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July 07, 2014

Teaching Children the Value of Work

Over the weekend, the Editorial Staff saw this item about a college age child (he's certainly not acting like an adult) who refuses to help out around the house in exchange for his room and board:

We provide Son 1 with a vehicle and insurance, cellphone, plus a roof over his head and meals when he is at home. We are happy to provide these things, but also expect respect and cooperation in return.

Son 1 leaves his clothes and belongings wherever he happens to be — in the kitchen, the bathroom, the hallway, etc. He has never unpacked from coming home and our garage is still full of stuff from the dorm.

We have laid out our expectations, but he seems to feel that he can do the chores whenever he chooses, or apparently not at all. He says I am the only one getting stressed about housework not being done. This is not true because my husband gets angry and frustrated about this also.

Son 2 claims it is not fair that he has consequences when he doesn’t cooperate, although this rarely happens. Son 2 has also mentioned that his brother gets by without doing anything and he’s stuck doing more because he cooperates. We agree: unfair.

I have told Son 1 that if he cannot cooperate without constant reminders and nagging, he will have to make other living arrangements next summer. He claims this would be “kicking me out because I won’t clean a bathroom.” I say that “kicking him out” would be to give him 30 days to find other living arrangements, but we are giving him the opportunity to change his attitude.

Why do parents put up with this nonsense? We can't help thinking this problem didn't arise overnight:

Dr. Rogoff looked at children in indigenous Mayan communities in Latin America. She found that even toddlers do something she calls "learning by observing and pitching in." Like Augie with the soufflés, these children master useful, difficult skills, from making tortillas to using a machete, by watching the grown-ups around them intently and imitating the simpler parts of the process. Grown-ups gradually encourage them to do more—the pitching-in part. The product of this collaborative learning is a genuine contribution to the family and community: a delicious meal instead of a standardized test score.

This kind of learning has some long-term consequences, Dr. Rogoff suggests. She and her colleagues also looked at children growing up in Mexico City who either came from an indigenous heritage, where this kind of observational learning is ubiquitous, or a more Europeanized tradition. When they were 8 the children from the indigenous traditions were much more helpful than the Europeanized children: They did more work around the house, more spontaneously, including caring for younger siblings. And children from an indigenous heritage had a fundamentally different attitude toward helping. They didn't need to be asked to help—instead they were proud of their ability to contribute.

The Europeanized children and parents were more likely to negotiate over helping. Parents tried all kinds of different contracts and bargains, and different regimes of rewards and punishments. Mostly, as readers will recognize with a sigh, these had little effect. For these children, household chores were something that a grown-up made you do, not something you spontaneously contributed to the family.

Teaching children that people value what they have to work for and take for granted things they're given for free seems like the most basic of lessons. And there's nothing like the look of pride on a child's face the first time he's able to do something for himself:

For my eldest son, a 9-year-old, we laid out a mission: to grill our July 4th barbecue cheeseburgers. As we began our very first step—buying food–I suddenly understood how this could work. In the butcher shop, my son asked me where the “round circle” hamburgers were. He had no idea what ground beef really looked like or how it was made. I was ashamed. And then I showed him. At home, he donned his personalized apron and got to work, cracking eggs and kneading the meat with his bare hands. I thought he would be grossed out but he was beaming with pride. He formed and grilled the patties, sliced the tomatoes, and babysat his burgers, feeling scared occasionally from the heat on the grill. I don’t think I have ever seen my son eat a burger so fast in his life. He watched all of us eat ours, too. He was so grateful, he even washed the dishes.

Imagine what might happen if we applied that insight to public policy.

Posted by Cassandra at July 7, 2014 06:39 AM

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"Imagine what might happen if we applied that insight to public policy."

Cass, you ignorant slut! That's just plain silly talk. Don't you know that the masses will never rise from the gutters of their oppression if Xerxes the Lightworker isn't there to slow the rising of the seas and heal the wounds of Gaia with his pen and phone and four jets and 20 car motorcade and ....

Posted by: DL Sly at July 7, 2014 01:05 PM

"He claims this would be 'kicking me out because I won’t clean a bathroom.'”

I'd say, "Yup. Precisely. So, which is it going to be?"

Posted by: RonF at July 7, 2014 03:05 PM

I think I might say, "I'm kicking you out because you are living in my home rent free and getting free transportation, auto insurance, cell phone and meals and you are acting like a spoiled little brat whose feelings are more important than anyone else's in *OUR* (not your) home."

I do have to wonder where Dad is in all of this? The Spousal Unit and I frequently disagreed on child rearing tactics, but parents have to present a united front. That's not easy at times, but this really seems like a no-brainer :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 7, 2014 03:53 PM

We had to keep our rooms clean. We (my older brother & me) had to keep the bathroom clean and alternated with dish duty. Once my sisters came along, I was usually the one who had to babysit. My oldest sister was only 7 when I left for college. But I could cook (something I enjoy doing) and do laundry well before it was my sole responsibilty.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at July 7, 2014 04:24 PM

"You're a dictator!"

