(The following is a true story about my efforts to teach four teenaged children - one of whom had already been accepted to a competitive university - about something known as "household chores." Your results may vary.)

As I balanced a laundry basket on one hip and waited for a customer service representative from our health insurance provider to prove that my call really was very important to him, I had a sudden epiphany: My kids were already teenagers, capable of figuring out how to use the latest iPod or other techno gizmo in a split second. Yet show them the buttons on the washer and dryer and they looked as amazed as if they were being shown the flight panel at Cape Canaveral. Their idea of multitasking is eating a banana while dropping their shorts on the floor. Their motto is, "If you can't stand the heat, leave the freezer door open."

I realized that I was to blame for this sorry state of domestic affairs. If I had forced them to do more work, they would have understood that the phrase "open door policy" is merely a figure of speech, meant to convey our friendliness toward guests. Instead, they take it literally to mean every opening in the house: front and back doors, kitchen and cabinet drawers, and of course, the fridge door, whose hinges are suffering from repetitive stress syndrome. And like those ads for Motel 6, my kids will always leave the light on for you - whether you are planning a visit or not. They leave a carbon footprint bigger than Bigfoot.

I decided to take action after a strapping young thing, nearly old enough to get drafted, saw me simultaneously cooking three different dishes for company, running back and forth to the computer to work on a column, making assorted business calls, and folding laundry. With a completely straight face, he asked, "Mom, are you busy?"

The next day, I vowed things would change. I handed a grocery list to the kid with the driver's license and sent him to the market with a sibling. I wrote a list of tasks for the other two, who assured me they'd get to them just as soon as the inning of the baseball game they were watching on ESPN was over. I felt better immediately. Why hadn't I thought of this before? They weren't even complaining!

Ten minutes later, the phone rang. "Mom? We're at the store, and you wrote down 'eggs.' But did you want regular, extra large, jumbo, organic, fertile, or free-range?" This is the problem with living in an affluent society. Too many choices. "Get whatever's on sale," I responded.

I went to check on the other kids, but apparently this was a very long and very important inning, the results of which would determine whether the game would go into extra innings. They promised they'd get to the list soon.

The phone rang again. "Mom? You just wrote 'cream cheese' but did you want regular, low-fat, or whipped?"

"I don't eat cream cheese, you do. Get what you like," I advised.

Naturally, the baseball game went into extra innings. (At least that's what they claimed. There are at least 279 various sports games on TV at any given moment with guys on steroids chasing balls around. How would I know the difference?) But during a commercial, I forced these two off the couch and insisted they begin the arduous tasks of emptying trash baskets from the house and clearing out the dishwasher. This taxed one teenager to a state of deep exhaustion. His lobbying for time to "chill out" after these burdens would have been the envy of any union organizer. The other kid, who had been asked to sweep the floors, discovered that this activity ignited his inner famine. He abandoned his broom in favor of a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. This looked good to his brother, and they ate several sandwiches to fortify themselves for the remaining innings left in the baseball game. As a courtesy to the next hungry customer, they left the bread, peanut butter and jelly out on the counter.

I was not surprised when the phone rang again. "Mom, you only wrote 'onions.' Do you want the weird purple ones, the brown ones, or the sweet ones from Hawaii? Oh, and do you want regular soy sauce or low-sodium?" And I thought ordering coffee from Starbucks was complicated.

My left eyelid began to twitch when I realized how much faster and more efficiently I could have accomplished everything I had set four able-bodied teenagers to do. Yet all beginnings are hard, and I had to let them learn at their own pace, even if it meant inviting a case of acid reflux.

After only three more phone calls from the market (store-brand granola bars or Quaker Oats? Orange juice with no pulp, mild pulp, or fully pulped, including the orange peel? Laundry detergent with bleach or without? Liquid or powder?), I wondered: had my kids done this on purpose so that I'd never ask them to help me again? Or was grocery shopping an activity for which one needed special training, perhaps at a vocational school?

The shoppers arrived home victorious, while I tried to hide my dismay. I had asked for "fruit," and they bought three bananas, four apples, and five oranges. This was barely enough for a single snack around here, let alone for teenaged troops forced to wield a vacuum.

Despite the slow progress, I am not giving up. Writing out the grocery list is taking much longer, as I sometimes have to draw pictures. As to the others, let's just say we're not nearly ready for Hints from Heloise about lemon juice and a quarter cup of bleach to tackle tough grease stains. We're starting with simple things. Things like throwing away banana peels and overcoming the fear of the permanent press cycle. Wish me luck.