A lesson about accepting (imperfect) help

July 24, 2008 | 29 comments

“Miss Jennifer, can we clean your kitchen?” That’s what Catherine (one of my little friends) asked me Tuesday afternoon.

“You guys are so sweet, ” I said with a smile. “But no. No thanks.”

I’d let them play around at it a couple times before, but they were talking about a serious cleaning session here. Obviously, I couldn’t let nine- and ten-year-olds really clean my kitchen. There is a certain way the dishwasher needs to be loaded in order for the cups and plastic bowls not to turn upside down (not to mention the risk that they’d put a “top rack only” item on the bottom rack!), they’d probably put the broom back in the wrong place, they might use too much of my expensive cleaning products, they’d probably put clutter from the counter into the wrong drawers — nope, the whole idea was too fraught with danger. Not that I was planning to clean it any time soon (unfortunately my lazy streak is stronger than my borderline obsessive-compulsive streak), but there’s no way the girls could do it.

Then I remembered that I had recently challenged myself to look for ways that I could accept help — even imperfect help — from others, and that I’d also come to believe that perhaps this whole situation with the girls was not just about me helping them, but about them giving me some desperately needed help as well.

So I let them do it. I even let go of the urge to nitpick and supervise, and just took the opportunity to have some time to myself since it was my children’s naptime. Two hours later, it looked like a cleaning service had been here. The kitchen and adjoining living room glistened — it even smelled clean.

After the girls left, however, I began to notice all the imperfections. Indeed, I couldn’t find the broom. It did look like they’d gone through much more Windex than I would have. They’d accidentally used one of the baby’s monogrammed burp cloths as a cleaning rag. And then I just about gasped when I saw: they had run the dishwasher. Without asking. Without having me inspect the way the items were arranged. I hesitantly approached it, slowly opening the door for fear of what I might find. When I pulled out the racks, I saw (sensitive readers may want to prepare themselves for what I’m about to describe):


Two sippy cups sat overturned and filled with filthy water, three “top rack only” plastic bowls were on the bottom rack, the silverware had been put in upside down, and a pot had not been properly pre-rinsed.

I braced myself for the earth to stop spinning, but it didn’t. Interestingly, the universe didn’t degenerate into chaos because my dishwasher was run after improper loading. In fact, the only thing that came of it was that I had to spend about thirty seconds re-rinsing the sippy cups and scrubbing a couple spots on the pot. Two of the $0.55 plastic bowls were a bit warped, but they were still usable.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: everything that I’d worried might happen, happened. The cleaning job was rife with “mistakes.” I didn’t control everything, and therefore it wasn’t done my way. And ya know what? (Yes, this is actually shocking to people like me)…It didn’t matter. At all. The girls’ generous act gave them something to do on a summer afternoon, they felt great from all the praise I showered on them, and I was saved tons of precious time and energy by all their hard work. The situation resulted in abundant blessings all around, and all it cost was a little “imperfection.”

A Part II to this post is here.


  1. SuburbanCorrespondent

    This is such an important lesson to learn for when your own children are older. You have to let them help, even though they don’t do it right. Perfection isn’t the goal. And I do what you do – if I can’t watch without criticizing, I leave the room and do something else.

    Those girls felt really good about themselves that day, and that is what really counts!

  2. Soul Pockets

    I have to remember this with my children. I need to except their perfect help rather than do it myself for perfection sake. I may hurt their feelings or hinder their independence by doing that. Thank you for the reminder.

    BTW where do you find neighbor children willing to clean and babysit for you. I can’t find any!

  3. Laura

    This is great training for you so that when your kids get older, you might be more willing to let them do things. I find that it took me a long time to get over the way my children did some of their chores. Just last week my 5 year old wanted to wash dishes (yeah, right!). I let her wash the plastic stuff and she did a great job. The more I let her do, the more I find out how industrious she really is. It is hard to let go, but it is worth it. You end up with capable, helpful children! Good luck letting go. God Bless!

  4. J.C.

    I was really saddened when you posted that your little friends were no longer allowed to play with you. I am so glad for all of you–especially them–that their parents reconsidered. What you are providing these girls is invaluable. It will probably change their lives, and they will never forget the lessons they learned in your kitchen.It is truly God’s work you are doing. God bless you, Jenn.

  5. Beth (A Mom's Life)

    What a great post!

    I don’t think you would like my dishwasher because it sounds like mine everytime…and I’M the one unloading it!

  6. Flexo

    I hate to tell you this, but no matter how many times you tell them, no matter how many times you try to “teach” someone how to load a dishwasher, folks will invariably load it WRONG.

    “Don’t put the cups in that way.” (they put them in that way anyway)

    “Don’t put the cups in that way!” (they put them in that way anyway)

    “I said, don’t put the cups in that way.” (they put them in that way anyway)

    “Look this is very simple. Don’t put the cups in that way. If you do, they’ll flip over during the wash. Don’t. Do. It.” (they put them in that way anyway)

    Ten years later . . . . unloading the dishwasher, carefully picking up the cups that flipped and are full of water . . .

