honoring Indigenous Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving & de-centering Christianity as the default – yeah, I catch that. However, this is one of those rare books that reflects the experience of white families without actively denigrating Indigenous people. White folks celebrate Thanksgiving! We’re not pretending it doesn’t happen.
I’m just saying while you’re thinking of sharing and gratitude, also pick up some books to unpack the ways we’re complicit in colonization and genocide. Balance! Recognize the reality of where we are now, reconcile it to where we want to be. (Here’s an Indigenous Day of Mourning family action toolkit for that, if you’d like to get started.)
In this story, everyone works together. The men, the kids, they coordinate together, instead of that tired story we see where Mom disappears for three days and then everyone sits down to an enormous dinner without acknowledging the work that goes into feeding a family.
The illustrations appear dry at first, but grew on us as we noticed the details. Plus, it’s just fun to read out loud: “Mama, fetch the cooking pot. Fetch our turkey-cooking pot. Big and old and black and squat. Mama, fetch the pot.”
Be Kind (Zietlow Miller)
Save this for a library trip. While there is a subtle theme of compassion, there’s not a compelling story so kids get bored of reading it after a few reads.
Heads up – It’s also one of the few books in this collection that feature a girl doing care work, so make sure to balance that shit, gender-wise.
I love how this book focuses on small actions that kids can do. Getting a book off a shelf for someone shorter than us. Bearing witness and offering solidarity with someone who is going through a hard time. Passing on possessions we no longer use. Helping with chores around the house. Paying attention to what people need. This is really sweet and effective for those younger years when kids feel like they are capable of so little.
His Royal Highness King Baby (Lloyd-Jones)
Buy this as a gift for a kid with a good sense of humor, or as a big-sibling gift. It’s full of layers for kids to unpack as they get older, and it’s hilarious. It might even make a decent Secret Santa gift for fragile co-workers who complain a lot.
(This is the other book featuring a girl.) This book is more about perspective and ignorance to privilege than actively doing chores. While the story focuses on a wealthy white girl’s resentment over her baby brother and the ways she is so totally oppressed by her parents’ expectations, it works even for kids without siblings.
After a few reads, kids will start to notice the difference in what the protagonist believes and the reality around her. The tasks she groans about are hilariously eclipsed by the work her parents do to keep her fed, healthy, and happy.
You might also like: Kids Books About Cooperation & Collective Action
Cleaning for catharsis & empowerment
I’m Furious (Crary, from the ‘Dealing With Feelings‘ series)
These didactic choose-your-own-adventure books have limited appeal – but when they work, they work so well.
In one of the timelines, the protagonist channels his anger into cleaning. YES! We need more books like this, helping kids learn how to use their fury to fuel good trouble. We need boys to learn how to who handle big feelings without attacking women. This is a great book for healthy masculinity.
While looking for this book, you might also come across I’m Mad, another book in the series for kids ages 4.5-6. I’m noticing the ways the female protagonist in I’m Mad is expected to dissolve and dissipate her anger by washing it away, as opposed to the way the boy in I’m Furious is allowed to transform his anger into physicality and self-empowerment.
Why the fuck, I ask you, are girls not allowed to own the full white-hot rage of anger* and let it fuel them? So if you are up for a challenge, get both and use it as a study in double standards with kids 6+.
*Sexism. The answer is sexism. We are done teaching girls to swallow or wash away our anger.
Marvelous Cornelius (Bildner)
This is the first that I pull out when something epically terrible happens – like a natural disaster, and my kids are feeling powerless to help.
This is the book equivalent of the meme ‘Be The Leslie Knope Of Whatever You Do,’ helping kids understand that whatever their skills or assigned chores are – they have the power to kick ass at it. This particular book focuses on we can clean up as an initial step to recovery.
It’s also the best book to introduce the concept behind disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While this story doesn’t address the ways Black Americans are disproportionately left to suffer and die when shit hits the fan, there are followup books that do – such as A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and A Storm Called Katrina.
If you’re privileged enough to escape things like this unscathed, I expect you to read them with your kids when your kids are 7+, and to help them understand the ways things like hurricanes and epidemics further marginalize targeted people.
