"So little is expected of kids that ...Their incompetence begets exasperation, which results in still less being asked of them."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, in “ Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?”
in the New Yorker
"My little guy does not like it when I cook or do laundry or do the dishes. Why am I not paying attention to him? But I soon realized that he loves to help. He puts clothes in the washing machine, gathers potatoes to bring to the kitchen, brings me clothes hangers. And yes, it takes much longer than if I had done it all myself. But he actually squeals with delight at being given his next task. And I end up being much less frustrated."
Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost? begins with a description of a girl from the Matsigenka tribe who lives in the Peruvian Amazon. This self-sufficient, confident six year old took the
initiative to contribute to family life by cleaning, cooking, and serving the family.
Kolbert contrasts this helpful child to kids recorded on tape for a research study in Los Angeles. The American children she describes, ages six to eight,
don't help around the house. In fact, they expect help putting on their shoes and getting their silverware, and they demand that help somewhat rudely.
Most parents wish their kids would help more around the house. Why aren't our children more like the Matsigenka?
Because we don't raise them to be!
Which doesn't mean we're doing something wrong. It means that for better or worse, most of us live very differently than the Matsigenka. Because the work
of their tribe is so practical and clearly essential for the family's survival, even young children are valued when they play an active role in providing
for the family. Tribal kids pal around in multi-age groups, and the older kids explicitly teach the younger ones life skills like building fires or
making simple weapons. As the parents go about their daily lives, their twelve year olds are at their side as apprentices, learning to provide for
a household. The girls I met on a trip to the Amazon a few years ago were married and having children at fifteen.
So Matsigenka kids are making a contribution that is greatly valued when they do household work. They're also practicing for the future. Often, our kids
don't feel their contribution is valued. We panic if our six year old wants to start a fire. And practicing for the future means getting on the ipad!
So our kids won't ever be like the Matsigenka kids, and the comparison in the New Yorker article is unfair. But shouldn't they still help around the house?
The answer is yes, and not just because it makes our lives as parents easier. (The truth is, it would probably be easier to do it ourselves!) Research
shows that kids who have household responsibilities are more likely to step up and help others outside the home. My theory is that these kids are accustomed
to helping, and to seeing their contribution as valuable. Responsibility at home really does make kids better citizens.
So why don't kids help more, and what can you do about it in your own home?
1. They don't have time.
Our culture's way of training young people to participate in society is school. They spend hours in class, and then more hours doing homework. If they
participate in sports, music, or other activities, they're required to spend a tremendous amount of time practicing. By the time they're in middle
school, they have no time to play. By the time they're in high school, they have no time to sleep!
During the school year, give your child responsibilities that can be handled in an hour on the weekend. Then, in the summer, have a discussion about responsibility
and work out a schedule that asks more of your child. Take the opportunity while school's not in session to teach life skills and have your child make
a real contribution to the household.
2. It's easier to do it ourselves
It's easier to do it ourselves, so when children are young enough to be interested in helping with housework, we shoo them away. By the time they could
be helpful, it takes so much time to teach them that it's still easier to do it ourselves. Besides, by then, they're absorbed in other, more exciting
pursuits, and the battle to get them to "help" feels too frustrating.
Start young. The younger kids are when they begin doing household tasks, the better. Toddlers (like Wendy's in the quote above) usually
love helping. Consciously involve your child in what you're doing from an early age, even though it takes much more time. You can expect to have to
spend a lot of time teaching. But if you set the expectation that
"Everyone works together at our house" and "We always clean up our own messes...come on, I'll help you,"
he sees himself as doing something of value, and he enjoys that feeling.
If your kids are older, can you still start this? Yes, but you'll need to work as a team rather than assigning chores. Your first goal
is not getting help around the house. It's giving your child the experience of how good it feels to contribute.
3. Kids hate chores.
It's a reasonable attitude, given that most adults find housework boring and menial. After all, kids have so many other, more interesting, demands on their
time. And they really can't see why it matters if the floor gets swept.
Make it about fun and mastery. Remember that if you make the experience of contributing to the family feel like a chore, your child will
avoid his chores like the plague. Instead, think of this as a chance for your child to enjoy getting good at something. Look at how she made the kitchen
table shine! How'd he get so fast at pairing up socks? Over time, they'll come to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, and even to take pride
in being a capable cook or gardener.
