"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Should Children Do Chores?

I remember as an insolent young teenager how I told my father that he was exploiting child labor by forcing me to rake leaves when he had the money to go on the private market.  That didn’t go over very well, and although it may have been the first expression of my later conservative thinking, I ended up raking leaves and trimming the hedge.

Forced child labor in my family was restricted to the lawn and the bushes.  Although I could theoretically revolt and massacre the yews in the front yard, I never did, and my father continued to profit from my watering, weeding, raking, or trimming. 

The inside of the house, on the other hand, was my mother’s castle, and no one was allowed to do anything within its ramparts. Mrs. Rozycki came in once a week to clean, but under strict supervision; and after a number of years she learned not to bang the legs of the armchairs, ding the baseboards, and leave marks on the linoleum.  Before Mrs. Rozycki Jesse Gay was our maid, a Stepin Fetchit old black woman who shuffled around the house in her mules and did very little other than iron the shirts and dust the furniture.  “It’s the rheumatism”, she said. “My fingers don’t move like they used to”, and shambled around the house with her feather duster flicking at the vases and cigarette holders in the living room. I would always tease Jesse by asking her questions when her mouth was full of snuff, so she had to shuffle into the bathroom, spit in the toilet, and then answer.

In any case, I had no household chores to do and was glad of it. Eventually my father grew impatient with my uneven hedges, scattered leaves, and tufts of uncut grass along the walk, and hired one of his patients to moonlight on the weekends.  He didn’t reduce my allowance, so I considered this a victory.

I did, however, require my own children to do household chores. I had no intention of teaching them any lessons – sharing, cooperation, filial duty, respect for elders – but figured that once they were old enough to handle slippery dishes, they could clean up after dinner; and when they were older they could do the vacuuming and bathrooms. They objected, but did the work.

There were many lessons learned, although not the usual ones. Cleaning toilets is definitely not the same as vacuuming the rugs, my son said one day.  It was demeaning, disgusting work; and if he had to do it either his allowance should be raised or he should be allowed to shift to the carpets.  “No”, I replied, “it takes you far less time to clean the toilets than it does for your sister to vacuum.  You have the better deal”.  The economic principle of valuing labor – i.e. the relative price for ‘disgusting’ work – had been raised, discussed, and learned.

Apparently young parents today have given up on requiring their children to do household chores.  The children have better things to do, they argue, like schoolwork, creative and competitive play, achievement, and personal expression. As Elinor Ochs writes in The Guardian (10.16.13) the argument taken in isolation is understandable:

Post-industrial societies privilege children's academic skills needed to grasp rapidly changing technologies, complex systems, and global influences on just about everything. Saddled with homework and extra-curricular activities, these children have little time to lend a hand at home or offer service to others in the community,

Ochs disagrees with the premise, however, and feels that children should be doing their part – at least as a recompense for the substantial investment made by their parents:

Parents invest huge amounts of time (and money) to nurture children's interests, intervene whenever children face a problem big or small, and give children sole credit for accomplishments that required considerable parental involvement. Yet, these same parents garner little or no assistance in chores from their children in return….

The problem in many American households is that parents place a high value of their children's right to pursue their individual desires. It's as if children's "rights" obscure children's obligations.

Although Ochs suggests that ‘duty’ has become an old-fashioned concept, lost in the hurry to achieve and succeed, what she is really arguing for is contractual responsibility – children’s household chores should be done as economic recompense for parental investment.

I do not agree. Parents today push their children unflaggingly to succeed for their own selfish ends.  Even if My Son The Doctor does not contribute to my retirement, his success reflects favorably on me.

There is really no reason for Americans to have children in our current age of oversupply.  Only in poorer cultures of scarcity does child labor make any sense.  In our own, children are an economic drain and liability.  We do not need them to survive or to prosper; but because we have chosen to have them, we insist that they create non-economic value, the My Son The Doctor reflected glory.

In this system, chores have no place at all. On the contrary, it pays for us to provide our children with every possible support necessary to excel and achieve and to give them the time to do so. Most upper middle class households have their Latino versions of Mrs. Rozycki and Jesse Gay to clean up, take out the trash, mow the lawn, and blow the leaves.

At the same time, I have to wonder what has been lost in the process.  Without chores is the family unit weaker? As above, I doubt it, for family cohesion these days is a function of following parental norms – parents and children both are happy, congenial, and bonded once high achievement scores are achieved.  Do children become more selfish and self-centered?  Yes, but not because of chores.  It is the exaggerated child-centered American culture that is the culprit.  It is no wonder that a child, the center of attention at home, and praised to the hilt at schools bent on assuring self-esteem, cannot help but thinking he is hot shit.

A daughter of a friend of mine recently returned to the US after ten years in France.  She was appalled at how children rule the roost in America, how mothers cater to their every whim and jump at the slightest demand.  She was amazed at how they shushed their adult friends so that the babble of their two-year olds could be heard and appreciated; or how they showered praise on the most negligible of achievements. Chores would clearly be beneath the dignity of their little prodigies.  Very different from France where not only are children brought up to be seen and not heard; they are told to shut up.  In France adult activity always and invariably takes precedence over that of children.

Perhaps the only reason for chores is to promote the concept of sharing work. Within this framework there should be no sense of recompense or economic contribution; but only a sense of pulling the family sledge through rough terrain. This voluntary contribution paves the way for taking out the garbage to save a few steps for an older parent; or helping a roommate schlep his furniture; or picking up the neighbor’s mail.

Even in our increasingly individualistic society, social groupings still exist whether family, neighborhood, or community.  Although we depend less and less on these groups for our livelihood, advancement, or productivity, they still are the foundation on which individual enterprise is built.  Chores are reflective of an ethos, a set of basic principles which are needed to provide moral guidance and direction.

So, despite my insolent revolt about the leaves, and my increasingly inflexible view about market forces, I cannot help but vote for chores.

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