Chores! What a nuisance! Chores and happy children? Science fiction! Many parents prefer to do chores undisturbed and effectively, which means that they prefer if their young children watch TV while they are cleaning the bathroom. Children should play and learn, not work, right? Then there is the other kind of parents. Hoping that eventually kids will learn to make the bed by themselves, they bribe them into doing chores with stickers, treats and pocket money. With older children, parents quickly fall into negotiations about taking the trash out, engaging in endless power struggles.
Influenced by the Industrial Revolution, which divided the spheres of work and play, work and family, and work and leisure time, we often think of manual work as a burden to family life.
But is it really a burden? Or can it be a source for bonding?
In their recent best-seller on how parents can connect with their teenagers, Connect with Your Teenagers: A Guide to Everyday Parenting, Dr. Albert Mrgole and Leonida Mrgole draw from their rich professional experience in therapeutic work and counselling with families. Their book resonates with me, as someone whose anthropological research explores the relationship between play, work and learning in early childhood. In their writing on chores, they show that work can be a source of good family relationships and provides a platform upon which children not only develop their skills, but also build their independence, responsibility, self-confidence and industriousness needed for good performance at school. Upon completion, work brings satisfaction and a reward for persistence and effort.
As social beings, young children learn a lot by observation. When they have the opportunity to observe their parents at work and daily chores, they also have a chance to develop their curiosity, to learn how to react when obstacles occur, how to resolve problems and correct mistakes. What we often neglect is that, by developing working habits, children also develop an attitude about themselves and the ability to assert their competence within family, and later within larger society. Thus, they situate themselves within a group through a meaningful cooperation, based on their own skills.
In my own research, I pointed out that preschool children actually love working with their parents. Human beings are social, from the moment they are born. They learn and develop through social interactions. As soon as they start to walk, they want to participate in everything that we do. Young children find collaborative activity in itself rewarding. In fact, they find it more rewarding than the goal which the activity pursues. When a 2-year-old wants to hang clothes, he wants to do it because of his inner motivation to learn, and because he simply wants to be with us—not because he wants those clothes hung so he can move on to something else.
According to researcher Michael Tomasello and his colleagues, collaborative activities demand specific cognitive skills. In order to be able to engage in collaborative activities, young children have to understand goals, intentions and perceptions of other persons. They also need “a motivation to share these things in interaction with others.” Tomasello believes that this ability, which develops at around 14 months of age, makes human cognition and evolution unique. This explains why children’s willingness to participate in everything that we do is the strongest at around age two and three. However, children’s predisposition for cooperation changes as they learn social norms, and later become more selective about with whom to cooperate.
While your teenager would complain about washing the dishes, your three-year-old will love it. The best way to ensure cooperation, then, is to start early and to provide a meaningful continuation and gradual increase in responsibilities.
What Albert and Leonida Mrgole show is that, for cooperativeness to flourish, children need a quality relationship with their caregivers. If we decide to make cookies with young children and, after five minutes, when flour is all over the kitchen, start yelling at them for making such a mess, this obviously will not make our children willing to embark on the next cooperative project. If, on the other hand, we make a cooperative task enjoyable, be it making cookies or lawn-mowing, the child will eagerly cooperate in other chores, as well. Children develop a positive attitude towards work, because of the meaningful relationships that we create through work, and not because of work, as such. If children associate work with quarreling, critique and tension, they will surely want to avoid it next time.
When, as parents, we include little children in our work, we should loosen up a bit, bring in some playfulness and spontaneity. What is important is the input children are willing and capable to contribute, according to their age, instead of the outcome. There is no room for perfectionism, with little children in the house. When we focus on the working process as a way of learning and being together, we are on a good path to creating healthy family dynamics.
Then there is time. Time. Do we actually have time to do things around the house? Or do we pay someone else to do the chores? Do we have time to include children in what we do, without being stressed? Do we have time to be patient at all?
The attitudes parents have towards including their children in work reflect a lot about the upbringing they received themselves. Is work something that we can connect with joy and exploration? Or is it a source of tension, something to “get over with?”
As Albert and Leonida Mrgole point out, most of the problems our teenagers confront, from deviant behavior, drug abuse to communication problems and eating disorders, have very simple origins: The lack of bonding within the family. The feeling of being connected and accepted is what keeps humans going.
Chores can have a very similar role to games and play. They connect a group of people in a meaningful relationship. Play is very important to human development, and so is work. It takes a special skill to appreciate our four-year-old, when he cuts the carrots for the meal, without being upset because some of it ends on the floor, some in his tummy, and no two pieces of carrot look the same. If we manage this, the child gets the message: We appreciate him for what is and what he can do; not for what we are expecting him to be, or hoping to become. When we appreciate our young kids for what they are and what they are capable of doing, perhaps it will be easier to appreciate our 16-year-olds for their abilities and personality, as well. And have confidence in their growing independence.