Future Reflections                                                                                                 Special Issue 2004

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Chore Wars
Researcher Finds that Involving Young
Children in Household Chores Pays off Later

by Liz Wolf

This blind youngster prepares a garden bed for planting vegetables.
This blind youngster prepares a garden bed for planting vegetables.

All parents want their children to be self-reliant and responsible as they grow into young adults. New research shows it can be as simple as having them set the table, help with laundry, pick up their toys, and take out the garbage.

Research by Marty Rossmann, associate professor of family education at the University of Minnesota, indicates that parents can have a major impact on their children’s future by encouraging them to help with tasks around the house.

Rossmann found that having children take an active role in the household, starting at age three or four influenced their ability to become well-adjusted young adults. “This is cool stuff,” says Kris Loubert, a parent educator at the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program for Minneapolis schools. Loubert has used Rossmann’s research in her teaching. “It seems there’s payoff to having children help out, beyond learning how to keep a home in order. Marty’s research shows that it contributes to their success, and all parents want their children to be successful as they grow into young adults.”

In her research, Rossmann used previously unexplored data collected by Diana Baumrind, a well-known researcher on parenting styles. Baumrind began her study in 1967 using a sample of families living in the San Francisco area. Rossmann’s own family had been part of that study. Baumrind collected the data over twenty-five years.

“She gathered a great deal of data that she didn’t use, and I saw the possibility of doing secondary analysis of it,” Rossmann says. “I looked at it and saw an enormous amount related to children’s involvement in household tasks.” Rossmann analyzed the outcomes for 84 young adults based on their parents’ style of interacting, their participation in family tasks at three periods of their lives—ages 3 to 4, 9 to 10 and 15 to 16—and brief phone interviews when they were in their mid-twenties.

She analyzed variables—including parenting styles, gender, types of household tasks, time spent on tasks, and attitudes and motivators associated with doing the tasks—to determine their impact on the children. She then measured each individual’s “successes.” “I looked at the outcomes when they were in their mid-twenties, focusing on what they were doing in regards to completing their education or being on a path to complete their education, getting started on some type of career path, their relationships with family and friends, and whether or not they were using drugs,” Rossmann explains. She also considered IQ’s when doing her analysis.

After examining these issues and studying all of the possibilities that could influence the outcomes, Rossmann’s research indicates that the best predictor for young adults’ success in their mid-twenties is that they participated in household tasks at age three or four.

“Being involved in household tasks at a young age is what made the difference for a positive outcome,” Rossmann says. “Through participating in household tasks, parents are teaching children responsibility, how to contribute to family life, a sense of empathy, and how to take care of themselves.”

Common wisdom holds that IQ and motivation have a strong bearing on success, but she found that these don’t matter as much as participating in household tasks. Even Rossmann was surprised at the results. “I didn’t expect the outcome,” she says. “I analyzed it and re-analyzed it. It seems like such a simple area, but it’s a huge area.”

However, Rossmann warns, don’t wait too long to get children involved around the house. “The key is to start early,” she says. “If you don’t, it backfires. The study showed that when a parent started their children in tasks at ages 9 to 10, or worse, 15 to 16, the children thought that the parent was asking them to do something they didn’t want to do. They didn’t get the concept of ‘we’re all in this together.’ They were far too self-centered.” The earlier parents encourage their children to take an active role in the household, the easier it will be to get them involved as teenagers, Rossmann concludes.

“Marty’s research is an incentive for parents to get their children involved at an early age,” ECFE’s Loubert says. “Now, there’s compelling reason to have children help out.” For very young children, Rossmann advises that parents keep tasks simple, model how to do the tasks, work with them and offer lots of encouragement. As children grow older, pay attention to their learning styles. “Some children need to be shown several times. Some you can show once, and they pick it up. Some children need to be told in words. Some need to have it written out,” she says. For example, a parent might write out what needs to be done to take care of a pet. “There is no way to say, ‘You have to do it this way.’”

Of course, it takes discipline on the parents’ part to involve children in daily chores. The number one reason parents give for not having their children help out is that it is easier to do it themselves. “One parent said, ‘I know my son likes to vacuum, but he rides on it and it takes longer,’” Rossmann says.

Rossmann does not believe in giving allowances for doing household chores. “For me, allowances are important, but they should be separate from household tasks,” she says. “Allowances help children manage money at a young age and learn the values connected with money, but it should not be attached to household chores. Learning about money and the value connected with money is far too important a lesson to attach it to household tasks. And household tasks are far too important to be put in a situation where you take away money as a punishment.”

The best rewards are love and affection, she says. “Give lots of encouragement for the little jobs your children do—bringing the dishes to the sink, picking up their toys.” As for other rewards, Rossmann says putting little stars on a chart for tasks completed is fine. “They are tangible reminders that we all helped out,” she says. “But Dad gets a star, too, for taking out the garbage.”

Rossmann hopes to replicate this initial study with a larger sample of the population and include families that represent greater diversity.

Jean Illsley Clarke, an author and director of J.I. Consultants in Plymouth, is using Rossmann’s research in her soon-to-be-published book on overindulgence, Indulge Them Less, Enjoy Them More: Finding a Balance Between Giving More and Saying No to Your Children. In her own research, Clarke found that adults who said they were overindulged as children cited not having to do household chores as the reason why. By not being expected to contribute to the family by doing household tasks, these adults missed out on learning basic skills, which caused distress and embarrassment.

“We conducted in-depth interviews with adults who said they were overindulged as children, and there were several big surprises for us,” Clarke says. “People’s impression of overindulgence is being given too many toys, but we found that the major way people said they were overindulged was not having to do chores. One person told us she went to college without ever having learned to do the laundry. She asked her roommate, ‘Which is the washer and which is the dryer?’ She was absolutely ridiculed and never asked any more questions, so she stumbled along.”

Parents who don’t ask children do chores may have good intentions, but the impact is negative, Clarke says. For example, a working mother rushes to get dinner on the table so she can spend “quality” time with her child, playing or reading. Allowing her child to help with dinner would slow her down.

This, in fact, is what the child needs, Clarke says. The child connects with her mother one way when playing, but she connects in another way when helping to prepare dinner. “She feels like a contributing member,” Clarke says, and the mother “anchors” that feeling with her praise and encouragement. Rossmann’s research offers important information on the role of chores, Clarke says. “We’re coming at it from two different directions, but coming up with the same picture,” she says. “Marty observed that those who did chores are competent, and we listened to people complain that because they didn’t do chores, they are not competent.”

Reprinted with permission of the author from the March 2003 issue of Minnesota Parent.  Liz Wolf is an Eagan-based freelance journalist.

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