In the comments of that post of Lissa’s on patience, someone wonders what to do when you have asked your children to do something and they are just obstinately refusing. The example she gives is cleaning their room. I’m sure it is just one. Certainly in my house this scenario has played out any number of times. And I am no paragon of virtue. In fact, I am what is known as a “shouty mom”.
I am also, as I used to tell my students, an expert on housework in a way that my mother would not recognize. I know more than a thing or two about what housework is and who does it and why. And as such, and in the interests of reducing the number of occasions on which shouting might occur, I share some thoughts with you about children and housework.
First of all a definition. What makes something housework is the social relations in which it is done. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman once put it “All work was once domestic.” What makes something housework is the fact that it is work done for the benefit of the collective living in a household. Having a bath is not housework. Bathing a baby or a disabled adult is. Some things are always housework, like cleaning the public spaces of a home. Some things could be housework or personal care. My favourite example is laundry. If you have one pile of laundry that is done collectively, it’s housework. If each member of the household does his or her own laundry then it is personal care, just like washing your body and brushing your teeth is personal care.
The big issue about this collective work then becomes who does it. Different households divide this work up differently. Some agree that this is the job of one person who might solicit the help of other members of the household at particular times. Others agree that it is a collective responsibility and they work out various ways of dividing up the labour involved. There is a considerable social science literature, primarily in sociology and economics, on the various ways this gets done and a similarly large literature on why. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of methods. All methods, including one person being responsible for all housework, are usually considered fair by the members of the household, though those outside the household may not agree due to a different understanding of what fairness is.
There is a much smaller, almost negligible, literature on whether and how children contribute to housework. I have argued (in an academic article) that this is because the social scientists in this field have great difficulty conceptualizing a division of labour between more than 2 people. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that children do indeed do housework. Indeed it is common in discussions on homeschooling blogs for children’s contributions to housework to come up in conversation, and not only as a cause of shouting and unpleasantness.
As with the division of labour between adult members of a household, I assume that various ways of involving children in housework are valid and acceptable. As with Melissa’s post, (which was not at all about housework, really) I am offering a way of thinking about the issues that I hope will help you to clarify your own values and goals and make your own decisions about how to approach this issue. There is a further assumption underlying my comments. There are no universally agreed upon standards of housework, beyond a minimum below which health is endangered. You, as a household, can decide what needs doing, how often, and to what standard.
I require my daughter, as she gets older, to take on housework tasks. I do this because I think that one of my roles as a parent is to teach her the skills she needs to be independent. But this is not the only reason. I also expect that all able bodied members of our household should contribute to the household. We do not delegate tasks to one person. We are all collectively responsible.
While Tigger was very small, she did not contribute because she was not able. In fact, early in her life, she created housework that we needed to do. As she ages, she has taken on many of those tasks herself. They have stopped being “housework” and become “personal care”. She can dress herself, brush her own teeth, bathe herself, etc. (A bit of supervision or reminder is still sometimes necessary.) As she has developed she has also taken on other tasks, like clearing the table after dinner and putting the dishes in the dishwasher. She knows how to mop a floor, clean the bathroom, and do laundry though she is not required to do any of these regularly. She is not paid to contribute to the household. Her allowance is completely separate from doing housework. My belief is thus somewhat like Marx’s maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
Despite my strongly held belief that she should contribute, I find it incomprehensible that many people make the first requirement of their growing children in this area to keep their own rooms tidy. We have plenty to argue about without adding a task that is almost inevitably going to result in a power struggle. Why inevitably? Well, our children as they grow desire independence. This is at the root of toddler tantrums, teenage rebellion, and any number of struggles in between. We desire their independence, too, but we want to ensure that they have the skills required at each stage. The frustration of not having the skills to reach ones desires immediately is inevitable. However, there are certain areas of independence that can be granted relatively early: choosing what to wear, choosing what to do, choosing what and how much to eat. These choices might be easier, particularly for the very young, if the choices are limited but some choice is often possible.
Back to tidying your own room. If the definition of housework is that it is work that benefits the collective, ones own room seems a logical contender for personal space. If you require that a child tidy his or her own room, make the bed every day, etc. you are setting yourself up for a power struggle about whose room it is. The refusal to complete those tasks may not be a refusal to participate in the collective care of the household. It might be an assertion that this is one domain over which the child believes s/he has enough maturity to assert independence. The battle is really about who decides the standards.
What I have done is to not enter that fray. I do occasionally require Tigger to tidy her room. But I make it clear what the reasons are. If her room is so messy that she doesn’t feel comfortable playing in there and brings her toys out into public space, then there is a problem with the standard of tidiness in her room that needs to be addressed. She can choose to play in the living room, but if her bedroom is not in a state for that to be a real choice, then she has to do something about it. Similarly, she has to maintain reasonable access for her parents. As a friend put it, if the house were to catch fire and one of us had to go in there to carry her out in the night, we need a clear path from the door to the bed. And I can put conditions on which laundry I will do. I am not going to look all over her room for dirty laundry so if she wants things washed they need to make it to the hamper.
Because she is still young and learning, we have tried to be supportive in helping her learn how to tidy as well as how to develop her own standard of tidiness. Sometimes she needs prompting to see that the level of untidiness is causing her some distress or difficulty. We have also helped her to work out how best to organize the things in her room so that she can tidy. We have talked about and helped with decluttering, getting rid of toys she doesn’t really use, as well as providing storage boxes and bookshelves to enable her to easily put away and easily access what she does use. The standards have to be relevant to her. For example, the Playmobile has to be put away in a sealed box under the bed, rather than merely tidied away into the dollhouse, because the cat kidnaps Playmobile people and is capable of opening the dollhouse to do so.
I would argue that it is better to encourage children to participate in genuine housework from an early age. Rather than start by asking them to keep their rooms tidy, start by explaining that we all live in certain rooms of the house and therefore it is unreasonable for any of us to make it difficult for other members of the household to use a public room. So if you play in the living room, you need to tidy up afterwards so that someone else can do something different in that space later. Similarly, you can teach your children to respect the work that you continue to do for them and not make that work harder than necessary. Provide them with laundry hampers in their rooms and ask them to put dirty clothes in the hamper to make it easier for you to collect dirty laundry. Have young children clear away their own plates after dinner. Older ones can set the table, load the dishwasher, wash or dry dishes, or wipe down countertops. For some people, having lists of tasks helps, and having a visual reminder of how to do it can help children still learning. For others, doing housework together as a big “blitz” works. You need to figure out what works for you and your family. What I am urging you to consider is that the requirements be about collective space.
If siblings share a room, then the collective responsible for its tidiness is smaller — the children who share the room, rather than the whole family — and help may need to be provided to enable those siblings to reach agreement about that standard. It is possible for two people to share a room and have quite divergent standards. I give you my friend Em’s room as an example, I hope she doesn’t mind. (scroll down to the photos of her bedroom) The point is to come to some agreement that is acceptable to those who share a particular space.
Lissa is absolutely right that it works better to ask than to tell. But it is also important to ask reasonable things. To teach our children why certain things get done and why it is important for them to learn how to do them and to contribute to the household. And to teach them to respect others with whom they share space even if they don’t always agree with them. There are plenty of other things we can fight with our children about.
I should really participate in Messy Tuesday (see that link to Em’s blog) but one of the things I did this weekend was tidy one of the messier kitchen cupboards. Although I can usually be relied upon to have a messy house, it just isn’t that bad right now.