    Whether it is a spouse, child, parent, roommate — either they know how or they don’t.

  7. Anna

    *chuckle* Did you ever find the broom? 🙂

  8. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino

    Good for you! I understand how you feel about the dishwasher. I am PSYCHO about the dishwasher being loaded a certain way. Mainly so the dishes will get clean as opposed to having food plastered on like concrete for me to have to scrub off later with a scouring pad. And you must know, I. Hate. Handwashing.

    Maybe I can learn from you and let go a little!

  9. Anonymous

    My grandmother had a rule, “If you don’t like how I do things, feel free to do it yourself. Otherwise, shut up.”

    My mother doesn’t express the second sentence, but she follows the same rule. I’m sure my husband would say I do too.

    Sounds very liberated, doesn’t it?

    I’m convinced the secret to a happy marriage is treating others the way you want to be treated: Unless you are willing to do it yourself, don’t criticize the work someone else does. Not the frequency and not the method. Not verbally and not mentally. If you are willing to do the work, just do it, without lecturing on why or feeling martyred.

    Giving up control is hard!


  10. Liz

    The thing for all perfectionists to remember is that people are more important than things. You helped the girls to be generous and received their gift with appreciation. So what if it was more of a dandelion than a rose. Your own children will doubtless bring you many dandelions and hopefully you will also receive them with love and appreciation as well.

  11. Sandy

    Good for you! I’m so glad the world kept spinning and you found out that the “worst that can happen” wasn’t all that bad. Our new dishwasher specified that any item could be washed anywhere and it’s pretty much true. For some reason, my plastic items don’t end up upside-down.

    I married into a “borderline OCD family” and my 2 dc both have those tendencies, too. It’s hard for me, at the other extreme, to understand, but after 21 years I’ve become a bit more like them myself.

    I’m so glad the girls are there to help and learn from you.

  12. Anonymous

    That was great. I am very proud of you. And as a perfectionist myself, I totally understand.

    My mother always criticizes, and frankly, it has put me off all kinds of housework and cleaning. I can _remember_ enjoying it as a little kid, but now when I just look at a cleaning cloth or a vacuum cleaner I shrink inside. Every time I got something done, she’d do it over, complaining and upbraiding me (and bringing up all my other flaws). She did this when I was a teenager, and she did it when I moved back home after college (to help her, since she was sick!). The very thought of it makes my throat close up, just to write about it.

    So in my own place, I gave up on all housecleaning above the “toxic” level. I’m not particularly happy about living in dust and disorganization, but not as unhappy as I am knowing that whatever I do, I’ve done it wrong. Disposable plates and food are probably bad for me, but they give me so much more psychological peace.

  13. Melody

    Yahoooo! I am so happy that you made the decision to let them help you. Since my DH and I are retired I also went thru that with him. When he helps, I never let him know how badly he has done. But he has gotten better over time. He feels good about helping and I feel good that he wants too!

  14. Puddintane!

    i need to be able to do this. id love for someone to come clean my kitchen but just like you lol i would be all over it..this is how i do it.. that is were i put it.. instead i should just go hide and let them help! thank you for the reminder that even if i don’t control it all i should be great full someone cared enough to want to help me ! god bless 🙂

  15. gsk

    FLEXO: You missed the essential point. YOU’re unloading it after the improper loading. Only when they unload it themselves will they really ever really get it. Some never will — and that’s okay.

    I’ve been a horrid teacher to my daughters because of this very thing (thank you, Jen!!) and yet, they’ll figure it out when they move to THEIR home. I wasn’t taught well, but eventually figured it out — it’s not rocket surgery.

    BTW, no one is suggesting that this is about OCD, right? I’m as slovenly as possible on most things. Loading the DW right is about saving (ME!) work later, not about compulsion (I hope!)

    [So nice to see how much of the world is on the same wavelength.]

  16. gsk

    Btw Anonymous (unsolicited, I know) forgive your mother. She was 100% wrong, but as long as you don’t make an act of deliberate forgiveness, she owns you. Still.

    I’ve had to do the exact same thing, and would love to discuss it with you off-line. So many of us are unknowingly passive-aggressive little girls inside because of such injustices. I’d love to share with you (privately) my journey, if you’re the least interested.

  17. Flexo

    Only when they unload it themselves will they really ever really get it.

    Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! They unload it?? Yeah, right. More like they don’t unload it and just put dirty dishes in the clean dishwasher.

    Anon — by giving up and “living in dust and disorganization,” it sounds like you are continuing to empower your mother to hurt you. You are continuing to base your life on what she says or might say.

    Don’t give her that power over you. Avoiding what you might otherwise do is not the answer. We are called to love and respect and honor our parents, we are not called to listen to or believe the unkind bile that they might spew at us.

  18. redwinegums

    I completely relate to the dishwasher thing. People just don’t do it right sometimes!

  19. Anonymous

    I’m thrilled that you got a couple of hours off. ; ) Jane M

  20. Carrien

    As a fellow control freak I know how difficult it can be to let people do things for you.

