The Importance of Chores

Like most adults, I had chores growing up: mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, and the like. And it seems like a no-brainer that parents today would continue to assign their children chores. Why wouldn’t they? It’s free labor!

Alas, in many families, chores have gone the way of VHS and land-line telephones: Once ubiquitous, they’re now quite rare. While more than 80% of US adults had regular chores growing up, less than 30% are now assigning regular chores to their children.1 This is troubling because “Decades of studies show the benefits of chores—academically, emotionally and even professionally.”1

The Benefits of Chores

First, I should acknowledge that having children do chores does not always save parents time or make parents’ lives easier, and this is especially true for young children. But the only way for children to become effective and efficient at helping out around the house is to let them start as beginners and give them opportunities to practice. And that’s also the only way for them to gain the more important benefits of doing chores.

“I must admit, getting my children to do chores is a labor-intensive activity. It would be much easier to do them myself. And that would require no supervision, no frustration, no emotion… and definitely, it would be done much faster! But what would that teach my child?” – Sharon Harding2

This is another classic case of balancing short-term and long-term goals. As children grow up, parents must constantly make choices about how much responsibility to give them and how much support to provide. Every step of the way, you can get a better “product” – a cleaner bathroom, a neater yard, a tidier house – if you do everything yourself, but in doing so you’ll be losing the chance to have your children develop greater “production capacity” – their ability to do good work in the future.3

So, aside from developing the capacity to effectively do housework, how do children and teenagers benefit from chores?

First and foremost, chores teach you how to work. Having regular chores makes it normal to do things that you don’t want to do, and success in both school and life depend on your ability to do the necessary work, even when you don’t feel like it. If schoolwork is the only time children are made to do work they don’t want to do, they might come to see school as a uniquely awful form of torture – a cruel punishment designed by adults to make children suffer. But if doing work that you don’t want to do is just a normal part of life, then school won’t seem as bad. Homework is just another chore.

There are many parallels between schoolwork and chores. You take out the garbage when it’s full because, if you don’t, there will be immediate negative consequence. Likewise, you turn in your homework when it’s due because, if you don’t, it will immediately impact your grade. You dust and vacuum from time to time to keep your living space clean and healthy. Likewise, you review old concepts from time to time to keep them fresh in your mind. You tidy up your room as needed because living in chaos is tedious and draining. Likewise, you organize your backpack and binder as needed because constantly sifting through a mess of papers makes school harder than it needs to be. In short, you often you do schoolwork for the same reason you do chores: it benefits your future selves.

More than just the ability to work, a habit of chore-doing eventually teaches most children to be good workers. In her excellent TED Talk, “How to raise successful kids without overparenting,” Julie Lythcott-Haims points out that doing chores helps children develop “the instinct to roll up their sleeves and pitch in and look around and wonder, how can I be useful to my colleagues? How can I anticipate a few steps ahead to what my boss might need?”4 At first, your “colleagues” are your siblings and friends, and your “boss” is a parent or some other adult, but later this attitude is incredibly useful in the workplace. I remember helping my dad with a household construction project, and having him point out that, instead of waiting to be asked, I could anticipate his need for a particular tool or see that something needed doing on my own. That lesson stuck with me and I’ve applied it at every job I’ve ever worked.

To drive this home, here’s Lythcott-Haims again:

“The longest longitudinal study of humans ever conducted is called the Harvard Grant Study. It found that professional success in life … comes from having done chores as a kid … [because it cultivates] a mindset that says, ‘There’s some unpleasant work, someone’s got to do it, it might as well be me,’ a mindset that says, ‘I will contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole.’”4

Chores can also teach teamwork, problem solving skills, and a sense of pride in a job well done.2 Most chores are also low-consequence tasks where making a mistake or failing completely won’t cause much harm,2 so they’re a great opportunity to take risks and try things independently.2

If you give children responsibilities, it makes them more response-able,3 more capable of being helpful in any situation. Unsurprisingly, children who do chores become more helpful in general.5 This will make them better guests in other people’s homes, better roommates in college, and better spouses.

Children and teens who do chores also become more grateful5 as they increasingly recognize how much work other people do to make their lives good. Doing some hard work yourself makes you less likely to take someone else’s hard work for granted. They’ll be more likely to express gratitude toward teachers, coaches, custodians, landscapers, baristas, waiters, and *gasp* parents. Children and teens who do chores come to understand that they’re part of a community – your family – and that they have an interdependent role to play in that community.

