The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Rules to weed by

Rachael Conlin Levy
Photo courtesy of stonebird, Creative Commons

Standing at my door was the neighbor kid, a skinny girl with her purse weighing down her shoulder, pulling her T-shirt tight enough for me to see the outline of her changing chest.

“I’m trying to earn $20 so I can go roller skating with my class,” she said. “I can babysit. I’ve done jobs round the house, mainly inside, you know. But I’ve mowed lawns and pulled weeds, too.”

Her family’s new to our street, moving into the rental across from us a few months earlier. She’s the youngest in this extended family, who live life loudly, whether hanging out on the stoop or pacing the sidewalk while talking on cell phones. More people keep moving in and the mountain of shoes grows next to their front door, which is rarely closed.

I learn her name, that she’s in sixth grade, and invite her and her mother to take a look at our back yard. I’ve seen the two walking down the street, the girl a block ahead of the mom, who is hollering her name and commanding her to “Wait up!”

“I’m Old School,” the mother tells me, while I point out what’s a weed and what’s a flower. “I want my children to earn their own money.” And so we agree that her daughter can return tomorrow to tackle the foot-high weeds. If she can get the whole yard cleared, I’d gladly pay her the 20 bucks.

This was my first mistake.

Day two brings another knock, and there she stands in jelly shoes, purse at her side. I hand her gloves and tools, and she weeds and talks while I hang laundry and listen.

“I asked to go the bathroom during class and the teacher said no, so I went anyway. And then she said I had to apologize, so I said ‘I apologize’ and she said, ‘You have to say you’re sorry,’ and I said, ‘I apologize. That’s the same as saying I’m sorry.’ And when I tried to walk away she grabbed hold of my arm and left a bruise and red marks.”

Hmm,” I respond.

“We went to the office and the principal gave me a citation and called my parents, and they’re going to have a meeting. I could sue her.”

She weeds. Asks for water. Asks me to check her work. An hour and a half role by, and I explain that I have to run an errand and she’ll have to return later. She says she’s almost done, and I say O.K.

That was mistake number two.

It’s now 7 p.m. My husband’s doing dinner dishes and the kids are getting ready for bed, when her mother and father cross the street and come up to our door. They explain that their daughter hasn’t returned home yet so they’ll finish the weeding for her.

Our mouths drop, and before we know it, we’ve made the third mistake, and led them to the backyard and handed them shovels. Two adults pulling my weeds.Ugh! A half-hour later, I’m $20 poorer and yard’s still not weed-free.

Hiring a neighbor kid is just like weeding a garden — hard work. I hire not only to avoid an unpleasant chore, but because I hope the kid learns a little responsibility. But my mistakes made it impossible for this girl to learn the value of job done well. Instead, I contributed to her entitlement, the flip side of responsibility. So, I’ve come up with some guidelines when it comes to hiring kids:

Rule1Keep the job small (weed this flower bed) and specific (pull the weeds by the root). Never outline the whole job and agree to pay the full amount because the kid might get overwhelmed by the task and begin to do quick, shoddy workRule2Hire for a half-hour and then judge the work. If pleased, have the kid continue. If not, say it’s not working out, pay them for the time, and ask them to leaveRule3Never, ever let the parents finish the job.

The neighbor girl learned the wrong lesson, but I didn’t. A half-hour later, her older brother knocked on my door and offered to mow the lawn for $15. Which brings me to the final rule: Don’t make the same mistake twice. I told him no.

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