The Ethical Dilemma: Freeloading Guests

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Freeloading Guests: My husband has three grown children (I have none), and we have a very nice beach house. His children love to come and spend weekends or even weeks with us, and they each bring friends, sometimes all of them at the same time. Although they usually go out for lunch or put together their own, I make everyone breakfast and my husband and I cook gourmet dinners. I also provide everyone with clean bedding and towels. The guests usually bring something (a bottle of wine, desserts, fancy snacks), and they clear the table after meals and attempt to do the dishes (they don’t know where things go so I don’t even want them to put things away), but I’m still left with an extra six people’s laundry (linens and towels) and beds to make after they leave.

My husband is just happy to have all these young people spending quality time with us. I am too, but I also get burnt out. How can I get them to do more housekeeping without becoming the wicked stepmother? Or do we just limit the number and frequency of visitors?

I’m Counting Your Heads as I’m Making the Beds

Dear Pirate Jenny,

You must just be too frazzled to see the obvious solution to your problem. Either your husband or you, or both together, need to sit the kids down and lay out some ground rules: Everyone who sleeps in a bed has to leave a freshly made bed before they depart (make sure you have an extra set of clean sheets handy for each bed). Everyone who uses towels has to at least deliver them to the laundry hamper also if they’re not running the washer and dryer themselves. Everyone who eats has to clear the table, load the dishwasher and do all the pots and pans—and maybe your children could master where everything goes so you’re not the only one who can put things away. In addition, you could specify that the kids take responsibility for shopping and cooking at least one breakfast and/or dinner per visit, and cleaning all the rooms they use before they take off (strategically position the vacuum in front of the door).

You don’t mention financial considerations, but no matter how well-off you may be, and how just entry-level the kids may be, these young people need to understand that all this gourmet dining and beach-front real estate costs money. You might ask everyone to chip in for all the groceries and other supplies you stock to cater to this crowd.

If that doesn’t work, then yes, you need to wave your wand and turn this haven for princes and princesses back into your private kingdom. That doesn’t make you an evil stepmother, just one who is no longer running a free bed-and-breakfast (plus dinner).

One other note: I was once a young adult similarly enjoying the largesse of a friend’s parents’ country house, thoughtlessly behaving just like these kids until I was informed I had to pitch in. My initial reaction was resentment, since I hated making beds and loved just loafing through those carefree, lazy visits. But as soon as I realized how much work it was to clean up after myself, I realized the phenomenal imposition it was to expect my friend’s parents to do it (I guess I imagined they had invisible servants waiting in the wings). I’ve always been grateful that they made me a much better guest from then on.

Anatomically Correct: A friend who works for Planned Parenthood was visiting and noticed that my children (ages 3 and 4) used the words penis and vagina nonchalantly. She took me and my husband aside and praised us for their use of those words. My response was to joke that I wished they didn’t use them quite so often. But afterwards, I began to wonder if it’s really that unusual. I never gave it any thought, as we speak to our kids the same way we speak to grownups. Should I worry about using these words in front of other people’s kids (not that we’re all talking about sex organs all the time) so we don’t embarrass or offend anyone?

You Say Virginia, and I Say Vagina

Yes, Virginia,

Let’s call the whole thing off—the thing of calling things by baby names. I cringe when I hear people using all sorts of cutesy words for body parts or bodily functions (especially when a toddler tells me, “I have to make rain,” and I look quizzically at the sky instead of rushing her to the bathroom). Not only does it teach children that there’s something forbidden about the real words and the real things they are talking about, it also reveals the parents’ discomfort and perpetuates it into a new generation.

It’s ironic that your friend, in an effort to positively reinforce you, inadvertently made you self-conscious about something you’d been completely natural with prior to her comment. But please keep calling a penis a penis (as you note, no more often than necessary) not only in the privacy of your own home but wherever you go. It’s the euphemisms—not the correct terms—that are embarrassing and offensive.