Chores also help develop willpower and mental toughness because, as mom and blogger Alexia Dellner says, “Knowing that you can’t play with your friends or watch TV until you’ve done your chores teaches kids about discipline and self-control.”6 Plus, knowing that they can take responsibility for a chore and get it done right creates a strong sense of self-efficacy.7 This confidence spills over into academics, sports, jobs, and their social lives.

So, given all these benefits, why are fewer and fewer parents assigning regular chores to children and teens?

Why Are Chores in Decline?

The short answer is that students today are busier than ever. Their schedules are jam-packed, and much of this can be attributed to the fact that college entrance has become increasingly competitive. A 2015 Wall Street Journal article explains:

“Today’s demands for measurable childhood success—from the Common Core to college placement—have chased household chores from the to-do lists of many young people. … With students under pressure to learn Mandarin, run the chess club or get a varsity letter, chores have fallen victim to the imperatives of resume-building.”1

Speaking from the perspective of worried parents, Lythcott-Haims describes the modern student’s hectic lifestyles as “the checklisted childhood”:

“We keep them safe and sound and fed and watered, and then we want to be sure they go to the right schools, that they’re in the right classes at the right schools, and that they get the right grades in the right classes in the right schools. But not just … the grades and scores, but the accolades and the awards and the sports, the activities, the leadership. We tell our kids, don’t just join a club, start a club, because colleges want to see that. And check the box for community service. I mean, show the colleges you care about others. … It’s as if every piece of homework, every quiz, every activity is a make-or-break moment for this future we have in mind for them, and we absolve them of helping out around the house.”4

Now, you might be thinking that many of the “resume-building” activities would confer benefits similar to those of chores, and you’d be right. Volunteering, running a club, working for the school newspaper, and even getting a part-time job are all ways to develop work-ethic, self-efficacy, and executive function. These are good things for students to do, but they’re all lacking something. They don’t teach children the importance of being a contributing member of the crew that maintains a household, and they probably don’t teach gratitude or helpfulness as effectively. For these benefits, nothing can replace chores.

If you’d like to see childhood chores make a comeback in your household, you’ll want to become mindful of what values are conveyed through your family’s priorities. According to Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or Fat Envelopes, if you let your children forgo chores so they have more time for homework and studying, you’re sending “the message that grades and achievement are more important than caring about others.”1

Another reason chores are in decline is the use of hired help. Families on the wealthier end of the spectrum often make the totally reasonable choice to spend money in order to save time, hiring landscapers to maintain the yard, maids to clean the house, and a dog-walker to take care of the family pet. There’s nothing wrong with this choice, but it does raise some questions about family priorities. Why are our schedules so packed that we don’t have time to maintain our own households? What does this say about our values? Is short-term convenience more important than long-term skill-building? Just because we can hire someone, does it mean we should?

I can’t answer those questions for you, but I do think they’re worth considering. Finding a healthy balance between household responsibilities, academics, extracurriculars, and play, while maintaining at least some downtime for rest and recovery is no easy task. There’s no perfect mix or one-size-fits-all solution, but we’ll all surely make better choices if we’re at least aware of the tradeoffs involved.

Tips for Successful Chore-Child Relationships

To get the most benefit out of having your children do chores, and to avoid the worst forms of resistance, consider these tips:

  • Schedule the chores and keep the schedule as consistent as possible.1 Surprise labor is worse than expected labor, and the more regular something is the more automatic it feels.
  • Make sure some of the child’s chores benefit the whole family, not just the child.1 Putting your son in charge of cleaning his room is good, but this labor is mostly about Make sure he also has chores like doing dishes, dusting the living room, or helping with yardwork because these benefit the whole family.
  • Take their input into account when assigning chores because, even if you don’t assign them exactly what they’ve asked for, they’ll have more “buy-in” because they got to participate in the process of choosing.1
  • Don’t assign chores as punishments.1 Remember, the goal is to instill a positive value of helping others.
  • Don’t tie chores to allowances. Paying children for good behavior sabotages any intrinsic motivation they might have been developing, “turning an altruistic act into a business transaction.”1
  • Instead of taking away an allowance for neglected chores, simply remove some privilege that your child is accustomed to enjoying – a toy, a video game, a cell phone, the freedom to hang out with friends – until such time that the chores are completed.
  • Thank your child for “being a helper” rather than for “helping.”1 People tend to respond well to positive attributions like this; they become more likely to live up to the good identity you’ve assigned them.8

Stewardship

In his landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey described the power of assigning a child “stewardship” over some aspect of the household. This means, for children of adequate age and ability, giving them the responsibility to maintain some subset of the household chores.

