Household chores—not something every child loves to do. And yet, oh-so-vital for when they grow up.
I used to think that household chores were just a natural part of life. When my parents did the grocery shopping, I would help bring the bags in. If Mum put a pile of dirty clothes in the washing machine, Dad or I would hang them out to dry. And if Mum decided to do some gardening, I would grab my little red watering can and follow her into the backyard.
Fast forward to high school. It was lunchtime and I was walking across the main quad with a friend, blissfully unaware that she was about to drop a massive bombshell on me.
“I can’t go shopping this weekend,” she grumbled. “My parents haven’t given me money for doing the laundry yet.”
My ears pricked up. “You get money for doing the laundry?”
“Well, yeah,” she huffed before noticing the confusion on my face. “You mean you don’t?”
A quick survey of my other friends soon revealed that this particular friend wasn’t an anomaly. Some of my other friends also got paid for doing chores and a lot of them didn’t do chores at all.
“We have school and so much homework, so it’s not really fair for us to do housework as well,” another friend explained. I was so dazzled by her argument that I decided to try it out at home.
“I have piano lessons and Greek, so it’s not really fair that I have to do housework too . . . ” As you can probably imagine, that didn’t go down too well.
These days however, I’m glad that my parents introduced me to chores from an early age. For one thing, research is on my side.
If you’ve ever debated whether or not you should assign chores to your child, you might want to look up this US-based Harvard study, which is really two studies that ran simultaneously. The Grant study examined 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 to 1944 while the Glueck study consisted of 465 men who grew up in poor Boston neighbourhoods. Both studies observed the participants over a course of 75 years to see what variables and processes early in life could predict health and wellbeing later in life.
Two things were identified as essential for people to be happy and successful. The first, love. The second was work ethic. Researchers then determined that chores were the best predictor of which kids would become happy and successful adults. Children who were already accustomed to doing chores were more likely to take initiative, be able to work independently and adapt to difficult circumstances.
A 20-year study by the University of Minnesota in the US had similar results, finding that doing chores from the age of three is the best predictor for a good education, healthy relationships with family and friends, and also a good career.
“Involving children in household tasks at an early age helps them learn values and empathy as well as responsibility,” explains Dr Marty Rossmann, emeritus associate professor of family education at the University of Minnesota. “It is important for children to internalise values when they are young because household responsibilities continue to play a significant role throughout one’s life.”
Dr Marty goes on to point out that managing household responsibilities can be the biggest cause of stress in marriages, therefore children should learn these skills from an early age.
Marriage probably sounds pretty far away when you’re a child but Dr Marty makes a valid point. Many of the chores children are asked to do are the life tasks that they’ll need to survive one day. Nobody will ever pay you to empty your own rubbish bin or to vacuum your dusty carpet. If children don’t learn these skills when they’re young, how do they expect to cope when Mum and Dad are no longer around to do the heavy lifting?
According to American parenting and child development expert Dr Deborah Gilboa, children as young as 18 months old can and should get involved in household tasks such as sweeping with a brush and dustpan.
I’m not sure whether it was quite that early but I can vouch for the fact that my two-year-old goddaughter loves to clean. On a recent visit to her house, she was drinking water and accidentally spilled some of it on the floor. I started to get up to reach for a tissue—but she was faster. By the time I walked to the kitchen, she was waiting patiently by the table and asking for a tissue.
When I handed her a tissue, she raced back to the living room and frantically started mopping at the floor. Once all evidence of the spill had been removed, she smiled widely as though to say, “Mission accomplished.”
Strangely enough, her two teenage sisters don’t feel the same inclination to tidy up. In fact the chore wars are a constant feature between them and their mum.
“These kids, they don’t do anything!” their mother recently complained to me. “They don’t clean their room or fold their clothes . . . ”
“We’re too busy!” Miss 15 retorted. “We have school and then we have homework, so we shouldn’t have to.”
I shifted uncomfortably. This argument sounded far too familiar.
“I waste so much time trying to get my kids to do anything in the house,” says Paula, a mum in Sydney’s south-west. “I might as well do the work myself and save myself the time and the headache.”
Lisa, mum of three teenagers, agrees. “I can yell at them all I want to and not accomplish anything,” she observes. “It’s easier for my husband and I to do the housework ourselves.”
When did chores become something optional?
I get a different answer from the kids.
“Mum likes to do the housework, she always tells us we’re not doing things right so it’s easier for her to do them,” says Mr 12.
Miss 15 really wants to learn how to cook but her mother won’t teach her until she cleans her bedroom and folds her laundry.
And Miss 17 says she would do housework if Mum and Dad would pay her to do so. But they don’t, so she would rather work at a fast food chain instead.
In 2014, appliance manufacturer Whirlpool commissioned a poll of 1001 parents. They found that 82 per cent of respondents grew up doing chores but only 28 per cent regularly assign chores to their own children.
When the parents who did assign chores to their own children were asked how their kids felt about their responsibilities, 43 per cent said they complained about them. 37 per cent tried to get out of them. And 13 per cent said their children would only do chores if they were paid.
It’s interesting to note that, although only 28 per cent actually assigned regular chores to their children, 75 per cent of the parents surveyed said regular chores made children more responsible and 63 per cent said that chores taught children important life lessons.
It seems that parents are preaching one thing and practising another. Parents want their children to be more responsible and successful in life, they believe that chores are an important factor in this, but they just don’t want to go through the process of arguing with their children over chores.
When did chores become something optional? Why do kids receive the “Get Out Of Jail” free pass when their parents didn’t while growing up?
Yes, kids are busy with homework, extracurricular activities and catching up on Netflix. But as Julie Lythcott-Haims says in her book How To Raise An Adult, having to fit in chores can help children learn how to manage time: “When they’re at a job, there might be times that they have to work late, but they’ll still have to go grocery shopping and do the dishes.”
Having kids do chores also models the important values of teamwork and respect. When children take on household responsibilities, they’re contributing to the wellbeing of the family as a whole and being part of a team. And you can’t scrub a dirty toilet once without feeling a healthy dose of appreciation for the person who does it most of the time.
Should you pay your children to do chores? That’s another question entirely. Some parents argue that it’s a good way to teach children financial independence and for them to learn how to value money. Others say that a weekly allowance could easily do the same thing. I think it’s a question each family has to discuss and decide upon for themselves. What works for one family might not necessarily work for another.
But should children do chores? Absolutely. Unless you’re a millionaire with nothing better to spend your money on, household tasks will always be a part of your life. The sooner you start, the better.