Make it about connection and appreciation. Recognize that your child doesn't see much intrinsic value in household work, unless she's
doing it with you. Instead of sending her off to work by herself, see the work as an opportunity to bond with her. Play his favorite music and sing
along. Find the joy in working together, and inspire your child with it. Tell him how much it means to you to have his help:
"Thank you so much! We make a great team....Many hands make lighter work. And then we have more time for fun together!"
It doesn't hurt to have a little motivation waiting after the family clean-up on Saturday mornings, like a trip to the park.
4. Kids "need" us to help them.
Kids do need babying from time to time. It reassures them that we're there to protect and nurture them. Besides, they have to work hard to keep it together
at school all day, and they need plenty of opportunities at home to relax their executive selves and let their baby-selves come out. If they don't
get those opportunities, you can be sure the baby-self will surface as soon as you ask your child to help out, or even to put on his own shoes.
Don't be afraid to "baby" your child when he asks you for help, and make sure he gets plenty of other opportunities to be silly and "off duty" including
spending special time together. Then, once you're sure that he's getting his need to feel "cared for" met,
when he asks for help with a task you know he can do, stay with him offering encouragement but let him handle it. If you keep your sense of humor along
with your expectation that your child actually can make his own peanut butter sandwich, he'll be astonished to find that he really can do it himself,
and his confidence to try new tasks will grow.
5. Kids don't complete tasks thoroughly.
You can't really expect your child to do a job as well as you would. You probably weren't so thorough at his age, either.
Teach. When you teach your child the task, be sure to break it down into smaller steps and help your child master each one. Take photos
of them doing it, even once your child can read, and make a small poster with each step.
Cede control: Once your child takes responsibility for a task, try to minimize your control over that task. If he knows you're going to
do it over, why should he bother trying?
Focus on the positive, so your child WANTS to do an even better job. Think about how you respond if someone criticizes the way you do
a task at work, compared to when they find the positive in what you've done. So if your son's dresser drawers are a shambles, at least appreciate that
he's putting away his own clothes. If your daughter takes forever to finish the dishes because she chats on the phone the whole time, consider that
it's really up to her how she makes the job palatable. And if there are streaks in the bathroom mirror, use them as a reminder that you didn't have
to clean the bathroom this week!
6. Kids "forget" their responsibilities or complain bitterly, and we give up.
Kids have a lot on their minds, from the upcoming soccer game to whether their sister got a bigger piece of pie. You can expect to have to remind kids
of their responsibilities. And you can expect them to complain a bit.
Don't give up, and don't get exasperated. Chores will never be first on your child's list, and that's okay. Keep your sense of humor.
Then, when your child complains about helping around the house, or needs reminding, empathize and restate your expectation:
"I know, wouldn't it be great if the dishes washed themselves?...Come on, let's go..."
Post a written routine that includes everyone's responsibilities, and then be consistent and cheerful about your expectations to create
a habit. After all, they don't have a lot of incentive to put their plates in the dishwasher, so the only reason to do it is that you'll be in their
face (in a nice way) reminding them until they do it. After awhile, it will simply be a habit, and most of the time you won't have to remind them.
Remember that reminding doesn't mean nagging. Which category your reminders fall into might depend on your tone of voice. Experiment
with being silly and even ridiculous when you have to remind your child about a task, until everyone is laughing. The anxiety will disappear, and any
power struggle will disappear. In fact, your disappointment about having to remind your kids will disappear. And once there's lightness and fun about
it, you might even find that your child no longer needs prompting.
Like the rest of us, when children know that doing something will consistently get them a smile, hug, or warm thank you, they're more likely to do it.
By contrast, if we think they should do it without reminders, we get irritable and the whole interaction is fraught with tension. Not surprisingly, they're
more likely to shy away from even thinking about that chore, which is loaded with a layer of unpleasant associations.
Your six year old isn't likely to serve you dinner like a Matsigenka child. And yes, it will take more effort to get him to put his own clothes in the
hamper than to do it yourself. But the repeated effort is worth it, because over time those tasks will become a habit, like brushing his teeth. Kids
really do rise to meet our expectations, as long as we stay connected so they want to please us. And one day he WILL serve you a meal he's made, and
you'll realize you've raised a young person who makes a real contribution. Congratulations!
This article is part of the series Are Kids Today Spoiled and Undisciplined?
which also includes:
How to give your child a rich life--without raising entitled kids.