flickr / Sarah Horrigan

Why Giving My Kid Chores Benefits Her More Than Me

flickr / Sarah Horrigan
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The following is an excerpt from Jancee Dunn’s book ‘How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids’ that was syndicated for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected]

It’s an issue that’s rarely addressed in the ongoing “chore wars” conversation: God forbid we ask our kids to pitch in. Numerous studies show that children today are much less likely than previous generations to help out at home. Research conducted by the cleaning products firm Vileda found that a quarter of children age 5-16 did not do a single thing around the house to help their parents — including make their own beds.

It wasn’t always this way. Pioneer children were expected to haul water, make soap, and harvest the crops. In Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents In America, historian Elliott West describes the experience of 9-year-old Marvin Powe, who grew up in nineteenth-century New Mexico. Powe’s father tells him to find and return some runaway horses that have bolted from the family ranch. They had wandered miles away, so the boy spends a week living off the land and camping with cowboys before locating the horses. He heads home just as his father reckons he should probably venture out and look for his son. We, on the other hand, have trouble persuading our daughter Sylvie to round up her ‘My Little Pony’ figurines when they’ve escaped to the bathtub.

More recently, researchers from Wellesley College pored over 8 decades of magazine advice on childcare and found that while earlier generations of kids were required to do tasks such as make the family dinner or mow the lawn, today’s parents are reluctant to ask their children to do the same. Contemporary parents tend not to push it for a variety of reasons: topping the list are guilt over long working hours and reluctance to add one more item to their kids’ already-crowded schedules.

The duties we give our daughter are few and sporadically enforced. She sets and clears the table when I remember to ask, and puts away her laundry when she’s not happily tunneling under the warm piles of just-cleaned clothes that I’ve dumped on the bed. And I’m not proud to say that the main reason I haven’t had her do anything more arduous is that I haven’t had the patience to teach her how to do chores, nor to remind her to do them.

Numerous studies show that children today are much less likely than previous generations to help out at home.

This does not benefit either of us. Research shows that doing chores makes children thrive in countless ways, and is a proven predictor of success, says Richard Rende, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School. “It’s about raising kids who will be successful in life and work, not just in their college application process,” he says. “They develop empathy, because they understand that someone might need their help. They learn about being industrious, and the importance of doing the ‘dirty jobs’ in life. Kids who aren’t willing to do the grunt work are not going to just leap to the top of the heap. This is the recipe for the young adult who will not be entitled — ’nuff said.”

Chores teach children that their contributions to the family are necessary and important, and — life lesson alert! — that people, even small ones who wear light-up shoes, need to get things done whether they feel like it or not.

Austin child psychologist Carl Pickhardt advises me to think of chores as household membership requirements. “So you explain to the child, ‘Look, it takes a lot of work to run this family, and Daddy works at it, and I work at it, and you can work at it, too, and make a really important contribution,’” he says. “And when they help, you immediately say, ‘Thank you! This makes a big difference.’”

Pickhardt often hears from parents, Oh, I’m going to wait until my kid is 8 or 9, when they’re old enough to really help. “Uh, nope,” he says. By the time your kid is in preadolescence, he says, being asked to help is an imposition — so you want to instill the habit of chores by the age of 3. “At that age, a child sees helping the parents as an act of power, as in, ‘I’m doing what my parents can do, and that feels good,’” he says. “It’s like when the kindergarten teacher asks who wants to help erase the chalkboard, and hands fly up all over the room.”

Developmental research shows that young children are actually wired to pitch in, says Rende. “Drop something, and they’ll pick it up,” he tells me. “Reach for something that’s out of reach, and they’ll get it for you.” Interestingly, Rende says that this tendency can diminish quickly if an adult rewards them for their helping. “They don’t want to be rewarded, at a deep level,” he says. “It extinguishes their payoff because the payoff is inherently internal.”

Boys in particular tend to assert their independence by refusing to do something they’ve been asked to do.

And the key to locking in lasting participation down the line, he says, is to emphasize chores as a group effort by using the word “we” — “We need to get this done,” or “Let’s clean up the living room.” “That gets across that we’re all working together to help each other out,” says Rende. “It’s about understanding that the mindset of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ benefits all.”

Instilling these lessons during the preschool age is ideal, because the kids are easy to brainwash: Parental pronouncements such as “We help each other out as a family” are received and incorporated without question. Many of our official-sounding “family rules” are ones that I hastily made up on the spot when Sylvie was 3 or 4. All I had to do is state it in an Official Announcement voice, and it became gospel (oh, how I miss those gullible days in my benevolent dictatorship when she actually believed my declaration that toy stores were closed on weekends, and the iPad stopped working after sundown).

Along with emphasizing “we” rather than “me” with household chores, Rende says that parents should try to limit their own moaning about it. “Kids don’t perceive household chores as being awful when they’re very young — we’re training them to do that when we complain about them,” he says. Adults may carp about having to wash the car, but to a 4-year-old, splashing around with a bucket of water and a sponge is simply play.

It’s especially important to have boys lend a hand around the house. As mentioned, from an early age, boys in particular tend to assert their independence by refusing to do something they’ve been asked to do. A study by the educational children’s magazine Highlights found that 73 percent of girls reported that they had chores to do, while only 65 percent of boys did. Not only are girls more likely to be asked to help out at home, they are less likely to get paid: the national nonprofit Junior Achievement found that the pay gap between males and females starts squarely at home, with allowance: 67 percent of boys said that they received allowances, while just 59 percent of girls did.

I assume I’m bestowing a gift on her when I have tidied her room — but what I’m really giving her is the message that she’s not quite capable of doing things herself.

And once chores have become regularly incorporated into a kid’s life, the impact can reverberate for years — even decades, according to a study from the University of Minnesota’s Marty Rossmann. She found that having children take an active role in the household, starting at age 3 or 4, directly influenced their ability to become well-adjusted young adults.

Rossmann pored over data that followed kids across 4 periods in their lives, ending in their mid-20s. Those who began chores at 3 or 4 were more likely to have solid relationships with their families and friends, to be self-sufficient, and to achieve academic and early professional success.

Edie Weiner, who heads the New York consulting group the Future Hunters, which maps out future strategies for corporations, believes that we are moving from a world of “have and have-nots” into a world of “can and cannots.” Chores are important, she has said, because in the coming years, career success will not be as dependent on whom you know or where you went to school (your “haves”). Instead, it will hinge much more fundamentally on what you can do — specifically, the ability to adapt on the fly, learn new skills, and grow.

So my zeal to “enrich” my daughter has been misguided. While she is now able to play chess and competently swim the length of the community pool, she doesn’t know how to perform basic life skills that will allow her to be a self-reliant person. I assume I’m bestowing a gift on her when I have tidied her room — but what I’m really giving her is the message that she’s not quite capable of doing things herself. No one wants a teenager who heads off to college unable to do basic laundry. My friend’s 18-year-old tells me that her roommate asked her, in all seriousness, which machine was the washer and which was the dryer.

Consider this gem from a C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health: Most parents surveyed agreed that their children should be ready to move from seeing a pediatrician to a regular doctor by the age of 18 — but less than half of parents thought that their older teens, age 18-19 years — who were old enough to drive a car and to vote — knew how to make a doctor’s appointment.

I want a can-do child — so now our kid is getting a daily, and weekly, list of chores — just as I did when I was a kid. And then, before I could stop myself, I told her she’d thank me someday.

Jancee Dunn has written for The Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Vogue. She has also written several books. Her most recent, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, is available now. She lives in Brooklyn.

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