thinking about mandatory chores

A good place to start picking apart the idea of mandatory chores is to ask yourself what good you think “chores” would actually do, and then whether or not that's what actually happens. The usual logic for chores runs something like this: kids should learn to do these things as young as possible so that they:
  1. learn responsibility / good habits
  2. learn the actual skills
  3. make your job easier (many hands)
  4. develop a sense of teamwork / community
I want to dig into those assumptions a bit, as a way of getting into some of the principles of unschooling and the reasons why unschooling families don't require children to do chores.

1. I don't want my kids to be jerks. I want them to be responsible.

And that's laudable! The trouble is, when you actually try to correlate adult behavior with how they were raised, the results are... non existent. There's no correlation whatsoever. Irresponsible and/or slovenly adults are just as likely as their pristine peers to have been raised with chores. Same with “entitlement” - if you look at adults who treat people like grunge, they're just as likely to have been made to do chores as anyone else.

Just like with any other "subject", teaching isn't learning. In fact, if there were one academic subject you could compare to chores it would be math – most people have to do a lot of it, and end up hating it. Same thing for chores. So there is a correlation, but it's not one that favors chores by a long shot. Mandating chores sets people up to dislike them and be jerks about them.

One of the bits of unschooling advice that goes around is for parents to clean up their own attitudes about doing chores, to do them happily and lovingly, and model that for our kids. It's probably good advice, but it's not something I've been very successful at, personally. Instead, I've found it more helpful to let go of the other thing that people - especially women - learn from mandatory chores, which is the guilt around not doing them. I've learned to be okay with mess and irregularity and to separate my sense of self esteem from whether the stove has been cleaned recently, or the laundry ever gets folded, or if my kids know how to get hard water scale off a shower curtain. In either case, when parents aren't jerks about housekeeping - to our kids, to ourselves - life is better and more joyful, and our kids have less reason to be jerks to us.

2. But they have to learn somehow right? Right?

Um... can we be honest, here? It doesn't take a whole childhood to learn this stuff. It takes having someone show you one time - if you're an adult and can't figure it out. Worst case scenario and your kids get to adulthood with no housekeeping skills: they can ask a roommate or look it up on youtube.

That's not even fatalistic. Years ago, I decided to live in a tent, with no water or electricity. I had to learn a lot of primitive skills - literally carrying water and chopping wood, as well as other things. It wasn't hard to learn, although some of it was time consuming, and dull. Like other kinds of learning, wanting to learn and being developmentally ready to learn were enough to make it easy. It wasn't always fun, but it was satisfying. Learning housekeeping can be like that. I'm not guessing - that's how it works with kids growing up with a sense that they can learn what they like, when they're ready. When they have reasons to learn hard, dull, tedious things, they just do it. Maybe they ask for help, maybe make some mistakes, but it's not some kind of grand drama. It's something they choose to learn for their own reasons.

3. I can't do all this on my own - I need help!

Parenting is plenty of work even before the housekeeping. It's natural to want some help and feel like you can't do it all. And if your kids are into it, there's absolutely no reason not to invite them to participate. But if your kids are grudging or resistant, exactly how easy is that on you? In terms of improving your own life, it's often easier to do the work yourself rather than putting all the effort into reminding, coaxing, complaining, criticizing, nagging, scolding, arguing, and flat out yelling. When we were still expecting my stepson to wash dishes, we had to re-wash a good third of them. Well, we didn't “have to” we could stand over him being assholes until he performed up to standard. We opted to tell him he didn't have to do dishes any more and Lo! The dishes got washed faster and with less stress all around.

And the fact is, most of us can tell cute stories of kids “helping out” that are heartwarming, but are definitely not stories of life being easier. My daughter loved to wash windows for awhile... we had towels everywhere to keep from slipping on the wet floors. And then she got into watering the plants for a while – I had a lot of houseplants then. On every horizontal surface. Along with books and toys, bills and projects. And being sooooooo adorably enthusiastic she managed to flood every plant in the house and get mud everywhere. It was darling, but it would have been easier for me to do it, myself.

This particular phenomenon - kids wanting to help - provides an interesting twist to the whole scenario because when parents focus on chores, rather than actual attempts to be helpful, we end up scolding and punishing them for their attempts at helpfulness and generosity. So, much like with school, kids end up being motivated to do as little as possible and only when told to do so. There's no benefit to any other behavior. In most families with chores, that's a common enough scenario that parents don't think twice about it. That's why they're called "chores." On the other hand, when we notice our kids being helpful on their own terms and celebrate that, they get to be our helpers and we get to live with people who want to be on our team, doing what they can for the household.

Which brings us to...

4. We're a family, so everyone has to help out.

There's something really disturbing about that idea, as though the value of a family member comes right down to... economics, you could say. If you're not "pitching in" in some measure of labor, then you lack value to the family. It's creepy when you think about it. And it's a common enough assumption that to a lot of people it seems perfectly reasonable. In a world of scarcity, it even makes sense. Kids do have to earn their keep or they're drains on the family resources. Sick kids, disabled kids, atypical kids, are useless mouths to feed.

And sure, in an atmosphere of scarcity, kids absolutely do learn that their value is in terms of how well they provide for the rest of the family. Kids leave school to live hard working lives because taking care of the family is more important than their own interests, joys, dreams, values, and dignity. In a world of only moderate scarcity, it's an ongoing source of quiet desperation: I'm working because my family needs me. End of story.

But kids don't need to be convinced that their value is measured in the products of their labor in order to be kind and generous and helpful. They're already those things - not because they're angels but because humans are social animals. They want to connect with the people around them - even extreme introverts. They're wired to want to learn grown-up skills and share them with the people around them. And they can be gently and lovingly supported in that desire, offered chances to be helpful, offered help in being helpful, given the chance to give. That's one of the amazing things about unschooling - it turns out that when you work with human nature, rather than against it, you get to see a lot more of the good side of humanity.

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