Lack of household chores making children less responsible, claims survey. Parents who don't give their children chores at home may be slowing their development.
Amelia Hill, social affairs correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 15 November 2009
Children should be given chores to help them develop a caring attitude and keep them grounded, according to a survey that found parents are now reluctant to ask children to do household tasks.
A study of the articles, advice and letters published in more than 300 parenting magazines between 1920 and 2006 has found that most modern-day children are only asked to take on trivial responsibilities, such as feeding a pet, clearing the table after dinner or tidying up after themselves.
"In earlier generations, children and adolescents were given meaningful opportunities to be responsible by contributing not only to their households but also to their larger communities," said Markella Rutherford, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of the new study, Children's Autonomy and Responsibility: An Analysis of Child Rearing Advice.
"This was seen as especially important for adolescents," she said. "Until very recently, greater autonomy and responsibility were emphasised as antidotes to teenage listlessness and rebellion."
Until the 1980s, staff at parenting magazines and parents who wrote in agreed that chores helped children develop empathy and a desire to contribute to the well-being of others, she said. Between the 1930s and 1970s, adolescent and pre-adolescent children were expected to plan menus, shop and prepare meals for the family. They were given responsibility for tasks including nursing sick family members, keeping household accounts, decorating or even helping to maintain the family car.
"Even very young children were assumed to be capable of contributing to necessary tasks," said Rutherford. "One mother's letter describes how she taught her four-year-old to lay kindling and strike a match to start a fire."
In contrast, schoolwork is the only real responsibility given to the modern child, said Rutherford. "In the 1980s descriptions of children's household chores all but disappeared from parenting magazines," she said. In rare cases when children were asked to shoulder more onerous chores, references were invariably made to "bribes" in the form of payment or points that could be "cashed in" for toys, games or outings.
Rutherford's findings reflect another recent survey that found British children earn about £700m a year doing chores and errands for their parents. "In the past, parents didn't feel the need to bribe children because they were confident chores benefited their kids by making them feel both responsible and an active part of family life," said Rutherford. "Added to which, children of the past would not have expected to be bribed because their parents taught them to take pride in a job well done."
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the national helpline Parentline Plus, said parents must be careful not to demand too much of their children and must ensure that responsibilities are fair and age-appropriate. But he added: "Giving children their own 'must-do' chores is great for self-discipline and for building their confidence. Chores can also teach children how to plan their own time, taking into consideration others' needs, limits and responsibilities. They teach children about the consequences of their actions and encourage them to think about what they do, and don't do, in the course of the day. Having to wipe the table after painting, or cleaning their shoes after a puddle-splashing session, shouldn't be seen as a punishment, it just needs to be done."
Michael Clapham, a senior lecturer at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said children needed a high degree of physical activity. "Doing chores and running errands could be part of that," he said. "Perhaps they could extend that beyond the family, run to the shops for the old lady down the road, for example, or, if it snows, go out and clear the pavement before it freezes. These kinds of activities have lots of benefits. Children can get a feeling of satisfaction and self-worth."
But John Rowlinson, founder of the KidsDevelopment website, warned that parents should not ask children to do the kind of chores they themselves would be unwilling to do. "Parents should ensure that everyone in the family completes chores that contribute to the good of the household," he said. "When children do complete chores, parents should recognise their contributions with praise. It might be a stretch to think that chores will ever be fun, but they certainly can be bearable if approached in the right way.
"Parents should attempt to keep chores lively, and often even simple things like playing music, telling stories or singing songs can make all the difference between mundane tasks and family fun time."
He said that chores could also be used by busy working parents as an opportunity to spend more quality time with their children individually.
[Original article can be found here