Monday, April 8, 2013

The Art of Dadliness: How to Get Your Kids to Do Their Chores (And Why It’s So Important They Do Them)

Every dad wants his children to grow up to be responsible, contributing members of society. But before they head out on their own and make their mark on the world, our kids need to learn how to be responsible, contributing members of the family household. Household chores are training exercises for real life. Chores not only teach children important life skills that will prepare them for living on their own, and impart a pull-your-own-weight work ethic, but recent studies show that starting chores at an early age gives children an enormous leg-up in other areas of their life as well.

Unfortunately, very few children today are getting the training at home they need to become industrious, responsible adults. Studies show that children in the West spend little time helping around the house. While children a century or two ago were expected to do many things to keep the household running, especially if they lived on a farm, according to the Maryland Population Research Center, today’s 6-12 year-old child spends only about 24 minutes a day doing chores. This represents a 25% drop even since 1981. When kids do help around the house, it’s frequently done under duress; parents often have to plead, bribe, and threaten to get their children to do basic things like taking out the trash or cleaning up after dinner.

Anthropologists studying child-rearing across cultures have noted that this “chore strike” by children is primarily a Western phenomenon. In developing societies, children are almost universally eager to help out and be useful. For example, in the remote Guarra settlement in Nepal, children as young as 18 months carry firewood and water. Young boys of the Nuer people of Southern Sudan and Western Ethiopia can be found herding sheep and goats without any cajoling from their parents. And infants in a community in Zaire are taught to use even “dangerous” tools like the machete with skill:

There are two systems that emerge in adolescence that propel young folks into adulthood. One is motivation and emotion — as young adults move into the teen years they seek new rewards and want to branch out, travel, spend time with friends, develop ideals, compete hard in sports, get into good schools — see and do as much as possible. And they feel things very intensely. The other system is control — the prefrontal lobes develop, acting as a check to the newly surging emotions and aiding the adolescent in making good decisions, planning, and delaying gratification. These skills develop through trial and error — through the gaining of life experience.

Human beings have the longest and latest adolescence in the animal world — and spend that time under the watchful guidance of their parents for more than a decade (and these days two). This protected and protracted adolescence allowed the two developmental systems to emerge in tandem: young adults got practice at grown-up responsibilities, but did so under the watchful eye of parents and elders who could assist and guide them when they made mistakes. Professor of Psychology Alison Gopnik explains how the two systems have now gotten out-of-sync and how this has affected the development of young adults:

“In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you’d need as an adult. But you’d do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you’d be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you’d also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.

In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.

At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

This doesn’t mean that adolescents are stupider than they used to be. In many ways, they are much smarter. An ever longer protected period of immaturity and dependence—a childhood that extends through college—means that young humans can learn more than ever before. There is strong evidence that IQ has increased dramatically as more children spend more time in school, and there is even some evidence that higher IQ is correlated with delayed frontal lobe development.

All that school means that children know more about more different subjects than they ever did in the days of apprenticeships. Becoming a really expert cook doesn’t tell you about the nature of heat or the chemical composition of salt—the sorts of things you learn in school.

But there are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.”

I want Gus to be book smart. But I want him to be “street” smart too, and know how to do the laundry, how to clean a house, how to cook — how to function like an independent adult. Chores give children hands-on training in the basic life skills they’ll need to thrive when they head out on their own, while also developing crucial traits like hard work, responsibility, and delayed gratification.

In truth, manual tasks and higher learning go hand-in-hand. Doing chores has been shown to develop children’s large and fine motor skills; sorting laundry, sweeping, and digging in the dirt are great ways for children to develop and practice these skills. And this in turn makes them smarter. Studies show that young children who take part in hands-on activities, like chores, develop the parts of the brain that are needed for more abstract thinking like reading, writing, and math.

To sum up: expecting your kids to do chores from an early age helps shape them into self-sufficient, responsible, well-rounded and well-adjusted adults. And studies bear this out. Alice Rossi, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that doing chores as a child was a major independent predictor of whether that child would do volunteer work as an adult, and research by Marty Rossman, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has shown that one of the best predictors of success as an adult is whether that person started regular household chores at an early age.

Begin giving your kids age-appropriate chores as soon as you notice them wanting to help and add to that list as they get older and can handle more complex tasks. A lot of parents have very low expectations of what their children can handle chore-wise — but even the littlest kids can really surprise you. Give them new tasks to try, and if they can’t do them, reintroduce them a little ways down the road.

Ages 18 months to 3 years old
Pick up books and toys
Put clothes in hamper
Help unload the dishwasher (take out any sharp utensils first!)
Help sort and load laundry
Help put away groceries
Help clean up spills
Water flowers
Put a sock on their hand and let them dust tables and door knobs

Ages 4 to 5 

Any of the above chores, and:
Help make the bed
Bring things from the car to house
Help set and clean the table
Pick weeds
Help with leaf raking
Help with simple tasks in meal-preparation

Ages 6 to 7

Any of the above chores, and:
Make their bed on their own
Vacuum rooms
Keep own room clean and tidy
Empty indoor trash cans
Put their laundry away
Sweep garage
Sort laundry

Ages 8 to 9

Any of the above chores, and:
Take pet for walk
Make simple snacks and meals
Clean the toilet
Load and unload dishwasher
Collect garbage and take it to the curb

Ages 10 and older:

Any of the above chores, and:
Wash car
Clean kitchen
Change bedsheets
Wash windows
Mow yard (with adult supervision at first)
Clean shower
Make a complete meal


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