Childhood Chores and Adult Success

Author: Elizabeth Foss


by Elizabeth Foss

Some of the most powerful character training tools are in the broom closet. They are called mop, broom, and dustrag. Several studies, including one done at Harvard which spanned over 40 years, have proven that having household responsibilities as children is one of the strongest predictors of adult success.

When our society was more agrarian, children were integral to the survival of the family. Even school schedules were devised to enable children to be at home at peak times on the farm. Now, children are largely a leisure class unto themselves and school breaks are clearly vacations. While that may seem to be progress, it can also be said that the lack of purposeful work in a child's life may be a cause of an increasing tendency towards many social ills, including delinquency, adolescent depression, and suicide. Children have no sense of self-worth because they are not required to contribute to anything meaningful.

A young child who learns early that he is integral to the smooth operation of his home has the distinct advantage of feeling important beyond the "I'm special; you're special" hype promoted by Barney the dinosaur. The teenager rises above "Life's short. Play hard" advocated by Reebok. For children who build their self esteem on nothing more than messages from popular culture, the inevitable questions are "Why am I special? Is there more to life than play?"

Children who are charged with household responsibilities reap the benefits of learning life skills, time management, and perseverance. They earn genuine satisfaction at a job well done which goes far beyond canned warm fuzzies and carries them much further into the real world than advertising hype ever will.

In large families, delegation of responsibility seems to happen more naturally. Mom and Dad simply can't do it all. Families with several children either have well- organized home management systems, where chores are delegated to all members, or very obvious chaos. The growing trend toward smaller families and greater wealth has contributed to a distinct lack of purpose for children.

In smaller families, there aren't as many tasks to perform and they don't have nearly the magnitude. It's much simpler to cook and do laundry for four than it is to do the same tasks for eight. In families of greater wealth, everything from yard maintenance, to child care, to housecleaning can be hired out. Children need to contribute nothing and indeed live an artificial life of leisure just before they are launched into the real world where life doesn't work that way. Needless to say, the world of work can be a shock to their systems.

Children are capable of helping with household chores from the time they can toddle. A two-year-old is very proud when he puts his own clothes in the hamper or helps Mommy dust a table. From there, the logical growth into other areas of responsibility is slow but steady. In her book, (Moody Press), Elva Anson provides an excellent chart outlining age-appropriate chores.

When instituting a system of chores, the experts (parents whose children are doing chores and doing them well) maintain that the most important rule of thumb is to inspect what you expect. Teach a child how to do a task. Do it with him until you are satisfied that he knows it well, then check his work, every time, correcting if necessary. To require work and not ensure that it meets an acceptable level of workmanship is to encourage disobedience. By the same token, specific, honest praise is a necessary part of the system.

It helps to have a list from which chores are assigned. By listing the chores to be done each day and referring to the list when assigning tasks, the assignment seems less arbitrary. The child must do that chore because that is what is on the list, not because mom or dad is a dictator.

Another helpful technique we've discovered in our home is doing different tasks together in the same room on a rotating basis. When my six-year-old and I work together to clean a bathroom, he sees that I have a job too. He cannot claim to be the maid. He is part of a team. Close proximity makes it easier for me to correct mistakes and to praise instantly. Since we rotate the chores (every room gets a thorough cleaning twice a week), I know that at least once a week I will have done everything necessary to keep things clean. With a very young helper, rotation has assured that while he is learning, the chores are still being done with adult efficiency. He is learning. He understands what constitutes a clean house. One day late in my pregnancy, we had several children over to play. When they left, we left the mess downstairs and went upstairs for much-needed naps. When Michael woke up, he found me at the computer in a deadline-intense mood. Without a word, he went downstairs. An hour later, when his father came home, he looked like he would burst with excitement. We all went downstairs to discover he had cleaned the entire bottom floor by himself. It was a pleasant surprise and something I honestly would not have thought he was capable of doing.

While the clean house was nice, the proud look of satisfaction on my child's face was utterly lovely.

This article appeared in the October 13, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.