I loved this NPR article on kids lending a helping hand around the house. I also hated it. The title, for example: How to Get Your Kids to Do Chores (Without Resenting It).
I understand about click bait, but still, there’s so much implied in that title that I dislike, including trickery and veiled coercion, and the notion that kids would never lift a finger without them. This is, of course, similar to the fallacy that kids don’t have an intrinsic desire to learn and must be made to do so, either by being forced or enticed.
The NPR article tells of psychologists who found that in an indigenous Mexican community, children willingly contributed to the workings of their households without being told, asked, or rewarded with gold stars, boosts in allowance, or other bribes.
That’s based on a 2014 study which, the NPR article’s author says, “contains some of the most remarkable quotes I have ever seen in a research article.” What’s so remarkable? Just the moms talking about their kids volunteering to help out when they see a need. That last part about stepping in when needed is important. These kids aren’t just playing grown-ups. They’re active participants in their environment, evaluating the situation and doing what needs to be done. Apparently Mexican families have a word for this, acomedido, which leads to some of those aforementioned “remarkable” scenarios, such as the kids observing that their mother is tired and rallying to cook dinner, clean up, or address whatever work is necessary.
Notice I use the word “work.” I don’t like “chores” because it implies meaningless tasks. The synergistic interactions and respectful communication between family members that lead to the efficient running of a household is work in the best sense of the word, fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful.
According to the research outlined in the article, one of the secrets to raising kids who happily volunteer to do such work is to start young. They call it “embracing the power of toddlers.” That means when your toddler wants to help you sweep, you hand them the broom. It means when they want to do the dishes, you pull the chair up to the sink and let them have at it. One of my kids had a particular interest in cooking when she was a toddler, so the chair got pulled up to the stove and my husband stood beside her while she scrambled eggs for breakfast. Did our kids help out around the house later? They did, but there were no “chores,” just tasks that got done as needed. Dishes, laundry, cooking dinner, gardening, animal care, and more were completed by whoever was most willing or able to do them in the moment. Over time, certain tasks became the job of certain people based on their talents and proclivities. No one, for instance, knew how to care for our ducks better than my youngest daughter.
Of course there were disagreements, such as the time when two of my daughters argued over who was going to get to clean the toilets (yes, they both wanted to do it that badly).
Also important is working together. Last week my eldest daughter was relating a friend’s struggles with using commands, punishments, and rewards to get her six-year-old to clean his room. We both came up with the same obvious (at least to us) idea: “Why doesn’t she help him do it?” Folding laundry, picking up toys, you name it. Do it together, and take a lesson from Mary Poppins. Whether it be with a song, game, or some other silly, ingenious device, make it fun. Whatever you do, don’t make it a power struggle.
All that said, I think it’s important to note that our motivation for including our kids in the life of the household wasn’t to get them to do chores. Rather, it was about respecting their curiosity, ability, and independence. I do like that the NPR article encourages people to change their mindset about young children, but I lament that it mentions play only in the context of adults assuming that it’s all toddlers care about. In doing so, it minimizes the significance of play.
That’s ironic, because the study on which the article is based notes that the indigenous children who volunteered in the work of the household also had ample time for free play, in contrast to the children from more cosmopolitan, Westernized communities, who were less likely to volunteer around the house. According to the abstract, those kids “were more often reported to be involved in activities managed by adults, and to have limited time to play, compared with the children in the Indigenous-heritage community, who were often reported to have plenty of time for free play and often planned and initiated their own after-school activities.”
Which brings us to the subject of agency. Kids need to feel safe and cared for while being given space and agency over their own lives. When that combination is present, responsibility to family and community naturally follow.