Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Such a chore

There was evidently some study, coming out of UCLA, that shows that American middle-class kids are brats, while their Samoan equivalents are not as bratty. Without knowing a thing about Samoa, we might assume that this is correct. French and Chinese kids are better-behaved. Why would any other non-U.S. locale whose child-rearing practices are profiled in the WSJ be different? Slate and the NYT parenting blog are also on the case. At the latter, KJ Dell'Antonia asks if kids need more chores. What do you think the commenters will respond?

We of course hear from those who were expected to do all the chores growing up, and who are, we can assume, amazing people, or who expected this of their kids, all of whom are currently happily married and immensely professionally successful.

My own gratuitously contrarian thoughts on the matter, which I see overlap with some of the comments:

-It would seem that a child raised without having to do chores would grow up to think chores are something parents do, not that he, the child-as-adult, will always have people waiting on him. I do plenty of chores now that I was never asked to do, never thought to do, as a kid, and never expect that someone will, say, swoop in and buy me my groceries. (But if so, I'll email you the weekly list.)

-The difference is when you bring gender into the mix - if mom does all the chores, and dad none, even if none of the kids do chores, the boys will grow up thinking chores are for the wife, etc.

-On the other hand, if one parent stays at home, whichever parent that is, it becomes more difficult to justify chores as something that everyone has to pitch in with after school or work. If one parent gets home at seven, wiped out, and doesn't have to do anything, why should Junior, who already had school and soccer practice and three hours of homework, have to do the vacuuming?

-Probably also awkward: what if there's a housekeeper? While my only personal experience of this was time spent at a German scientist guest-house last summer, I'm aware of a phenomenon of adults hiring others to clean their toilets for them. Artificial, I'd imagine, in such a situation, to tell your kid to start scrubbing.

-While bathrooms do need regular cleaning, as do kitchens, lots of "chores" are make-work, whether for a June Cleaver or a put-upon 5th-grader. Bed-making, for example. Dusting. Even essential chores can be more or less of a fuss - laundry will happen more often if you insist on washing jeans after every wear, food prep at dinner need not reach back-of-Michelin-starred-restaurant proportions, etc. Unless you're doing serious entertaining, and often, there's something to be said for learning to live with a little mess.

-Whereas there are life skills, like how to deal with money, or how to cook, that parents too frequently ignore. That whole "but what if Junior never learns how to do his laundry?" argument is overrated. Junior will dye precisely one load of white wash pink, his first month of college, will ruin a few crappy t-shirts from high school, and the world will not end.

-The "builds character" argument is predicated on the idea that kids need to learn to do things they wouldn't have wanted to do. Yet for most kids, on most days, such activities as "soccer practice" and "school" fall into that category. A kid who goes to school - and homeschooling might not accomplish this, at least without all kinds of outside effort - learns that it's a wide world that does not* revolve around him. That is the life lesson. Why teach kids that they need to keep their rooms tidy, only to watch them grow up and spend ages 18-25 living in intentional squalor, after they realize that tidiness is not in fact necessary?

-Requisite class angle: maybe it's better to schedule ballet and Mandarin lessons for Junior than to make him fold laundry. But if parents are, or a single parent is, exhausted from three jobs, or not academically-inclined, not wealthy or plugged-in enough to get these activities for their kids, or otherwise not a refugee of the Upper West Side now living in Park Slope, and it's a choice between uninterrupted vegging out and an interruption that involves folding laundry? Could be.

-When I think back to kids I knew who were truly self-sufficient, it was generally for fairly tragic reasons involving absentee parents. As with our society's bizarre insistence on having college freshmen share bedrooms, there's a point at which character-building switches over into something less innocuous.

-If poodles could do chores. That's all.

*Typo fixed.


Sigivald said...

That whole "but what if Junior never learns how to do his laundry?" argument is overrated

Indeed - and I think the ideal solution there is not "make Junior do the laundry for years", but "teach Junior how and make him do it a few times just to make sure he knows".

(And, heck, if you want to really teach something useful - and hate doing laundry yourself, pay Junior to do the laundry.

That provides both practice doing laundry and for doing work for money.)

Then get on to teaching, as you say, cooking and money management.

It's not like it's hard to demonstrate and oversee the process of operating laundry...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

But what is the purpose of the kid doing laundry, assuming the parents have time to do it and don't mind doing it, or have hired someone who does it? If it's to build character, that can be accomplished in other ways. If it's to teach the skill that is doing laundry, I really don't see the point. It's something you just figure out when presented with the machine, and then will have to figure out again for the rest of your life whenever confronted with a different one. (Not to mention the unique challenges of international laundry machines, with their possibly-unfamiliar languages, different settings, etc.) It's simply not a skill that needs to be taught, yet it's come to symbolize tragic ineptitude.

Britta said...

I feel like a major component is missing here, which is: (for people who don't hire cleaning people) have your children do chores so you have more free time. That seems pretty much like the primary reason for having your kids take on responsibilities, even more so than raising independent adults (though, not having to take care of your adult children is a perk here.) Yes, at the beginning, teaching a child to do a chore and monitoring it will take longer than doing it yourself, but over time, the child can be expected to take on more responsibility of keeping the house running, which means more free time for the parents, and a more equitable splitting of chores among members of the household. When I'm home over break and my mother asks me to take my grandmother to her doctor's appointments/grocery store, etc., it's not to "teach me responsibility" or "how to drive a car," it's so she doesn't have to take time off of work and/or spend her after work time with a 93 year old at the grocery store. Likewise, when she made me do my own laundry starting at age 11, it was so she didn't have to worry about other people's laundry. (Also, there's way more to learn with laundry than how to use the machine, it's more about learning what sorts of fabrics can be washed at what temperature (labels are often wrong), what shouldn't be dried in the dryer, what doesn't have to be dry cleaned even if the label says dry clean only, what should be handwashed if you want it to last vs. what can be washed in a garment bag, what sorts of soap you need to use (wool and bras should never be washed with regular soap, because it breaks down wool fibers and elastic), if and how much a garment might shrink, etc., how to get stains out (e.g., never put hot water on protein stains, since it sets them, nor bleach, vinegar can be used to remove body oder and preserve color in a garment, turpentine can get out paint, etc.) Not that you have to learn that from your parents or even at all, but it saves you money and disappointment in the long run by keeping your clothes in better shape and allowing you to clean clothes other people might throw away.)

On paying kids to do chores...again, maybe it's my quasi socialist upbringing here, but my parents found that kind of unsavory and I agree with them, because the idea is you pitch in and help around the house because you're a member of the household. You should do chores because everyone has a part in making the household run, and so, bribing people to do what they ought to do seems counterproductive, instills notions of greed (i.e. 'what's in it for me?' attitude) and teaches children only to do things for extrinsic motivation.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think that's true re: time-saving. But it's the same idea as with college-student room-sharing - there's a practical justification, but there's also a justification that transcends it. My sense from the "chore" conversation was that lots of people want kids to do chores (not adult children, but, you know, 8-year-olds and the like) to instill certain values, even when the chores in question (such as bed-making) are basically symbolic.