A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend and the topic of chores came up. She wanted to know if my children did chores. Keep in mind, my son is 18months and my daughter has just turned 3. I replied, “Of course.” See, I hadn’t ever thought that children wouldn’t do chores. When I was teaching, the children in my class always had jobs, no matter what age they were. I’m a big believer in that if people are to be a part of a community, they have to BE a part of that community – and that involves pulling together to get things done and keep things running smoothly. Research backs me up on this. If children are involved in the running of a household, they will feel a part of that household. Now I’m not talking about mini slaves here. Just reasonable expectations.
It’s no secret that children learn by seeing. If they see you do something, they place value on that, and try to learn it themselves. There has been a lot of research showing that child-rearing practices greatly influence children’s capabilities and cultural differences have been noted. For example, Eskimo children have strong visual and spatial capabilities due to the emphasis placed on this because of their environmental need. Whereas White American children were found to have a linguistic preference. The focus of child-rearing has been different. Eskimos were found to focus on observational learning, where White Americans focused on verbal instruction (read more here). Similarly, if a child sees their parents reading and are frequently exposed to reading and reading material, they then see reading as important (Read more here and here). After all, it’s a little difficult to convince a child to value or do something that you aren’t seen to value or do yourself.
Elinor Ochs, an anthropologist, wrote a great article for The Guardian about the values that chores teach children and where Americans are losing sight of this. And her reasoning follows on from modelling what we value, which in turn creates what our children value and in turn creates our society.
In Sweden, for example, middle class parents insist that each family member is responsible for cleaning up after themselves and keeping the house in order. Small children are expected to clean their dishes and rooms. Sweden’s idea of a universal social welfare state begins in early childhood.
For me, a lot of it has been about delegation. in the classroom and in my home, I just don’t see why I should have to do something for my children, when they can do it for themselves. Perhaps I should say I am ’empowering’ my children by teaching them to do things for themselves. That would certainly make it seem more fashionable and appealing. Lucky for me, they both gain great enjoyment from helping and doing things by themselves. I would suggest this is because helping gives them purpose and that the act of helping is then meaningful. But this isn’t to say that my children are always happy to help. They are human after all! So how do chores work in our house? Here are two examples.
1. You want to eat? Get your own plate.
Many of our chores have inbuilt motivation. By twelve months both my children were walking easily and opening an inordinate amount of cupboard doors. So I used this to my advantage. At meal times, they get their own plates and cups. I just have to make sure that their plates and cups are on the bottom shelf and far away from anything breakable. At least until they are old enough to understand about what to touch and not to touch. I don’t have to coax them to do this, because their hunger does this for me. They are also often responsible for putting their dishes away. After all, if they want to eat the next day, they need to put their dishes back once they’ve been cleaned.
2. You want your toys to still be there when you wake up? Pack them away before you go to bed.
Again, inbuilt motivation. If my children don’t pack their toys away (I help by the way, it’s a team effort) they disappear and then they have to earn them back. Usually I try to get all toys packed away before dinner, because after dinner is usually a downhill slide through bath time, brushing teeth, story and bed. I don’t like to interrupt this steady slide.
So as you can see – I try to rely on inbuilt motivation. It takes it away from me. It’s just a fact. If we want to eat – we need something to eat from. This is my whole view of chores. If we want to live in this house, certain things just need to be done. We don’t argue about it. There isn’t any negotiation. The consequence just happens. My old boss used to tell the students, “You choose your behaviour, you choose your consequence.” I love it. It puts it all back on them. They know what will happen. I am not doing this to them. They chose what they wanted to do, so I don’t argue. They know full well what will happen as a result. It’s interesting watching my son come into the fray. He is a little more combative than his sister. But at the same time he isn’t stupid. He watches what happens to his sister, when she pushes the envelope, and he seems to be picking and choosing which battles he will fight. Chores, conveniently, aren’t one of them.
Other chores my children do? Put away their books in the bookshelf; put their backpack away; take their shoes off at the front door and put them in the right place; pack their own toys in their own bags if we are going somewhere (They learn a hard lesson about toy choice here, only a finite amount of toys can fit in a bag – serious decisions here. Let alone the very real consequences if they bring the ‘wrong’ toys. We do have some discussions here, but neither of my children like to be ‘told’ so we let them learn the hard way.)
So what about the chores that don’t have inbuilt motivation? This is where reward comes in. I go to work, I get paid. For me, some chores are like work for children. While my children are a little young for pocket money, there are other things I can do. At the moment, my daughter has a reward chart. One of the ways she can earn stamps on her chart, are if she does things that are above and beyond. Note ‘above and beyond’. She does not earn stamps for picking up after herself, or doing things she should just be doing anyway. She earns stamps for doing things that challenge her, things she finds difficult, or she has to persist with. Some things she knows beforehand will earn her stamps.
At the moment, she gets a stamp on her chart for attempting to get herself dressed and another stamp if she actually manages to do it properly. Why? Getting herself dressed is difficult for her. But I want her to learn because getting her brother dressed is enough of a chore for me at the moment and it’s all about
making my life easier teaching her important life skills. But back to her – My daughter gets unbelievably exasperated, to the point of tears, because she can’t manage to get her arms into her shirt. The stamp is to reward her persistence. But then she is very much of the school of thought, ‘the shoes are on, who cares if they’re on the right feet?’ and will happily go all day with her shoes on the wrong feet – hence the stamp for care factor. I want her to actually pay attention and notice if her underpants are on back-to-front. Then there are other things that won’t always get her a stamp, but often will – like unstacking the dishwasher. If she’s done a particularly good job – I’ll give her a stamp. But I’m careful to always be specific in my praise about exactly why she’s getting the stamp. This praise always reinforces what I’m trying to encourage. It might be because she carried things so gently, or that she managed to put away ALL of the plates (rather than losing interest half way through). And you can be assured that there is research behind a lot of this. The other is just my desire to spend less time doing things for them, that they could do for themselves, so I have more time to do the things they can’t do – like paint my toenails cook dinner.
Other great articles on the subject of chores:
This week I’m linking with Jess – have you checked out her latest blog post and all the other great bloggers who’ve linked up. I always love it when I find a new blog to read!