We've been doing something wrong when it comes to chores in our house. And I may have just found out what it is.
For a long time, I have been focused on getting the children to do proper self-care: personal hygiene. Sole responsibility for all things related to school, including homework and remembering lunches and library books. Keeping rooms neat enough for my weekly vacuuming. Putting their own clean clothes in their drawers. Picking up their own toys from the common areas of the house. Clearing their dishes. Using proper table manners.
This seemed like plenty. When I still had to nag about using forks at the table and putting laundry in the hamper, I thought adding more chores would be a recipe for disaster: i.e., a lot of yelling and overwhelmed kids.
I was of course also asking for help now and again - Would you please sweep the floor? Who can help set the table? Please sort these clean socks for me - and every time the whiny or indignant response was the same: Why do I have to?
Because we are a family, and we all pitch in, I would say.
The selfishness of their response really irked me. Had I really set the example of complaining about doing things for our family? I didn't think so, and I still don't. But what I did do, for years, was assign the kids fixed responsibilities that were solely focused on them, individually, and not on us as a family. So when I asked them to do things for our family, the requests were understandably interpreted as extras and not as expectations.
No way was that okay, so there were going to be some new expectations.
Richard Rende, developmental psychologist and author of the forthcoming Raising Can-Do Kids, points to the trend of decreasing chores and household responsibilities as "troubling," given the clear findings that childhood chores yield clear positive benefits to a child's social, developmental and behavioral development. Remarkably, Rende points out, long-term studies have shown chores to be "a surprisingly influential factor that offered a strong prediction of positive mental health in adulthood and professional success."
There has been a lot of recent media discussion about whether we modern parents are unwittingly raising narcissists, treating our kids as if they are more special than everyone else. Rende is concerned about this trend, too, especially in connection with declining expectations that our kids be contributing members of the family, and points out that "we have certainly seen much research devoted to the idea that youth are becoming more entitled across generations." My kids plainly need plenty of chores, and their whiny responses to requests for household help smack embarrassingly of entitlement. So what's the best way to add more?
I could certainly just lay down the law. As children, my siblings and I simply had our own lists of chores, which we did mostly to check something off, and without any strong sense that we would ever gladly pitch in if it weren't required. I wanted to instil in my kids a more expansive sense of helping and working together, a fostering of true empathy instead of I-got-mine-done. And I didn't want to spend all my time nagging and yelling, which parents often seem to resort to in their good intentions to get kids to follow through.
It turned out that I had the words right - we are a family, and we all pitch in - but the execution was not working. Research has shown that kids are naturally inclined to help from toddler age, and Rende says the best way to build on this is to focus on work as a family "we," and not as "you" and "I." He suggests that we "reframe chores as a collective family activity rather than a 'doling out' of responsibilities. Taking on household tasks together promotes a social consciousness and an intrinsic motivation to do for others, along with doing for the self."
Plus, the kids are more willing, as I found out when I put this approach into practice in my house. Our first "collective family activity" was cleaning up dinner as a family. Previously, the kids cleared their places and (maybe) helped wipe the table and sweep, and we parents put away the leftovers, did the dishes, and buttoned everything up for the night. Now, no one is to leave until the kitchen is fully clean and ready for the next day.
It's been eye-opening. When everyone is working, side by side, it truly feels more like teamwork and less like checking off a nag list. Bonus: The kids are actually learning to do helpful new things.
When we're all together in the kitchen anyway, it's natural to take the time to teach the four-year-old where the Pyrex containers are and let her spoon in leftovers. We've found that the seven-year-old and the nine-year-old will happily wash dishes on a stepstool, with Mum acting as the residue police and elbow-grease assistant. I know that they are capable, and they're starting to realise it, too.
I'm hopeful. We're in it together, as a family, and we feel like a team.
Next up, the kids cook dinner?
Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland. You can find her at www.sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @216Sharon.