No more chores

There is this quote being shared by many parenting advice sites on social media with large followings. It’s attributed to John Delony and goes: “Parents, if you don’t require your children to do chores, you are stealing from them. You are stealing their opportunity to learn purpose, discipline, teamwork, and to have meaning inside their own home. You are also stealing their ability to develop true confidence and esteem earned through accomplishing a task. Laundry, cooking, yard work, house work, trash, and more. They can help with it all. Make your children do chores.”

When I first read this quote, I felt I was being tricked. You see, it cuts deep into values that are important to me (purpose, discipline, teamwork, confidence) and, at the same time, it comes down as an indictment—if I am not making my children do chores, I am robbing them of their values-filled future. Powerful stuff.

And really dangerous.

You see, this sort of parenting commandment conceals the true nature of what it’s asking us to do: coerce children to bend to our wishes. It conceals that coercion in the shroud of a language of honor and values. Who can argue with purpose and confidence? Yet, simultaneously it undercuts other very important values about how we must treat people: by respecting their autonomy and agency.

The thing is, making people, especially kids, do things against their will only teaches them they are not valued as creative beings with their own thoughts and interests. Imposing values through chores or otherwise compelling children to do things will, in fact, create a lot of not just resistance against chores, but also emotional baggage surrounding valuable work that kids carry into their adulthood.

To teach our values—which I agree must include purpose, self-discipline, teamwork, seeking meaningful work, confidence, self-esteem—the most important thing we can do is to model, model, model our values consistently. No preaching, just living our values authentically. We can also engage in explaining our values when there is an opportunity, say in natural conversations at mealtimes, through sharing our daily experiences, discussing news, and more.

We must take children seriously as people in their own right and engage in their interests. What do they like? What are their interests? What are their values? Do they like tidy, or messy and creative? By genuinely supporting them with their interests and doing the work that they enjoy, we build a foundation of trust and respect. So, when we need help to take care of the business of running the household, they will be much more open and receptive to being helpful.

We can discuss what is needed to take care of our family, making sure not to coerce (physically or emotionally) anyone to do things they don’t want to do. Yes, there are some jobs that need to be done (cleaning, shopping, cooking, feeding and walking the dog, etc.) and we can explain what we need help with and why: Can you help? What would you like to contribute? Someone likes to manage or help with shopping. Someone likes to take care of the dog. It depends. Yes, we help each other, not because it’s required, but because we care.

Most often, parents force kids to do things (chores, homework, eat certain food, etc) because they fear they will end up having serious problems as adults. When it comes to doing chores at home, one big fear is whether or not they’ll end up as responsible adults with a job. Thanks to social media, I had an opportunity to hear about this from some other parents and reflect on their concerns.

One parent said: And when they grow up and get a job, if they want to, maybe their employers will support their desires and pay them for it?

This is said in jest, but there is a real fear expressed here that kids who are not forced to do chores at home grow up to be irresponsible adults. This is not true. Kids who are consistently “made to” do things by their parents’ authority respond in one of three ways depending on the magnitude and nature of the force and their own constitution: 1) rebel against the authority, 2) comply with the authority, 3) detach from the authority. None of those are a good foundation for holding down a job, let alone building a career, when they grow up.

Of course, kids like people in general are pretty resilient and creative. Most grow up and do ok, some do better than ok, and a few even do amazingly well. Now imagine how many more could do better and what they could all do not in spite of their childhood experiences but because of it.

Kids who are not forced to do things can and are involved in helping run their families. The difference is that, in this case, parents treat their children with respect and as people who have their own interests, wishes, needs, and valuable ideas and reasons for what they would like to do. This is a much more empowering experience for kids to draw upon as adults when they make decisions not just about being responsible at work, but also the bigger questions of what kinds of work they would like to take on.

One parent asked: Why is complying with authority not a good foundation for holding down a job?

Because it seriously interferes with intrinsic motivations that make one successful in most jobs. Even if one always works for a boss, the work is of a higher quality and the added value to the team much greater when one is self-driven. And that’s not even talking about one’s own mental health.

This parent was not convinced: I can see that with a creative job but a lot of others you must follow set guidelines—and for a reason. I don’t think I’d like a society where there isn’t authority and compliance with rules…. society works in harmony when there are rules and fair authority.

Yes, some jobs certainly require compliance with authority, say the police force or the military. But even then, one makes a choice to take on that kind of work and, at the point, there is no authority but one’s own intrinsic motivation. It’s a bit like playing a game: if I am really interested (intrinsically motivated) and my heart is in it, of course I will want to follow the rules of the game.

And, yes, just like a game, we also need some rules and regulations to live peacefully and prevent problems in the society. But these kinds of rules (like traffic rules, etc.) are easy to explain and follow. Respecting children’s agency and ideas is not about breaking systems and creating chaos, rather it’s about fostering curiosity and creating new systems in the first place. Forcing kids interferes with their agency and imagination.

Also, while there are lots of jobs out there now that seemingly operate on the basis of authority and compliance, we shouldn’t be so sure that these jobs are going to last very long. Machines are much more compliant than people, so anything that is better done with compliance will sooner or later be automated. I think, as parents, we must be raising kids not for yesterday’s or today’s world, not for what the world might be like 2, 5, or even 10 years from now, but for decades to come. There will be fewer and fewer non-creative jobs for people. The future is what people make it to be.

And, finally, they asked: So, are you against a parent making a Chore Chart for a child?

I’m against forcing, making, getting people to do things against their will. It is ultimately the parents’ responsibility to make sure the house is run well. Yes, we may need help getting it all done and, if so, we can have a fair discussion of what needs to be done and have a division of labour. As kids grow, we can ask them to see if they’re interested in helping with stuff around the house. Most young kids are thrilled and take pride to be part of the effort, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, or whatever. And, if they are not, forcing them to do stuff with chore charts or other tools creates more problems than it solves.

In our own household, we have tried many things, initially just asking, then telling, and then also making chore charts etc. to have kids help. Every time, there would be some initial enthusiasm to do things in a new way, but that soon evaporated as it became clear that the work was not voluntary and not fun any more. There was resistance and evasion from the kids and cajoling and nagging from us, the parents. At that point, we realized we could do better. We had a family meeting and explained what help we really needed. Kids heard our reasons and came up with a list of things they could do to help. Of course, this is not a magic bullet, we still need reminders and coordination sometimes, but by rejecting coercion and being open to our children’s ideas and preference, we have ended up with much better relationships. For example, one of our kids liked washing dishes and has been doing this for years now. I only learned a couple years after he started washing the pots that he liked the sensation of water and soap and would sometimes spend quite a bit of time with his hands soaking in the sink. It made a lot of sense.

So, am I against chore charts? No, if, and that’s the big if, they are not forced. We actually have a list ourselves of who does what at home. It’s something we came up with together with the kids and one that we revisit every once in a while (anyone can request a review, by the way, including kids) to make sure people are still happy with their jobs.

And yes, they are no longer chores.



No responses yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Comments