Return of Chores: Kids Meet the Broom

After years of doing the heavy lifting, parents introduce offspring to an old-fashioned concept

On a recent Saturday morning, Donna Ryan left the house before her children were awake. In her place was a detailed list of chores for her two daughters. When Mrs. Ryan returned several hours later, "I had a clean house," she laughs, with no small satisfaction.

This state of household grace was not achieved without a struggle. In fact, says Ryan, regular chores are relatively new to the family. "I woke up a few years ago and realized we had able-bodied children who were getting away with murder." She fired the maid, drew up a chores chart, and put the girls on notice.

"They really fought me," she says. "They said, 'none of our other friends have to do chores.'"

The girls weren't exaggerating. Fifty years ago, according to several studies, nearly all children helped maintain the house - free of charge. Twenty years ago, kids still did chores, but small payments lightened the task.

Today, all that remains of that tradition is the weekly payoff. Most young people are busier than ever - with soccer, schoolwork, and music lessons. Parents are left rolling their eyes in despair at unmade beds and mounds of laundry. But while children today exhibit few domestic skills, many may have gotten a helping hand from adults who have acted as tireless chauffeurs and bankers and rarely demanded anything in exchange.

"The concept of service is gone and financial control has virtually disappeared," says William Damon, director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and author of "Greater Expectations" (Free Press). Professor Damon points out that more families can afford to hire help as well as give children spending money. But, he adds, "I believe it's a loss of a sense of what's good for children. We used to have a sense that children build character by serving their community. Now, there is a sense that what children need is free time for their friends and special lessons."

According to some experts, the change has been driven by two factors: less time and parental guilt. "Adults today are so torn about the demands on their own time, that they are reluctant to push their own children too far," says T. Berry Brazelton, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School. He says the issue of why parents no longer require chores is more complicated than simply asking where society has gone wrong.

Is it worth the battle?

Susan Hastings has taught in Los Angeles-area schools for more than 20 years. She agrees with Dr. Brazelton about the impact of busy lives, saying that chores have gone the way of reading to children at bedtime. "Parents don't have the time to teach their children anything anymore," she notes, adding that chores are an opportunity for parents to teach their children skills and values.

Ms. Hastings says she has tried to get parents to set up chores for their children to help them achieve school goals, but meets resistance. "Parents are busy, they're stressed to the max, and they just don't see the value." Not only that, she adds, many believe that the kids are overscheduled, and can't handle the additional burden of work at home.

But Brazelton argues that chores don't have to be a burden. He advocates starting some form of chores with children as young as three years old, calling chores a vital part of family life. "It makes children feel important to help out with the family," he explains. Indeed, Ryan wishes she had put her children to work in kindergarten.

Damon maintains that today's concern with the welfare of the child is the legacy of the battle against rampant abuses such as child labor a century ago. But he says this sensibility has gone too far, resulting in excessive catering to children's moods. "We find that parents are afraid to disappoint their children, they are afraid their children won't like them," he explains, adding that occasionally, they are even afraid of physical harm.

Respect for family unit

In some cases, he says, the issue is linked to a misguided notion of what builds self-esteem. "It's ironic that the real self-esteem kids need comes from achievement, which requires hard work, including the drudgery of chores," Damon says. "Children are not stupid. They know when they're being praised for something real."

Beyond that, the whole family has to share a common sense of purpose. "Families exist to raise children well, not have perfect beds," he says.

To Ryan, the goal is building self-sufficiency. She has found that doing chores increases the children's respect for the family unit. From there, she hopes, they'll understand more about what it means to be a part of a community. "If nothing else," she says, "they'll make better roommates when they go to college. When I think of some of the roomies I had, that's no small achievement!"

How to Set Up a Routine

When considering how to lower the boom on cleaning a room or mowing a lawn, child experts agree that the first, most important step is to establish a routine. Here are some tips to help in setting one up:

* Involve the whole family in choosing both chores and consequences.

* Create simple, clear visual aids that remove ambiguities and nudge children into fulfilling responsibilities.

* Set deadlines for completion, with clear consequences for missing the moment.

* Take time for training.

* Make sure responsibilities are age appropriate.

* Be sure to praise a job well-done.

* Be consistent.

* And most important: Never do the chore for the child.

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