American children do few chores — often less than a half-hour a day, according to researchers from the University of Maryland. And while few children lament the lack of labor in their lives, they are being deprived of opportunities to learn time management, real skills and responsibility. And they're not being allowed to contribute to the family's well-being in those ways, either.
"Housework may seem like a trifling thing. It isn’t," writes Agnes R. Howard, an assistant professor of history at Gordon (Mass.) College, in the The Boston Globe magazine. "Anyone who judges housework unimportant might revisit decades of 'chore wars' over work and gender roles for men and women. It may seem like a no-brainer to assume kids should do chores, but as a matter of course, U.S. children do very little. In analyses of time-use studies, professor Sandra Hofferth and her colleagues at the University of Maryland Population Research Center estimate that, at last count, kids aged 6 to 12 do less than a half-hour of work a day.
"School is sometimes presented as the 'work' we expect of our kids, and when homework is done they’re free to play. That arrangement is problematic. Housework, real work, still remains. Children should take it up because they enjoy the goods of the household because they probably have more time than their parents to do it and because they gain competence and responsibility in the process."
Children, she notes, like being asked to help when they're little. As they grow, they can do more but typically are less happy to be asked. "So what? Telling children that they cannot live happily if they do not take care of their messes is telling the truth. Keeping kids confined to school and play construes them as dependents, or else as autonomous pleasure seekers parents are obliged to amuse."
Howard's article is accompanied by an unscientific poll that is ongoing. It showed overwhelming support for having kids do chores.
A study Hofferth and others conducted a decade ago at the University of Michigan noted that it didn't matter if mom was home with the kids or worked, in terms of how much help children provided. "Consistent with greater familism," they wrote, "children in Hispanic families spend more time in household work than children in white non-Hispanic families, while children in black and Asian families spend less time. For Hispanic children the greater amount of household work offsets the lower amount of time spent playing. There are no gender differences in time spent in household work; these children are still rather young. Finally, in families with a better-educated head, children do more housework. This may be due to greater expectations for children in such families."
WebMD writer Annie Stuart says if you have a plan for everyday household tasks, "you'll teach your kids a life lesson." She interviewed childrearing experts to come up with some tips, including: Don't insist on perfection, start early, praise often and with heart, and be consistent.
Parents who wonder what age children should be to tackle certain chores will find some guidelines there, as well.
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