Marvelous Cornelius makes the perfect gentle introduction to the fact that disasters happen, and more importantly, the ways we can come together to heal each other. It’s a baby step that even more fragile families can handle.
Crab Cake (Tsurumi)
Similar to Marvelous Cornelius, but more of an allegory. A ship wreck blankets the ocean floor with debris, and everyone freezes with shock and uncertainty. But it really just takes one person (or crab) to start with one small step. Seeing this, the community slowly breaks out of their shock and tackles the problem together.
As an autistic person with executive functioning disabilities, I find this kind of reminder invaluably helpful. Actually – while I have you here. Crab Cake works well for the aftermath of a disaster, but if your kiddo needs help tackling more mundane things like homework, Begin At The Beginning validates that similar feeling of being too stuck to start. Grab the 1984 version if you can find it, when the character is unapologetically plump, rather than the newer one where the illustrator thins the protagonist down because fat-phobia ruins everything great.
Super Manny Cleans Up (DiPucchio)
If you have space on your bookshelf, it might be worth a buy to reinforce this lesson frequently. Although once every year or so from the library is probably enough.
Manny & Gertie notice that no one seems to see or care about what’s going on. They take responsibility for the litter they see even though it’s not their fault.
We discuss this with the Earthquakes frequently. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Sometimes life sucks, and we have to deal with the outcome even if we didn’t cause it. Sometimes the mess just isn’t going to get cleaned up unless we take responsibility for it ourselves.
Definitely not worth buying, but grab it from the library if it’s around.
The semi-rhyming in this is actively painful to read and does that 70’s thing where there are like 30 characters and not a single woman exists. But I’m including this in here because it really has been helpful to the Earthquakes to demonstrate how cleaning is a safety issue.
Although admittedly a messy room isn’t going to attack bloodthirsty Grunks – it is kinder to chide the kids with ‘Watch out for Grunks’ when the kids are screaming from landing barefoot on a pile of legos than ‘I told you so.’ I’m still searching for a less awful book to get this message across.
Save this for an occasional library read, unless someone in your family struggles with compulsion disorders – in which case make this a staple.
And for our more compulsive family members (hello!) who might go overboard – this story is a nice reminder that there can be such a thing as too much orderliness (or so my partner tells me). So this book can kick off a nice discussion on when our need to order a disorganized world is getting unhealthy.
You might also like: Whining, Tantrums & Outbursts – Books To Help Kids Chill
Validating for parents
These are technically books for kids, but I use them more to help the Earthquakes see how hard parents and teachers are working behind the scenes so they can enjoy life. In each of these books, the illustrators make it clear all of the busywork parents quietly endure while the protagonist (kids) run around making messes.
I find it helps temper the whining when I ask them to do tiny chores like taking out the compost. (Okay, like 5% less whining). Check all of these out at the library at least once, but also they make a tongue-in-cheek birthday gift for the children of exhausted parents.
For grown-ass adult partners who don’t pull their weight
If you are isolating at home with our domestic partners, some of you might notice that one partner is taking on more than a fair share of the mental load – identifying what needs to happen and when.
In the effort to prevent a few divorces and separations after social isolation finally ends, this might be a good time for the teens and adults in the family to brush up on the invisible work of domestic labor. Also you’re stuck at home together so there’s no excuse for the dudes in your life not to read feminist literature, right?
I finally got a 35-year-old white man to cook dinner and shop for his own damn underpants without nagging him. So there is hope for domestically stunted partners who were never taught to pick up a broom as a child.
You Should Have Asked‘ is available as a free online comic, so your partner really has like ZERO excuse not to spend 3 minutes reading it. This could make a fantastically salty wedding gift for the hetero couples in your life.
Fair warning, this is depressing. First published in 1989, and over three decades later NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Since many dudes refuse to pick this book up and get all butt-hurt and miss the point when they are forced to read it for college credit, I leave this here because at least the folks taking on the mental load can put words to and understand the dynamics on why they feel so worn out. And so we can stop feeling so grateful for being allowed to work.
You might also like: Kids Books For Sudden Unschoolers
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Pick Up Those Damn Socks!!!
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