Is Cheerful Dish-Washing a Reasonable or Necessary Parenting Goal?

How do we support capable, independent, empowered, and responsible children?

In our last post, we wrote about how culture impacts our parenting and explored the intersection between Helicopter Parenting, Emotional Intelligence, and a context around household chores and who (and why) ends up cleaning messes. Here, we’ll explore the role of necessary household chores to build skills, responsibility, and the capacity of our children to see themselves as part of a larger family or community system.

Are household chores even necessary anymore?

Our society has changed drastically and dramatically over past generations, influenced by culture, technology, and gender-based patterns of household labor, defined as the necessary and often invisible work that is typically unpaid, undervalued, and historically viewed as “feminized work,” regardless of who actually performed it. Families rely on household physical and emotional labor for things like making sure the children have shoes that fit, scheduling dentist appointments, unloading the dishwasher, cooking and cleaning, and oil changes. Technically, money and technology can be used to outsource many of these functions: a family can hire a housecleaner, buy a Roomba vacuum, or use a virtual assistant to schedule appointments.

Side bar about the Roomba and my own hesitant/ambivalent relationship with technology and chores. I received a Roomba as a gift after the birth of our 3rd child, which we named “Robot Kitty” and used a handful of times with delight and excitement. And then I found it irritating and annoying- the noise bothered me and it wasn’t actually more effective than a broom. Plus, sweeping, to me, is like painting- I find it to be a soothing motion and incredibly satisfying to make those piles of debris on the floor. I actually gave it back to the gift-giver. Eventually though, after the birth of our fourth child, I re-accepted the gift back. This was because our household burden felt overwhelming, and I came to a place of psychological flexibility around the character-building skills of sweeping all of our floors by hand versus outsourcing one tiny household chore (of sooooooo many) to a tool that would, theoretically, save a bit of time and free up capacity for other things. The experience provoked an interesting question: what is lost or gained by performing household chores ourselves versus outsourcing them to someone or something else when possible.

As parents, do we really want to raise children with the mentality that cleaning their rooms or picking up their own toys is something that could or should be outsourced? Is there value in building the skills of personal and social responsibility for children to participate in household labor themselves? Do chores for children have a purpose beyond simply the outcome of the work itself?

Household chores and responsibilities are pretty inevitable.

Household Responsibility Builds Character

My own view as a parent of four children is that it is incredibly beneficial for children of all ages to participate in shared household responsibilities and labor for the experience not just of learning the skills, but also for the opportunity to be meaningful contributors to a collective, community-based, reciprocal systems of shared and mutual responsibility. As my children are young, I’m currently mostly referring to our family and household system, but we’re also part of larger communities around us too, and we value creating a sense of belonging to the larger community as well.

What kind of children do we hope to nurture?

I typically seek to avoid defining things through the negative, or what we don’t want, but I believe that most parents hope to raise children who aren’t entitled, selfish, inflexible, or demanding instant gratification. Our patterns of consumption and technology certainly do not appear to trend in the direction of building the skills of patience or delayed gratification!

Perhaps the opportunity to participate in chores is a critical ingredient in supporting and shaping children who can think about their role in the “bigger picture” and the long term. If children grow up expecting that “someone else” will clean up after their messes, it also follows that they may grow up expecting that someone else will take responsibility for solving any or all of their other problems too. The challenge with that is that a thriving world truly requires personal responsibility and ownership. We ultimately hope to empower children with the skills, motivation, knowledge, and experience to solve the challenges the world faces. From inequality, oppression, and exploitation, to climate change and environmental degradation, to political, social, and cultural divison- we want children to view themselves as contributors and collaborations working towards soluitions!

Does a thriving planet begin with a tidy bedroom? Participating in household chores is a process that builds long-term skills that are beneficial. We want children to learn to care for themselves, do things to work for the betterment and benefit of others, and actively contribute to making the world a better place for all.

How do we empower independence around chores?

Chores are developmental and require motivation, skill, and lots of practice!

