More Chores, Less Play: Teaching Children Self-Regulation

Protecting children from meaningful work in the home is undermining resilience

Posted Jul 10, 2018

Last weekend, I insisted my 15-year old son lug wheel barrels full of mulch from the driveway, down a steep incline and then halfway across our backyard. I won’t lie, working alongside him I can tell you it was hard work, with swarms of mosquitoes and horseflies making the work even more unpleasant. Despite the conditions, my son’s contribution was genuine. We now have a lovely garden that, at least in my spouse’s mind, looks a little like Versailles.

Afterwards, I wouldn’t say my son was enthusiastic about the results, nor the pace of his work energetic, but I would argue the work was meaningful, appreciated, and best of all, it gave him an opportunity to learn life skills like perseverance and self-regulation in a real-world setting.

Lately, I have been reading a great deal about how to teach children self-regulation, usually through experiences like meditation classes and courses in emotional intelligence. Even the coach of those twelve boys stuck in a cave in Thailand had his charges meditate to avoid panicking. Likewise, colleagues of mine like Professor Carmel Cefai at the University of Malta have created an extensive curriculum for educators in Europe that will help them develop their students’ social and emotional competencies, in part by teaching children to self-regulate and be mindful. All of these efforts are important, and they belong in our classrooms, but I also think we need to provide children with less contrived, more genuine ways to learn life skills like perseverance, emotional attunement, and self-regulation. The best laboratory for all of these should be skills taught at home through the simple act of asking children to do chores and insisting they make a contribution to their families.

This summer, consider asking children to play less and work (a little) more.

There is an urgency to making this change. The case against overprotective, indulgent parenting practices has been growing quickly. Not only is our failure to demand more active contributions from our children resulting in overweight children with sedentary lifestyles and a potentially shorter life expectancy, children are not developing the cognitive coping skills required to deal with even reasonable demands on them.

Take, for example, a study published this year in the well-respected journal, Developmental Psychology. Nicole Perry at the University of Minnesota and her colleagues report on an eight-year study which began with a cohort of 422 two-year olds and tracked their social, emotional and later, academic adjustment until age ten. Based on laboratory observations of the children and their parents, Perry found that over-controlling parenting practices at age two were strongly associated with worse emotional regulation at age five, and many more emotional and school adjustment problems, and fewer social skills at age ten. Add to this the rising rates of anxiety disorders that we are seeing in our hospitals and the explosion in medications being prescribed to children for mental health problems, and it goes without saying that something is very, very wrong with how we are parenting our children.

While there are many possible solutions (schools, for example, need to let kids look after themselves more on the playground and stop imposing endless rules like “no running” and “no climbing trees”) it occurs to me that one of the simplest solutions is there in the everyday routines of our homes: chores.

Look around your community. How many families do you know who insist that their adolescent-age child cook a meal for the family once a week? Help with the grocery shopping? Make a real contribution to the upkeep of the home, whether that is cleaning a bathroom or mowing a lawn? How many kids are asked to pump gas when the car needs filling, or climb a ladder to clean a window when it needs cleaning? How many will help plan the family vacation (trust me on this, most teens are quite capable of booking a hotel room or finding a cool Airbnb, even if they can’t make the final payment). What about looking after an elderly parent, or forgoing a party invitation and babysitting a younger sibling instead?

Watching my son haul mulch for a couple of hours, it struck me that beneath the routine of trapsing back and forth across the yard were a bunch of life lessons that were better learned through a real and meaningful opportunity to contribute to family and home than the artificial exercise of a course on meditation for kids. Those classes may have value, but only if (1) kids are stuck in a cave for two weeks and death is staring them in the face—or they are confronting a similarly stressful situation that they can’t change like cyberbullying, or (2) they already experience lots of safety and stability and healthy expectations but are still struggling to control their emotions. In both cases, self-regulation skills should be taught. But for most children, the effort is wasted.

All of this brings me back to the simplicity of chores as an incubator for social and emotional learning. A child who is expected to make a real contribution to her family, and who experiences the natural consequences when she fails to fulfill expectations, is a child with the opportunity to find meaning, learn the value of completing a task, and is more likely to feel an emotional connection with others. If the research is correct, that child is also going to be much better at regulating her emotions.

And What if My Child Refuses?

There seem to be a few simple guiding principles to making chores meaningful and the consequences for refusing to help easy to apply in most families. (If your family has, however, recently suffered a major trauma you may need professional help to put these ideas into practice.)

First, make sure the chore is one that benefits the family as a whole. I avoid telling kids to clean their room because “I want it cleaned”. I understand that a child makes a mess in part as a way of asserting control over his life. What I don’t have to accept is clean clothes that have been washed strewn over the floor instead of respectfully placed in a drawer. In other words, we need to think of chores as tasks that matter to the family as a unit and that need to be done. If a child’s room is littered with stinky garbage and dirty dishes, that is a problem, but being messy is not.

Second, we don’t need to pay children to do regular chores. Acknowledge instead that being part of a family is about the fair exchange of emotional and instrumental labour. I don’t pay my son to mow the lawn, but then he doesn’t pay me to drive him to his friend’s house, pick him up after hockey, make his dinner or listen when he tells me about his day. In other words, the real reason for chores should be that they show kids they are part of a family and that they are expected to contribute. That is enough of an exchange.

Third, if we want our children to learn social and emotional skills through chores then we are going to have to hold them accountable when they don’t perform as expected. If a child uses the shower and leaves soggy towels on the floor, or can’t seem to put garbage in the wastepaper basket, it is reasonable to ask the child to clean the bathroom and collect the garbage. It doesn’t take long to teach a child the consequences of his actions when he has to deal with his mess and the mess others have made.

And if children refuse? I’m always amazed that we parents forget the leverage we have. Our kids rely on us for so many extras. Extra rides. Extra money to buy the more expensive pair of jeans. Special food prepared just the way they like it (Crusts on? Crusts off?). Then there are the sleepovers, the movie tickets, the help with a school assignment, and of course all the electronics and Internet access that we pay for. Before you scream at your kid, or pay her to do chores, consider all the ways you make your child’s life better. If your child won’t make his contribution, then the simplest solution I know of is to gently remind the child that if you have to clean the bathroom after she’s taken a shower, that is likely 15 minutes less time you have in your day to do something nice for her. That means 15 minutes less time to drive her to soccer practice, or to a friend’s. That is 15 minutes less time to cook him her favourite meal, or (if the child is younger) read her a story at night. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but if we want our children to learn how to control their emotions, stay on task, and develop empathy for others, it won’t happen unless their environment supports the development of these psychosocial skills in the home.

Now, I’m not saying children should be turned into child labourers. Nor am I saying children should be kept busy with silly tasks that serve no one’s needs except that of their overly fastidious parents. I am instead talking about chores that make a meaningful contribution to the welfare of a family and that need to get done for the family to function. This summer, insist on a little less playtime, and a little more time on task at home. The result may be a kinder child and even a better student in the classroom come fall.

References

Perry, N. B., Dollar, J. M., Calkins, S. D., Keane, S. P., & Shanahan, L. (2018, June 18). Childhood Self- Regulation as a Mechanism Through Which Early Overcontrolling Parenting Is Associated With Adjustment in Preadolescence. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000536