Parents might protest that they already do expect chores of kids. Some unusual families actually have functional children doing the real work of household management. In plenty of cases, though, those expectations are minimal. In surveys analyzed by Hofferth, children’s time spent doing housework dropped 25 percent from 1981 to 2003, coming in at an average of 24 minutes per day. In the Ochs and Izquierdo study, none of the American children surveyed performed chores routinely without being asked.
The beauty of mastering ordinary, unglamorous housekeeping tasks is that after they are complete, the frivolous, rewarding ones may await. Children are probably better at making hand-stamped wrapping paper and Thanksgiving centerpieces than their mothers are. Kids earn the right to be centerpiece designers after they have set the table. These garnishes to mundane housekeeping are important because they make evident to children that one might do common chores as an expression of love. It may be obvious to mothers and fathers when they serve dinner or sort soccer socks that love is the reason they do these things. But links between trash cans and love might not be so clear to youngsters. Children with the opportunity not only to accomplish common tasks but also those directed to beauty, comfort, and celebration in the home may better grasp the connection between the two sorts of work.
UPPING EXPECTATIONS of one’s own children is tricky when it is countercultural. Youngsters will howl in protest. Parents should persevere. Kids who sign up for soccer, ballet, gymnastics, and Scouts all in one season should be greeted with looks of concerned dismay and asked when they will find time to get dinner on the table. Parents who sign children up for all those activities should be accorded the glances we give people who don’t put their toddlers in car seats. I’m ready for a competence revolution. It may be too much to expect cartoon characters on TV to crack a joke while dusting windowsills, but advertisers know the power of a trademark image slapped on something. Why not a Madagascar mop or an Ice Age window cleaner?
It has to be just the right day and just the right time, but sometimes when I drive home from work I catch sight of a young man, maybe 12, who hops off the school bus and onto his driveway. If it is trash pickup day, there will be two empty cans waiting there. He will grab their handles and drag them toward the house. Maybe it’s not a big deal. But it looks like a big deal to me. First, because he appears to do it nonchalantly, without even thinking about it, hardly breaking stride. The fact that he sees the cans there is sufficient to remind him to take them in. Second, he does it before the bus pulls away, so the other kids on the bus observe the doing of this little job. Then he goes on his way, plenty of time left to tackle homework and shoot baskets in the driveway.
Agnes R. Howard is an assistant professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham. Send comments to email@example.com.