Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Talking Trash or Taking it Out?

A hypothesis regarding children and chores.

When I read the newspaper, my attention is sometimes riveted by an item the majority might overlook. For example, the Salt Lake Tribune recently reported on the case of a mother whose 10-year-old son stabbed her in the back following an argument about doing chores. Checking to see if this might just be an isolated case, Google led me to several other recent attacks by a child on his parents in reaction to a chore request. These include Deborah L. McVay, of Canton, Ohio shot dead by her son following a disagreement over chores. A case in California involved a 14-year old killing both parents following an argument re taking out the trash. It turns out these cases may lie at the top of a very tall iceberg.

There has been a steady stream of articles recently by social scientists reporting on children and chores or, more formally, the development of social responsibility. One study that has received a great deal of attention was carried out over several years at UCLA and involved 100s of hours of close observation of family life. The researchers report: "Comparative analysis reveals that most children in our study spend surprisingly little time helping around the house.... children's participation in household work is minimal." (1)

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Across 30 families observed, no child routinely assumed responsibility for household tasks without being asked. Children were assigned tasks and intermittently made their bed, or cleared the table, or got dressed on their own. But the overall picture was one of [fruitless] appeals by parents for help with practical matters, relying on politeness markers such as, "please," offers of rewards, or veiled threats. Parents also frequently directed a child to help them and then backtracked and did the task themselves... [Otherwise] children resisted or flatly refused." One father was described as serving as the child's "valet."(2)

This study has been replicated in middle class suburbs in Australia and in Europe. For example, in West Berlin, "The parents alone are responsible for the reproduction of daily life....The child is the recipient of care and services." When the rare chore is assigned, children expect to be paid for it. (3) In an interview study with children done in Australia, "work" was something done outside the home for a wage. (4)

It is hard not to conclude that children are no longer held responsible for household maintenance and the care of siblings while parents despair at raising parasites who have little sense of responsibility.

Caring for a sibling: Madagascar

Caring for a sibling: Madagascar

What can anthropology teach us? The gap between childhood in pre-modern and contemporary society is nowhere wider than on this issue. Universally, children are expected to volunteer to help out and they respond eagerly. Indeed, so eager are they to fit in and be useful, they sometimes need to be directed away from tasks that are dangerous or beyond their capacity. (5) Here follows a sampling of folk wisdom on the subject.

• Remember that in the Beng language, one word for ‘child' really means ‘little slave.' As soon as the little one can walk confidently, don't hesitate to send your child on errands in your village or neighborhood. (6)

• "Run and fetch me" is one of the commonest phrases heard addressed to young children in Tikopia (in the Solomon Islands). (7)

• Every small [Talensi] boy of 6-7 years and upwards has a passionate desire to own a hen. (8)

• Make believe play was particularly low in Nyansongo probably because children there participated early in real adult work and therefore did not need to "practice" through acting out. (9)

• In accord with the belief that lactation uses up maternally irreplaceable body substances, it is seen [in rural Mexico] as incurring debts on the part of children, who thus are obligated to attend their mother's wants. (10)

• Initial efforts at subsistence work are recognized by giving them food, enthusiastic praise and by calling other people's attention to a child's effort...[Murik] mothers [thus] encourage a strong association between work, recognition, and being fed. (11)

• Only when the Nuer boy tethers the cattle and herds the goats....cleans the byres and spreads the dung to dry and collects it and carries it to the fires is he considered a person. (12)

• This assumption of work and responsibility comes about gradually, and largely on the Chiga child's own initiative. (13)

• Between eighteen and thirty months of age, depending on its physical ability, the Guara child begins to act independently as a messenger... Carrying water and firewood are the first daily chores regularly performed. (14)

Helping out: Laos

Helping out: Laos

This essay would become much too long were we to trace the history of this dramatic change and excellent sources are available for those who're interested. (15) However, I believe that many contemporary parents would argue that, they really want to instill a sense of responsibility in their children and do insert " doing chores" into their parenting model. But, they would also report considerable frustration at the resistance of their children to comply-short of threats and bribes. I distinctly recall a news item relating how a suburban couple in Florida, the Barnards, had gone on strike and moved into a tent in their driveway, refusing to cook, clean or otherwise care for their teenage children until they agreed to mend their ways and help out with household chores. Earlier they had tried awarding smiley faces and withholding allowances, to no avail.

