I began this post as a response to Daniel Lancy's discussion of chores from an anthropological perspective. I don't believe he mentions it, but my reading of the literature suggests that among many groups of hunter/gatherers, where women provide most of the food for their families (meat being a special treat, not daily sustenance), children as young as three essentially find enough food to support themselves. Inefficiently, probably interfering with their mothers' work every step of the way, but a net gain to the family. (See Dr. Darcy's more detailed analysis of this under comments.)
In agricultural societies, that's certainly true. Before the turn of the last century, the easiest orphans to place in homes were teenage boys. They were useful - especially if they were big. Now, they are the hardest kids to find placements for.
Why? Because now, we ask very little of our kids in terms of chores - or even in terms of courtesy. This is true in the US. It is even more true of middle and upperclass families in countries where household help is common (e.g., Chile, the Philippines, Spain).
Surprisingly, single parents ask less of their kids than married ones. Why? Because getting kids to do chores is a pain. Especially at the beginning before they have gotten into the habit of just doing their share.
The benefits of chores.
No one likes to do chores - I certainly don't. But my kids do, in fact, contribute on a daily basis to household maintenance. When they moan (they often do) when asked to set the table, bring in wood, empty the dishwasher, put away laundry, shovel the walk, or work in the yard, they always get the same answer.
"You're part of the family. We need you to help."
Helping makes them feel part of the family and contributing to all of our greater good.
It did take longer to get them to set the table then it did to do it myself - when they were two. It sure doesn't now.
It is an inconvenience sometimes to my older son to care for my younger one when his father and I can't. But they dote on each other.
They sometimes groan when asked to get up from their book or computer to do some task that has to be done right now. Or 'forget' to do it first thing after they finish what they're in the middle of if the task isn't pressing. But they do it. It's something they've always done. Since, as Darcy says, they were little. And I don't blame them for groaning. I'D rather read than bring in wood too.
But feeling put upon by my kids because I feel like their maid isn't good for me, for our relationship, or frankly for them. I honesty want their help - this isn't some trivial task I'm giving them as as exercise in childrearing. It's authentic. As I said to my son last night when he complained about clearing the table AGAIN (what, we need to do this every night?): "Dad cooked, I went shopping, your brother set. You get to clear. Everyone helps."
Kids feel competent when they act competently.
Three side effects of this besides that they feel like part of the family rather than the 'masters' of the family
1. My kids glow when someone tells them what a help they've been or how shoveling the sidewalk has made it easier for some of our older neighbors or those who are blind to navigate. It's not a big deal - something said in passing. But it's another little positive in their day. And it happens a lot.
2. The number one thing that EVERY teacher and EVERY adult tells me about my kids is that they are kind and helpful. They couldn't share a nicer word about them.1
3. And my kids have an enduring and pervasive sense of gratitude. They thank each other, my husband, and me for little things we do for each other.
They're APPRECIATIVE of the small gifts of help they get, just as they have been appreciated for being helpful.
The Dalai Lama says that a pervasive sense of gratitude is one of the 10 signs of happiness.
I believe he's right.
© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved
1. Twin studies suggest that the one characteristic that seems to have absolutely no genetic component is niceness. One of the few things parents can actually take credit for!
A note: One of the things that bothers parents - especially guilt-prone ones - is that their children complain when asked to do chores. Similarly, many parents try to convince their children that they shouldn't just do their chores, they should like doing their chores. "It's good for you." "It will teach you responsibility." "You'll learn to do _____."
In other words, parents try to convince kids that it is to their benefit. The kid argues that this is a benefit they'd rather not enjoy. And that's not an argument a parent can win.
In addition, trying to influence the child's feelings is somewhat coercive. As I've discussed in Flinching From the Tiger Mom, coercive or intrusive parenting, where parents attempt to influence their children through guilt, assaults on the self, or through influencing their emotional state, are associated with depression, low self-esteem, and other problems. Behavioral control - do what I ask you to do - is a healthy parenting behavior. Emotional, psychological, or intrusive control is not. As I said in Flinching, it's a parent's job to socialize their child. It's the child's job to complain (express their psychological autonomy) and do it anyway.
There is nothing wrong - and much right - in asking kids to make a reasonable contribution to their family and their home. That's what families do. Just go with that. Ignore the protests. And, as Lancy says, the earlier you start asking them to take on some responsibilily, the more readily they will do it.
Finally, I would emphasize the importance on following through on things that you have asked them to do. You asked them to set the table. They ignore you or walk off in the middle. Worse, they argue or are obnoxious and you say "Fine, I'll do it myself." and slam around. Two people have learned something here. They've learned that being abrasive paid off. You've learned not to ask for reasonable help from your children. Long term, this can be disastrous. See my post How To Raise a Juvenile Delinquent With Materials Easily Available at Home for a long discussion of this point.