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How about a little help here

Making your kids do chores doesn’t have to be a fight to the finish

Meagan and Devin Grant’s children Ava (left) and Lillian (center) help with chores. Their 18-month-old brother, Oliver, will surely help them when he gets older. Meagan and Devin Grant’s children Ava (left) and Lillian (center) help with chores. Their 18-month-old brother, Oliver, will surely help them when he gets older. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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The first time Emily Glover ordered her youngest child to pick up toys and put them away she felt a two-pronged mix of negative emotions: guilt and frustration.

“Because I felt bad for making my baby work,’’ Glover says with a chuckle. “And because I couldn’t see any other way to start breaking the habit of just letting things lie where they fell on the floor.’’

The sadness passed, though, as Glover observed over just a few days how quickly her 4-year-old daughter got on board and began to enjoy keeping her room clean and her things orderly. “I don’t even think she saw it as work. I think . . . she understood pretty quickly that being orderly is a natural instinct, so she went with it,’’ Glover says.

That the Gloucester mom of two was even willing to compel her daughter to perform chores makes her a rarity these days, according to psychologists and family development experts who say that a vast majority of American families are loathe to make their kids work around the house. A recent survey published by Psychology Today magazine found that fewer than 25 percent of American parents compel their kids to perform chores. And those few children who are made to do chores expect to be paid for them, the study said.

In several cases, children staunchly refused to do chores when asked or ordered by their parents. And one father who was observed for the study so frequently withdrew his requests for chores and performed them himself after his children refused that researchers described him to be functioning as his child’s “valet.’’

The debate over chores breaks down this way: On one side is the more modern notion that giving kids chores wastes time on work they have plenty of time to learn about as they grow older. On the other is the more classical idea that chores help children develop some sense of responsibility.

That divide, however clear, may be the biggest problem with the debate, says Meagan Grant, a pre-school teacher and Salem mother of three kids - 7, 5, and 18-months - who insists there should be a happy medium.

“Both my older girls have daily chores, but I also strive to let them be independent, creative individuals. With a little imagination, this is so very possible,’’ Grant says. “I think a huge problem in our society is there is no gray area in parenting: you are either this way or that, and quite frankly, it just doesn’t work.’’

Grant’s older daughters share a schedule in cleaning the family’s bathrooms, putting away dishes, and loading the dishwasher and helping prepare meals, as well as keeping their play areas clean.

“I am also a preschool teacher and I can tell you what works for some children, does not work for others. I think we need to stop dividing ourselves into these ‘camps’ of parenting styles, and just let things happen as they should for the benefit of each child.’’

In 30 families that Psychology Today observed closely, rarely did the children volunteer to do any work around their homes. Some of the parents in the study didn’t assign chores because it just didn’t occur to them. But most thought their children’s time was better spent in creative pursuits. Plus, the parents seemed reluctant to stand up to their kids.

Dennis Pratt, dad to a 13-year-old daughter in Worcester, falls within the 75 percent of parents who don’t insist their kids do chores, a fact that might surprise friends of the typically stern school-quality activist.

“We do not have assigned chores,’’ Pratt says, adding that his approach doesn’t mean necessarily that daughter goes work-free. “I think we have more of a college roommate model of living together rather than a command and control naval ship model.’’

In their household, he says, the adage of, “You dirty it up, you clean it up,’’ seems to work fine.

While parents may disagree on the best approach, a growing number of mental health experts are speaking up and landing squarely on one side of the debate: that chores are necessary.

Tina Tessina, a Los Angeles based psychologist, best-selling author, and family therapist, says it’s crucial to the future of American culture that parents begin assigning chores again.

“Parents are doing themselves, their children, and society a disservice when they don’t assign chores and make sure they’re done,’’ Tessina says. “Yes, it does take time to supervise kids in the beginning, but later on, they’ll make your life easier and save you money, as well as know how to take care of a home and family when they are adults.’’

Tessina says of the thousands of families she’s counseled, she observed a marked improvement in children’s behavior and communication between parents and kids, when the kids had chores, because the chores helped kids better comprehend what being part of a family unit means.

“In some cases it’s a subconscious reaction, but parents tend to demonstrate more respect for kids who perform chores,’’ Tessina says. “So it’s imperative that the parents give those chores. Whether they know it or not at an early age, kids crave that kind of guidance with their development. Kids learn responsibility, follow-through, and a work ethic from chores and homework.’’

Scott Saltzman, a Rhode Island psychologist who has studied child-parent relationships for more than two decades says the prevailing reason that chores have become a thing of the past in many families is that parents don’t have a good answer when their kids ask, “Why should I?’’

“Seriously, that is the key to the problem,’’ Saltzman says. “Chores are an afterthought these days, because parents don’t know how to answer, ‘Because I said so!’ ’’

Of course, parents could always tell their children who think they’re being bulldozed into chores to look at other cultures, like the Guara in Southern Mexico, who start their children on chores, like carrying buckets of well water, as early as 18 months.

“The bottom line is this is one of those things where parents have to insist that their children trust them and just listen,’’ Saltzman says. “It’s a cliche. But later in life the kids will thank their parents for the chores.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com and followed on Twitter: @jamesburnett.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the percentage of parents who do not compel their children to do chores was misstated on second reference in this story. Seventy-five percent of parents don’t insist their children pitch in around the house.

BY JAMES H. BURNETT III / GLOBE STAFF