When I was around seven years old, we ran out of clean plates at my parents’ Christmas party. My four-year-old sister and I saw the stack of dirties beside the sink and decided to help. I manned the faucet. She dried. Guests who were looking for clean dishes took our handiwork out to the dining room buffet. Unfortunately, as my mother discovered to her horror and embarrassment, I had not felt it necessary to use any soap. Or, for that matter, warm water.
The occasional fiasco aside, my sisters and I were extremely useful around the house as we grew up. We did laundry. We cooked, vacuumed, dusted, did yard work, and even embraced bigger tasks like re-organizing the kitchen or planning a month of meals. In this, we were hardly unique—one recent survey found that 82 percent of current parents, adults my age, say they grew up doing chores. Interestingly, though, only 28 percent of those parents said they regularly assign chores to their own kids. Sadly, this means today’s children are missing out.
Domestic skills may seem relatively trivial, but their impact is deep. Analyses of data gathered over a 20-year period found that whether children participated in household tasks by the age of three or four was a strong indicator of their educational and personal success later in life. A child who grows up caring for his family and feeling like a competent and needed member of the household has been given a tremendous gift. A young adult who can live hygienically, nutritiously, and cheaply without needing assistance possesses incredible freedom. A parent who doesn’t have to do all the work around the house is less likely to go crazy.
Domestic skills don’t just nurture self-esteem, independence, and parental sanity, though. They go to the heart of what it means to be a human being.
Ought we to feel deep down that the universe owes us clean socks; or ought we to expect to wash laundry for our whole family? Few adults would admit to the former proposition, yet their lives demonstrate that they feel it. They think it is other people’s job to make them happy. Their friendships and marriages are focused on the struggle to receive their fair share of love and service, rather than the desire to serve each other. They vote for politicians who pander to their sense of entitlement. They act as if only accolade-laden public achievements are worthwhile.
I want, instead, to raise kids whose first instinct is not only to do their own laundry and earn their own bread, but who also know that caring for others and making the world a better place in mundane and non-glamorous ways is beautiful.
Now that I am a parent, I look back and wonder how my parents managed to teach us to think of work as something good. How did they rear kids who not only helped with the cooking and the cleaning but even took on extra chores of our own volition? The question is important, because I hope to do the same for my own children. Here are some of the ways in which I plan to imitate my parents.
1. They Started Us on Hard Things Early
Why would a teenager believe that everyone should contribute to the general welfare if her parents never made it a priority to help her do so? My parents followed the principle that if we were physically capable of taking out a toy and playing with it, we were physically capable of putting it away. They never needed to “introduce” chores to us because, as far as we could remember, we had always done them. By the time we were six or seven, they graduated us to helping out the whole family.
To fold an entire basket of laundry at that age was sometimes torturous. It took forever. I would haggle with my mother over whether underwear needed to be folded, too, or merely sorted and shoved in drawers. I despaired when she appeared with a second basket and said I could fold that one, also; or when the toddler walked along the edge of the couch and mangled some of my piles. Sometimes I tried to hide clean laundry rather than going through all the work of putting it all away properly in the different drawers.
In retrospect, however, it was a productive choice to make my tasks bigger than the attention span I wanted to have. If I was merely asked to, say, put the silverware on the table, it wouldn’t have taken much brain power for me to realize that my mom could have done it herself in 60 seconds. She wouldn’t have seemed to need me.
Instead, my chores were real. Unless I did my job, no one would be able to find his or her clean underwear. This kind of reality affects a child’s soul. In my house, it wasn’t just adults who contributed to the general welfare. It was me, too.
2. They Made Sure We Were a Team
Kids learn useful skills when they wash their laundry or make their own school lunches, but they aren’t being included in team family in quite the same way as the kid who can look around the dinner table and know she authored the casserole that is nourishing everyone from dad down to the baby. Chores in our house were a way to help the whole family.
We were never paid an allowance. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to hand us cash for eating our supper or sleeping at night, it didn’t make sense to my parents to treat our chores as something beyond the scope of our personal responsibilities. However, we did have the chance to earn money by volunteering for extra tasks like deep-cleaning or moving a woodpile. I also remember being paid one penny for every snail I extracted from the garden.
My parents set an example of visibly doing and making things to help the family. I didn’t always realize the full extent of what they did. I remember grumbling at one point that mom should have a slot on the chore chart, too, because she didn’t actually wash any dishes, fold any laundry, or vacuum. Yet I knew she valued working.
3. They Made Work Interesting
Hand-in-hand with chores came the chance to do interesting things from an early age. I got to use tools and cool kitchen gadgets. I made up recipes even when they didn’t turn out very well. I played slip-n-slide on hands and knees while washing the kitchen floor.
In my house, being the person in charge of a job meant having power to make decisions about how that job should be done. When I was eight and learning to make soup, I was allowed to skip the onions. When I was 17 and writing meal plans, I was allowed to decide what we should eat for a given month. This was motivating. It gave me ownership.
Of course, I was still expected to meet a reasonable standard. I remember being sent back to refold a sloppy load of laundry or rewash dishes that weren’t clean enough. I was allowed freedom to do the job in my own way, but only on the understanding that it had to be done in a reasonably timely and complete manner.
4. They Were Willing to Live with Imperfection
Our daily routine was never built around the perfect chore chart. In the early years, we would periodically make color-coded schedules, then completely fail to adhere to them. Sometimes one child couldn’t wash the floor because the other one hadn’t swept it. Sometimes my mom would yell, “If you don’t finish that by dinner, you aren’t going to eat!”
Sometimes we broke things. My second sister and I smashed an entire set of dishes (white with blue flowers), piece by piece, in our early career as dish washers. Yet our parents pushed through this investment period. They were willing to live in a house that was constantly being cleaned without ever being entirely clean. They were willing to eat soup that an eight-year-old had made without consulting a recipe.
They were also willing to guard our time. Compared to today’s typical middle-class child, our extracurricular activities were very limited. In retrospect, I appreciate the choice my parents made to make sure we had time to live, clean, and grow as human beings rather than rushing us from one activity to another.
Slowly, as we matured and experienced the many natural consequences of the ways in which we chose to do our tasks, we grew into a skilled labor force. By the time I was in my late teens, my family would often invite guests home after church on the spur-of-the-moment. We girls would go into the house first, tidy on the run, then throw together a meal from whatever we found in the kitchen. It was just how we did things. We even washed the dishes with soap.
5. They Showed Their Appreciation
We girls were certainly guilty of complaining about our chores, but in the big picture we did not resent them. That is because even though we were expected to get our work done we also knew we were appreciated. I remember my dad thanking me, in the same heartfelt but understated tone of voice he would have used for my mother or another adult, for washing dishes or making dinner. That meant a lot.
I’m Trying to Pass On the Legacy
My son already loves to follow me around and pretend he’s helping. I’ve begun to ask him to do more. He helps put away all the toys before bedtime. This works amazingly well, because he knows that the more he cleans, the longer he gets to delay the end of his day.
He likes to be praised for his labors. When carrying something heavy, he informs me that he is “strong, strong.” He has also noticed the person who sets the table gets to decide whether he or his sister gets the green plate. He’s motivated by that.
I’m sure I’ll find many more opportunities to help nurture his sense of what it means to be human. As I was clearing the breakfast table recently, I asked myself why on earth I was putting his oatmeal bowl in the dishwasher. After all, it’s plastic, and he’s two-and-a-half. It’s about time he starting pulling his weight around here.