By at least some accounts, tasks like doing the laundry or cleaning up after dinner have fallen off kids' to-do lists. In a Braun Research poll of 1,001 parents last year commissioned by Whirlpool, the appliance manufacturer, just 28 percent said they regularly assign chores to their kids, even though 82 percent said they grew up doing chores themselves.
It isn't hard to imagine reasons for this shift. Tightly packed schedules can leave kids little time for housework — which, unlike calculus assignments or soccer practice, probably won't influence college admissions decisions. Some parents may want to spare their children the drudgery they endured. Others may find that nagging kids to do their chores is more of a burden than they bargained for.
Could letting kids skip housework actually do them a disservice? For some, the answer is a resounding yes. In her recently published book "How to Raise an Adult," Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, argues that household chores help kids build responsibility, autonomy, and perseverance — traits necessary to becoming capable adults.
"When young people have been expected to roll up their sleeves and pitch in, and to ask how they can contribute to the household, it leads to a mind-set of pitching in in other settings, such as the workplace," Lythcott-Haims said. Not giving kids chores, she added, "deprives them of the satisfaction of applying their effort to a task and accomplishing it."
Having to fit in chores can also help kids learn to manage their time. While it can be tempting to give kids a pass on busy homework nights, Lythcott-Haims said, "real life is going to require them to do all of these things. When they're at a job, there might be times that they have to work late, but they'll still have to go grocery shopping and do the dishes."
Research over the years makes a strong case for chores. A University of Minnesota analysis of data collected over a 20-year period found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood, on measures related to education completion, career path, and personal relationships, was whether they had begun doing chores at an early age — as young as 3 or 4.
A long-running Harvard University study of inner-city males found that willingness and capacity to work in childhood — indicated by holding a part-time job, taking on household chores, or participating in school clubs or sports — was a better predictor of mental health in adulthood than was social class, family problems, and other factors.
If your kids don't have regular chores now, it's never too late to get them started, said Richard Bromfield, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of the book "How to Unspoil Your Child Fast."
Have a clear idea of what you would like your kids to do, he advised, and discuss it matter-of-factly. If your kids are older, you'll probably need to approach the discussion and follow through with "greater clarity, firmness, and consistency."
If you tie allowance to chores, attach it to work that benefits the entire household. (Making their own bed doesn't count.)
It can be helpful for parents to remember that the payoffs of assigning and enforcing chores, such as a sense of competency and a budding work ethic, can be significant, he said. That's true even if it requires parents to do some of the work themselves, as it likely will when kids are very small.
"When kids are really young, they want to help you rake leaves or prepare dinner," Bromfield said. "Take those opportunities to let kids help. Those moments are infused with love and connection. By the time they're older and really able to do [those tasks] competently, they've lost interest."
Ami Albernaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.