Experiential, embodied learning is an intensive and ongoing process. Empowering our children to true independence and mastery related to household responsibilities is incredibly time and labor-intensive, and requires substantial adult investment in terms of training. When we understand the process of learning anything as a multi-step process of 1) foundational instruction, 2) practice and experience, and 3) synthesis or mastery, we can easily understand that washing the dishes ourselves is far more expedient in the short term than teaching or expecting our children to learn how because independent mastery takes time! And effort! And repetition! And a ton of creativity to also make it enjoyable and fun. 

Should chores be fun?

Perhaps we don’t have the expectation that washing dishes is meant to be a fun or enjoyable pastime, but in general, no one is highly motivated or encouraged by the “do as I say” or the “because I said so” adage. Ideally, something should be meaningful before it is readily embraced. The positive side of this coin is that when a task or responsibility is relevant, meaningful, or significant to a child, learning can be characterized as a spontaneous and joyful process.

While my older children might be more motivated to play hockey or air guitar with the broom than actually sweep the floor, our toddler will usually protest and wail if removed from the step stool where he’s fully prepared and willing to attempt to perform this Very Important Thing that involves tons of Soap Suds and the potential for Spraying Water! Why? For him, washing dishes in the kitchen with the people he loves most in the world is both meaningful and fun.

My older kids would prefer to read books than chose to do after-dinner clean up, and they need far more encouragement to help and participate. But when we put on music, play world games, and do our best to make the necessary meeting a household need as enjoyable as possible, it is actually pretty fun indeed. 

But what about when chores aren’t fun?

Most parents can probably relate to the magical onset of incompetence when the need for a family chore is mentioned. No adults get excited about having to do taxes or scrub toilets or clean up the puppy accident on the floor, but we know sometimes stuff just needs to get done, and now. And, when we ourselves are exhausted and drained, our adult needs for ease sometimes trump our creativity to navigate children’s resistance. So we give in and do it ourselves. Not only is it quicker, but we’re likely to get far cleaner dishes with less frustration or withdrawals from our children’s emotional love bank! 

How do we set and meet realistic expectations for chores and responsibilities ?

Often times, our children’s lack of participation in meeting our expectations related to chores or independence is actually more about our own inappropriate expectations. Despite everything I “know” about child development and the process of learning, I’ve been guilty of expecting that my children can read my mind and should know exactly what I expect, as well as exactly how to meet my expectations when I utter a generic proclamation to “Clean up this mess!”

Show, not tell

My children might not actually understand that what they experience as a wonderful floor-based display of Lego creations and spare parts is, to me, a mess.  A non-judgmental observation with clear expectations is far more effective, “I notice multiple areas of legos on the floor. Before we eat dinner, please make sure they are put away on this Lego Creation shelf we made, and the spare parts back in this Lego bin.”

Children do need us to explicitly show them, do along side them, and reinforce the learning process. It turns out that humans aren’t actually hardwired to perceives Legos on the floor as an unacceptable mess, that is actually a conditioned response.

The experiential learning process to know what to do, master the skills of how to do it, and be able to perform it from a place of internally-driven motivation to contribute to the positive dynamics and best interests of the entire family, group, or community is not a one-and-done activity. It is an ongoing process that takes repetition, consistency, and participation.

In the world of child development, we refer to this process as scaffolding, which is a bridge between what children can unassisted and what they can’t yet do even with help. The scaffolds are gradually removed when the child can perform a skill independently, which can also vary based on emotional factors or other states. The most negative aspects of Helicopter Parenting are realized when the scaffolds aren’t ever removed and they instead function as a critical support structure, like an exoskeleton that if removed is just a pile of mush.

Here is a great Positive Discipline article on Taking Time for Training (and handy little infographic). Also, here is a relevant link to a list of age-appropriate chores based on development. However, chore lists are abundant all over the internet, and every single family would likely best be served with a chore list actually meeting the needs of your entire family specifically. And one more thing to consider is also that chores themselves are context-specific. While young children in the 1800s might be expected to chop firewood at a young age, the fact remains that the majority of children we’ll ever encounter will never be responsible for milking a cow! And sometimes it is a bit of trial and error- we learned the hard way that our 3 year old wasn’t yet capable of successfully collecting eggs from our chickens, despite her overwhelming desire to do so!

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