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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.