In the example he used in the book, Covey gave his son stewardship over keeping the lawn healthy and trim. This entailed watering it when needed, pulling weeds, and mowing it regularly. After teaching him how to do all the tasks involved, Covey told his son that he’d be happy to help with the work and would provide any tools or materials he needed, but Covey also made it clear that help would not be volunteered – the boy had to ask. And Covey told his son that no one was going to remind him to maintain the lawn. Remembering to do the work was the boy’s responsibility.3

At first, the program was a colossal failure: The boy neglected his work until he felt overwhelmed by the task and ashamed at the state of the lawn. Covey bit his tongue, ignored his neighbors’ disapproving looks, and waited. Eventually the boy, tail between his legs, came to his father and asked for help. Covey happily helped him return the lawn to a presentable form and, because the boy had asked for help, gave him some coaching on how to do better in the future. Thereafter, the boy needed no help at all, and the lawn always looked fantastic.3

Stewardship is where chores intersect with executive function. Having responsibility over some area of the household forces you to learn time management and organization. You have to self-motivate. You have to monitor your own progress and effectiveness. When you’re in charge of something, your brain has to figure how to be in charge of it.

Many children first encounter the concept of stewardship when they ask for a pet. “We can get a dog, but only if you promise to be in charge of taking it for walks, cleaning up after it, and making sure it has food and water,” parents often reply. Caring for a pet is an excellent chore, and a fun way to develop executive function.

Another good example is meal-preparation. An older child or teenager who would like to contribute can be given responsibility for planning and cooking one meal for the family each week. This entails many executive function skills: planning ahead, making sure you have the resources you need, collecting necessary information, asking for help when you need it, and managing your time so that the meal is ready when it’s supposed to be.

Modeling

Parents can model having a positive attitude about chores, and this might help children feel better about them. You can demonstrate how to do chores without complaining, maybe even with a smile on your face. You can play music to make the job more enjoyable.

But I wouldn’t recommend faking it. If you pretend to enjoy chores that you really dislike, you run the risk of convincing your children that either A) Their parents are inhuman weirdos who love housework, or B) Normal people like doing housework, so it’s us kids who are weird and broken because we don’t enjoy it. Instead, consider using chores as an opportunity to be real with your kids.

Don’t pretend to love doing chores you hate. Don’t pretend you want to do them when you’d rather do something fun. Own those feelings. Make them public. And then demonstrate doing the work anyway. Don’t wallow or whine, but don’t shy away from being honest about your complete lack of desire to clean the garage. It’s important for your children to view you as human. Humans don’t like doing chores, but they do them anyway.

As always, lead by example, and don’t try to be perfect.

Bonus!

Here’s a list of age-appropriate chores from the University of Arkansas.

1 Wallace, Jennifer Breheny. “Why Children Need Chores: Doing household chores has many benefits—academically, emotionally and even professionally.” The Wall Street Journal. March 13, 2015.

2 Harding, Sharon. “14 Ways Chores Will Benefit Your Children.” Rediscovered Families: Parenting From The Heart. March 9, 2015.

3 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

4 Lythcott-Haims, Julie. “How to raise successful kids without overparenting.” TED Talks Live. November 2015.

5 Darling, Nancy, Ph.D. “Chores Are Good for Kids: Chores teach kids something unexpected – gratitude.” Psychology Today. February 15, 2011.

6 Dellner, Alexia. “6 Reasons Why You Should Give Your Kids Chores.” PureWow. June 29, 2017.

7 Tiret, Holly and Rebecca Hodges. “The benefits of kids doing chores: The entire family can benefit from kids helping out around the house.” Michigan State University Extension. September 29, 2016.

8 Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success. Simon and Schuster, 1936.

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