Children and Chores

Spoiled Rotten, Why do kids rule to roost?, is a great article packed full of information, observations, and cultural comparisons. There are a lot of points made about parenting in general, and specifically about parenting in the U.S., but one in particular hit home: the typical American kid does not (willingly) help with household chores. Since reading the article, I have been listening to the requests I make of the kids, how many times I make a request, how often the request is met, and the mood and tone (i.e., joyful, fussy) it is met with. 

Katherine and Clara usually meet my requests, but I have been unpleasantly surprised by their mood and tone: some resistance, a lot of fussing and “I don’t want to”s, and even the dreaded, “I don’t have to.” Stepping back, it isn’t all that surprising. While I am pretty consistent about stating requests (Katherine, please brush your teeth and comb your hair.) rather than asking (Katherine, will you please brush your teeth and comb your hair?), I did notice that I frequently convey the message in my response that they are doing me a big favor by doing what I have asked:

“Oh thank you, Katherine!”

“That was really helpful, Clara, thank you!”

“Thank you for putting on your shoes!” 

I do believe in acknowledging a child’s hard work, but the tasks I thank my kids for doing are all standard, routine things, like putting on shoes, clearing their dinner plate, cleaning up the basket of spilled crayons. I don’t want to feel - and express - gratitude when they complete these tasks, I want them to just happen without comment or fanfare. If they feel they are doing me a big favor by clearing their plate, it’s no wonder they feel it is within their right to tell me, “I don’t have to.” 

But communicating excessive gratitude for simple, routine tasks is only one component of the problem. It also occurred to me that all I ask of Katherine and Clara are simple, routine tasks. I could and should be expecting a lot more from them. I’m not talking about loading them down with chores so I can sit and read blogs all day, as tempting as that may be. I am talking about giving them real responsibility that genuinely contributes to the functioning of our family. For example, it could be Katherine’s role to fill the water glasses every evening, and Clara’s role to fill each salad bowl with lettuce and vegetables that she has cut up. These tasks would be challenging for them, but more importantly, they are meaningful tasks that are necessary in order for the family to eat dinner. Katherine and Clara would probably accept these tasks as a prestigious responsibility, and hopefully this would be enough to quell the fussy, resistant, attitude.

Of course this all sounds great, but it will no doubt result in a few broken glasses, lots of water spills, and some pretty big chunks of carrot in our salad… in other words, it will most certainly create more work for me, which, by the way, is cited in the article as a reason why American parents don’t include their children in household tasks. But if I make time for them to participate in a meaningful way, and just accept that we will sacrifice a few glasses, it will serve our family well. The kids will participate in household chores, I’ll have real opportunities to express my gratitude, and maybe in a few years they’ll be the American equivalent of the Matsigenka of Peru, and bake me brownies over an open fire.

Training Katherine and Clara to bake brownies; an important responsibility that contributes to the functioning of our family.