Actually I'm not. I am however a tyrant with a bad disposition and a notorious lack of patience. Would you care to see how bad it can really get?

If you've raised capable children they will test the boundaries. But, they do need a reminder on occasion. What is surprising to me these days is how few kids seem to have daily chores associated with maintaining a house and home. Quite odd.

Posted by: Allen at July 7, 2014 06:01 PM

I am however a tyrant with a bad disposition and a notorious lack of patience. Would you care to see how bad it can really get?

Heh :)

I remember asking my grown sons once if they were afraid of me when they were small. I was the one who spanked them and/or let them have it most of the time. Usually by the time Dad got home, whatever it was had long since been dealt with and nothing more was said about it.

Once they were gone, I wondered if I had been too hard on them. They told me that they actually thought their Dad was more likely to say, "Yes" and less likely to let them have it, but they were still more scared of him than of me.

I think that serves a useful purpose and overall it's a very good thing. I'm sure part of it was that he was far less patient, and that made me hold the boys to a different line b/c I didn't want to have to deal with him being cranky :p

I remember being about 12 or so and bugging my Dad to let me mow the lawn for him. I pestered him and pestered him until he gave in, and I still remember feeling so grown up when he finally let me do it. I'm sure I was a real PITA most of the time, though.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 7, 2014 06:13 PM

I remember doing the same with my Pop with chopping kindling when I was seven. The way he was doing it looked so cool, I just had to try it, plus I was really tired of only being allowed to carry the wood into the house. After a couple of days, he finally gave in, too. He showed me how to do it, then, as he turned to walk away, he said, "Don't cut yerself."

That was the very next thing I did.
Still have the scar.

Posted by: DL Sly at July 7, 2014 06:24 PM

We have a different dynamic here. I don't think the boy much wishes he could do more chores. }:>

Posted by: Grim at July 7, 2014 06:30 PM

My youngest step-son has me down cold. He informed his older brother of his 4 rules of Allen.

1. Don't mess with mom.
2. Don't make a mess in the house.
3. Be kind to his animals.
4. Don't drink his Corona without asking.

I had to laugh when I heard about it.

Posted by: Allen at July 7, 2014 07:16 PM

I never mowed a lawn until I was living in a house as an adult. That was my brother's chore. And, it earned him money when we lived in on-post apartments. It was the residents' responsibility to maintain the lawn. My brother for paid to do it for the whole building. Everyone had to contribute. Think that also included him shoveling snow in the winter.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at July 7, 2014 07:57 PM

I suspect that lawn mowing being a "boy's job" had a lot to do with my enthusiasm for it :p I was pretty insulted when my Dad appeared to be considering letting my little brother (2 1/2 years younger, and smaller than I was) do it, but not me. That never made any sense to me, but fortunately he reconsidered.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 7, 2014 08:19 PM

I have a nephew much like Son 1. He won't even carry his dishes downstairs and put them in the sink. My sister is flummoxed: Why is life so hard for him? Why is he in his 20s having never held any job, no matter how menial? She cannot get it. "You're kicking me out because I won't clean a bathroom"--bingo! I only wish my nephew could have a moment of clarity this vivid. But: not my home, not my problem, unless my sister is incautious enough to complain to me about it, in which case she gets an earful.

My mother seemed to detest doing her housework, so it wasn't likely we'd develop the spontaneous imitation so ably described in the report about indigenous households. My father presented the opposite role model, and to this day I enjoy doing the things he did, fixing things, building things, working in the garden, occasionally cooking the special dishes that he excelled in. I got huge charge learning to do these things so I could help him. (Not that I was a helpful kid generally--far from it--but on the rare occasions when the lightbulb came on, it was because a chore was a path to adult pride and identification with a beloved role model.)

I never got the lawn-mowing bug, though. My husband and I fixed that problem by not having so much as a scrap of lawn.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 8, 2014 10:41 AM

My brother mowed lawns to earn money, I hired out as a babysitter :-P We did also earn an allowance (provided we did the chores, which also included feeding and walking Shorty while he was still around), but babysitting earned me more money at once than the chores did ;-)

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at July 8, 2014 11:03 AM

I think my allowance was a dollar a week. This was in the dim reaches of the past, when a dollar would buy you a year's tuition at Harvard. As soon as I was old enough, I babysat, or graded papers for my mother (junior high history), and a little while later I got jobs at the local cinema candy counter and then--my big step up--the Burger King. Best thing I ever did was learn to type in high school, which gave me reasonable pocket money for many years. Again, this was in the dim reaches of the past, before personal computers, when a correcting IBM Selectrix was hailed as a technological marvel, and too many errors meant starting the page over. Ah, well, technology made me obsolete, so I had to learn a new trade.

So I may not have been outstandingly helpful around the house, but at least my parents weren't gullible or beaten-down enough to cover me in riches or even pay for a separate phone line. They were generous enough to pay my living expenses while I was in college, and I lived in hovels suited to my modest circumstances.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 8, 2014 02:32 PM

Heh, never gets old.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at July 11, 2014 03:11 AM