Every year, busloads of schoolchildren take field trips to the mills at Lowell National Historical Park. While chaperone mothers tote tankards of iced coffee and admire the charming red-brick factories that date from the 1820s, students examine spinning and weaving machines operated by “mill girls” as young as 10 and envision the roar and sweat of fiber-saturated rooms in full production. Properly horrified, young visitors draw the conclusion that only mean, bad people make children work. Then they retreat to their own world of school and play.
Children do not belong in factories; it is good that American children no longer toil in mills. We are embarrassed to realize how much of our industrial world was built by nimble little fingers, embarrassed that our own sneakers and plastic toys now made elsewhere may be assembled by children. But good insights can come from imagining mill life in Lowell and other New England cities: that children can do meaningful work, and their labors can contribute to the well-being of the family to which they belong. For most kids, the most obvious place for them to do that work is at home.
Housework may seem like a trifling thing. It isn’t. Anyone who judges housework unimportant might revisit decades of “chore wars” over work and gender roles for men and women. It may seem like a no-brainer to assume kids should do chores, but as a matter of course, US children do very little. In analyses of time-use studies, professor Sandra Hofferth and her colleagues at the University of Maryland Population Research Center estimate that, at last count, kids aged 6 to 12 do less than a half-hour of work a day. School is sometimes presented as the “work” we expect of our kids, and when homework is done they’re free to play. That arrangement is problematic. Housework, real work, still remains. Children should take it up because they enjoy the goods of the household, because they probably have more time than their parents to do it, and because they gain competence and responsibility in the process.
HERE IS A PARTIAL LIST of household tasks an able-bodied, steady-minded 10-year-old should know how to do: load and unload the dishwasher or wash dishes by hand; dust; sweep or vacuum floors; clean a bathroom; put away groceries; set the table; cook a meal; clean up after a meal; take out trash; wash, dry, fold, and put away laundry; change linens and make beds; water plants. Devoting an hour or so a day to these chores would not pose a danger to children’s schoolwork or health or sociability. I am under no illusions that insisting 10-year-olds clean the bathroom will boost popularity among that demographic. Some parents might assume their youngsters are incapable of such skills. Comparing US children with those in other parts of the world gives perspective, since parents elsewhere send young children alone on errands, up trees to pick coconuts, or into forests to haul firewood. In a 2009 article in Ethos , University of California, Los Angeles anthropologists Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo investigate responsibility across cultures and introduce a 6-year-old girl from the Peruvian Matsigenka people who fishes for crustaceans and cooks them up to serve to guests. It is not abusive to teach children to do this kind of work and expect it of them. Indeed, when children are young they enjoy being trusted to contribute. When kids are older they may be more able but more ornery. So what? Telling children that they cannot live happily if they do not take care of their messes is telling the truth. Keeping kids confined to school and play construes them as dependents, or else as autonomous pleasure seekers parents are obliged to amuse.
Parents might think domestic skills beneath their children’s worth, a waste of their precious time. But parents — also characters with worth and precious time — usually end up doing those tasks instead. And we, a democratic people, are not ones to assign some the caste of cleanup while others simply play. Work at home does not have to be a punishment. Learning to do chores helps children mature, helps orient them to the common good.
A practical objection is that teaching kids how to do household jobs takes much more time than it does for the parents simply to do the jobs themselves. This is true. That time devoted to instruction is important, though, an apprenticeship of sorts. We should hold out the hope that someday — in best cases, before their parents lie cold in a tomb — our offspring will do these domestic tasks competently on their own. Continued...