    I applaud you for walking away, and for not freaking out after.:)

  21. Courageous Grace

    Please, please, please hand me some of what you’re smoking, LOL! I am such an (don’t think I can say that word here?) retentive perfectionist when it comes to cleaning. Which is why my home is such a mess. I figure it’s less stressful to not do it than start and have to have it perfect.

    My biggie is laundry. Clothes have to be hung a certain way and folded a certain way (to avoid wrinkles and make the closet organized). They have to be hung in the correct order so that they’re always easy to find in the dark. With George’s clothes the ones he’s not big enough for yet have to be hung in the back so hubby doesn’t grab them (he still does anyway) for George to wear.

    Oh and the dishwasher! I’ve finally trained hubby to stop putting spoons, knives, and forks in upside down (I think he got stabbed a couple of times). If he loads the DW incorrectly, I make him unload it, so he’s getting pretty good about putting cups in correctly (not to mention most of our cups are heavy enough glass they don’t flip). As for the top rack only stuff, we never run the dry cycle on the DW because it’s a waste of electricity. I don’t care about a few water spots. Therefore it never gets hot enough in there to warp plastic. I can even wash *gasp* Tupperware lids!

  22. Abigail

    Lovely post.

  23. Christine the Soccer Mom


    Seriously, though, I’m glad you were able to let it go. I”m learning that myself. 🙂

  24. Kelly @ Love Well

    I love what Liz said about remembering that people are more important than things. That’s the heart of this lesson, really.

    You impacted the people at the expense of the things. Your dishwasher took the brunt of it, but you loved well.

  25. Muscadine

    This post, along with the others that I’ve been greedily reading all morning, makes me want to give you nothing but thanks for publishing this blog. I converted just at Easter, at age twenty-six, and I find it very difficult to find the words with which to tell my friends and family how changeful it’s been to the entirety of my life – even that doesn’t sound accurate enough. Your clarity is something I’m sure I’ll be quoting to give them a glimpse into contemporary conversion. Many thanks.

  26. Liz

    Your story about the ‘help’ you were offered by your girl friends reminded me of something I heard recently from a woman who started her spiritual journey as an atheist, became a Messianic Jew, moved on to Evangelical and finally found her home in the Catholic Church.

    Her question to a priest was about “Offering it up,” which is a mystery to most Christians and a lot of younger Catholics.

    She asked the priest “Why do Catholics think they need to offer up their sacrifices and sufferings to Jesus on the Cross when the Bible clearly stated that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for our salvation?”

    The priest answered with the following example:

    “Your mother is in the kitchen getting ready to bake a cake. You are four years old and you run in, throw your arms around her and enthusiastically offer your help. What if your mother said, ‘I have everything I need to bake this cake. Your help is not needed.’ It’s true that she doesn’t need your help to bake that cake, but wouldn’t she allow you to crack the eggs into the bowl, or add the milk or water? Not because she needed your help, but because she loved you enough to want to make you feel happy and needed?

  27. Multiple Mom T

    Oh, honey are you preaching my language!! I about died reading your blog today because it’s just exactly like me!

    I imagine God is patting you on the head and saying “well done!” right about now, though! You blessed those girls and got a blessing yourself. WTG!!

  28. TwoSquareMeals

    I’m so enjoying your posts about these girls and how God is using you to bless them and them to bless you. I am just learning to give up control and let me almost 4-year-old and his little brother help around the house. It makes so much sense that it is better to have it done imperfectly than to have me too stressed out and not able to get it all done. But I am such a control freak.

    One thing you may want to look into is making cheap cleaning supplies. A few spray bottles and some water and vinegar will clean almost any surface. They girls can’t do any damage to themselves or your house with that, and it will save your having to worry about the cost. There is tons of info out there on making your own cheap and safe cleaning stuff. It could even be a fun science activity to do with the girls, figuring out what cleans certain surfaces and why. Just a thought.

    Oh, and I love microfiber clothes for cleaning. I let my kids dust with those all the time.

  29. Josephene T. M.

    I was wondering about the amusing comments about people being obsessed about how a dish washer is loaded. Letting go and letting others take care of it, for many reasons, is important.
    But I wonder if meditating on the reason for wanting dish-washer perfection could be more lastingly freeing. There might be something beyond wanting to be in control of an activity you feel you do best and most perfectly. What exactly is annoying about water-filled cups coming out of a completed wash cycle?
    Maybe it’s because one has done all the work required, and the expectation that the up-turned cups are supposed to be clean and dry, but are not, is the reason: “I did the work, and yet there remains more work for me, which somebody else imposed on me because she loaded the washer wrong. I hate this!”
    This is just one example.
    Thinking about the reasons for our need to control might shut the case entirely for us and we won’t have to struggle against our temptation to interfere with other help. We might feel free from the psychological stress which results from the struggle against our desire to load the washer ourselves.
    Does this make sense?
    I doubt anyone will read this, anyway. : )

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