I think the disconnect between our aspirations for our children and their actual behavior occurs because of an anomaly in children's development. From the anthropological literature it is abundantly clear that children are at a fever pitch to contribute and get involved in household work during the ages of 2-4. I believe that this motivation, if unrewarded by the assignment of chores, is extinguished. Our children, eventually, stop volunteering, they get a free ride and when, finally, at 8 or later, chores are assigned, the window of opportunity is closed. They've been conditioned to receive care, not give it. They no longer worry about fitting in, or engaging in reciprocal relations with caretakers. They can, correctly, assume that lavish care will be available no matter how little effort they put into supporting parents and the household. They refuse to do chores, or worse, hurl invectives, slam doors and withdraw from active membership in the family circle.

The solution may be to take time and find "work"' for 2-4 years olds, recognizing that their "help" actually means more work for the parent.  In a study done some years ago, the investigators found that children as young as 18 months  "spontaneously and promptly assisted the adults in a majority of the tasks they performed. Furthermore, the children accompanied their assistance by relevant verbalizations and by evidence that they knew the goals of the tasks, even adding appropriate behaviors not modeled by the adults." (16)  Hopefully, there should be a payoff down the road but I'd certainly love to hear about your experiences.


1. Klein, W., et al 2009. Children and chores: A mixed-methods study of children's household work in Los Angeles families. Anthropology of Work Review, 30(3): 98-109.

2. Ochs, E. and Izquierdo, C. 2009. Responsibility in childhood: Three developmental trajectories. Ethos 37(4), 391¬413.

3. Zeiher, H. 2001. Dependent, independent, and interdependent relations: Children as memebers of the family household in West Berlin. In L. Alanen and B. Mayall (Eds.), Conceptualizing Child-Adult Relations. (pp. 37-53). London: Routledge.

4. Bowers, J. M., and Goodnow, J. J. (1996) Work for home, school, or labor force: the nature and sources of changes in understanding. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2): 300-321.

5. Lancy, D. F. and Grove, M. A., in press. Getting noticed: Middle childhood in
cross-cultural perspective. Human Nature.

6. Gottlieb, A. 2000. Luring your child into this life: A Beng path for infant care. In J. DeLoache and A. Gottlieb (Eds.), A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies (55-90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7. Firth, R. 1970. Education in Tikopia. in From Child to Adult. Edited by J. Middleton, Pp. 75-90. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.

8. Fortes, M. 1938. Social and Psychological Aspects of Education in Taleland. Oxford,: Oxford University Press.

9. Edwards, C. P. 2005. Children's play in cross-cultural perspective: A new look at the Six Culture Study, in Play: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis. Edited by F. F. McMahon, et al, (pp. 81-96) Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

10. Millard, A. V. and Graham, M. A. 1985. Breastfeeding in two Mexican villages: social and demographic perspectives, in Breastfeeding, Child Health and Birth Spacing: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by V. Hull and M. Simpson, (pp. 55-74) London: Croom Helm.

11. Barlow, K. 2001. Working mothers and the work of culture in a Papua New Guinea society. Ethos, 29(1):78-107.

12. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1956. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

13. Edel, M. M. 1957/1996. The Chiga of Uganda, 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

14. Ruddle, K. and Chesterfield,. 1977. Education for Traditional Food Procurement in the Orinoco Delta. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

15. Zelizer, V. A. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: the Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books.

16. Rheingold, H. 1982. Little children’s participation in the work of adults, a nascent prosocial behavior. Child Development, 53: 114-125.





David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.


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