• Should children do chores? 28 February 2017 | View comments

  • Andrea Zanin wonders whether chores for children are relevant or redundant in a modern world.

    One of 2016’s top songs was Rihanna’s Work, which not only proved that repeating the same word one-hundred-and-three times can make a number one single and loads of cash but that we have to work for what we want – even if it’s love, as RiRi reminds the dude in her tune. It’s a principle that most of us growing up in the 80s and 90s were taught by our parents, who had us washing dishes and laying the dinner table (extreme, I know) to make sure that we did not grow up with an attitude of entitlement. We did chores and we damn well liked it. But times have changed, or have they?

    Experts in the news talk about the rise of the “Me Generation” – children, our children, who feel entitled to jobs, cars, houses, Jimmy Choos…basically anything to sustain their own happiness. One theory is that the acceleration of this so-called “me, me, me epidemic” is the result of a culture of children born as an emotional asset whose primary purpose is to be loved and to be happy. In the old days, children were required for the practical functionality of a family – to work the farm, fetch the water and look after their parents in old age. They were born because they were needed. Even today, poorer countries need children to help their families not only thrive but survive.

    In the UK, we have children because we want to; because we like the idea of family, which is awesome but also…complicated. Love for its own sake raises some questions, like this one: if loving our children is the primary focus of a father or mother parenting a millennial child, how do chores fit in? Especially when we have dishwashers and washing machines to do all the dirty work for us? As a mum of four children (7, 5, 3 and 6-months) currently negotiating the challenges of raising a rabble to be contributing, empathetic members of society, I thought it’d be a good idea to find out what other parents are doing; are chores a thing of a by-gone era or are children still fetching the water, so to speak?

    As part of my research I asked more than 30 mums and dads whether their children did chores and what they thought was an appropriate age to get little ones started on the road to an un-entitled attitude. Overwhelmingly, ‘chores’ is not a popular word – so I found out; ‘jobs’ is the preferred term for the routine household tasks that make up the humdrum of everyday life. One mum said: “Annabelle [4] tidies her room and helps make breakfast and put things on the table. She sees the former as a ‘chore’ and latter as fun. She doesn’t know what a chore is. I guess it has negative connotations whereas she usually still sees helping us as fun, mostly!” Modern rhetoric prefers the notion of ‘contribution’; children doing their part for the family unit, rather than being forced into a chore, or unpleasant task. Six-year-old Joshua articulates chores as doing things his mum asks him to do (like get the macaroni cheese from the fridge), also observing that chores are good for adults but boring for children. Ha. Call it ‘helping’ and perhaps Joshua would think differently, right?

    Name aside, all of the parents who took part in my research do give their little ones jobs around the house, with 3 being the most common age to start children helping at home – in what’s more than just tidying up their own mess. The kinds of jobs children aged 3 to 7 do are: put away the shopping, take dirty dishes to the kitchen (sink or dishwasher), tidy bedrooms, make beds, put clothes in the washing basket/machine, fold laundry, set the table, take out the recycling, feed pets and clean cages/fish tanks. Some 7-year-olds are tasked with making sandwiches and drinks for their younger siblings, washing dishes and even hoovering!

    Controversially, there are parents who pay their children to do chores! But before you don your judgment wig, these are usually things like washing the car or weeding the garden – so, less chore-like chores, if you will. According to 7-year-old Cameron. “I do chores; I get my clothes for school, help sort washing, empty the dishwasher. A chore is something I do around the house to get money.” (His mum facepalms at this point.)

    Also interesting is the concept of reward charts; mums and dads often use these to motivate their children to help around the house. Author Bret Easton Ellis is famous not only for penning American Psycho but for speaking out about the effects of Generation X parenting, which has coddled its children in praise – awarding gold stars and medals just for showing up, the author told Vanity Fair; producing a bunch of whiney, overly sensitive affirmation seekers. Yikes! As a Gen X parent myself, the balance between rewarding my children (with praise, charts or other) for good choices and hard work, and expecting them to do things (like show-up), because it’s what life presupposes, is part of the complexity of modern-day parenting. And I haven’t figured out an answer other than trying to balance positive affirmation with reasonable expectation – my version thereof – and hope that my children will cotton on to the fact that life doesn’t offer handouts.

    Adding to the mental fatigue involved with figuring out the whos, whats, whens and wheres of chores is taking cognizance of the connotations of the jobs we allocate our children. UNICEF has just released a new report saying that young girls across the globe (aged 5-14) spend 40 per cent more time on household chores daily than boys. Feminist-me rears its dragonish head at this point although in my home, the difficulty is that as a freelancer, I am home more and so naturally, end up doing more of the chores. One mum I interviewed said, “My husband and I make an effort to do a bit of all the tasks so neither our daughter or son grow up thinking one thing is a particular person’s work. [My daughter] has asked questions about the cleaner mind you, to which I have yet to come up with a satisfactory response.”

    When Dakota was asked if she knew what a chore was, she flatly replied “yes”. When asked if she does any chores, she said “nope”. And when asked what she thinks about chores, she said “she doesn’t”. Who knew 5-year-olds could be facetious? Yet there is a truth inherent in her answer; whether we call it helping, contributing, working – chores or jobs – ultimately ‘it’ is the same thing; what is important to us, is how our children perceive the tasks we ask them to complete, and in turn how this will affect their character and behaviour in later life. Then again, perhaps we’ve complicated a simple thing with philosophy and psychology? Make your bed. Why? Because I said so. 

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