Children & Housework

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.


13 thoughts on “Children & Housework

  1. I really like that Messy Tuesday. I think our house could qualify easily right now, though like yours, ours fluxes depending upon what else is going on.

    For some reason housework has never been much of a battle in our house. Sure, I sometimes get frustrated because I see the mess and the kids don’t. They usually aren’t resentful about doing their share of cleaning though, and I shall have to think about why that is.

    I have never personally made much of an issue about tidy bedrooms. Once or twice a week I tell the younger set to tidy their areas, but I don’t really inspect. I think their own rooms are their own arenas for figuring out their own strategies for organization. I usually help them if they ask but don’t interfere if they don’t ask.

    This got long — probably should have just written my own blog : ). Nice to be blogreading after the Lenten sign-off, though. I missed your blog and a few others especially.


  2. You know, I cannot believe the amazing depth of discussion that has grown out of that post at Lissa’s blog. This has to be the most intelligent discussion of the value of housework and the framework for including children that I have ever read. Really interesting and thought-provoking, too. And inspired by a post on patience! (I just came from a site discussing “acedia”–a new word for me–that had the same source of inspiration.)

    Thanks for sharing it. Your ideas really resonated with me.



  3. No worries, Jo, I’m in touch with my messiness. And i need to negotiate with Clare what she can stand, and it is apparent when she is becoming stressed by my untidiness. But I will never successfully maintain the same levels of tidiness as her.
    I like your discussion here, the subject certainly warrants it. I do agree re ‘own room’ – no point in starting that (inevitable) fight!


  4. I think you’ve hit on something really important and true, re housework, children’s rooms, etc. At least, it makes me feel better, because my kids’ rooms, with the occasional exception of my teenage daughter’s, are pits. I have the same criterion: a room needs cleaning if you can’t play in it. Otherwise I try to ignore them. There are too few hours in the day; there are things I’d rather be doing; that last clause would end not in “than cleaning a bedroom,” but in “than fighting all day with a child over the cleaning of a bedroom.”

    I’d never really considered before WHY it’s so much easier to get the kids to do “collective” tasks. My 5- and 4-year-olds clear the table with gusto, want to load and run the dishwasher, like putting clothes into the washing machine, etc. We practically never have to fight about those kinds of things. My 10yo moans about taking out the garbage, but then 10yo boys moan about everything, I think. But he’ll do it, whereas the idea of cleaning his room (which he shares with his 5yo brother) provokes instant mental and physical paralysis. Part of it is that the task of cleaning a room that messy is overwhelming, but I think the other part — and I’d never thought about this before — is that at the back of his mind, he’s thinking, “WHY does this matter? I don’t care how it looks.”

    I had children fighting today over who got to clean out the van . . . there was money involved in that one, which was part of the picture, but even if we paid them to clean their own rooms, which we don’t, I’m not sure there’s an amount of money on earth which would motivate them, if THEY didn’t think a given room needed to be cleaned. Oddly enough, the older ones will take it upon themselves to clean the youngest child’s room, which is a thankless job, since the youngest child doesn’t like people doing things for her . . .

    It is all so complex. But in general I find that the children, regardless of age, would rather be doing something that’s helpful to me — dishes, laundry, picking up the living room, and so forth — than something which I think is going to be helpful to them, ie cleaning their rooms.


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  6. Despite my Martha tendencies, I completely agree with you. Both kids contribute as part of our collective at various levels, and rarely complain, because they really respect that this is their home to take care of as well. If kids are raised this way, there will be few fights because responsibility is a fact of community life.

    But their rooms are their domain, other than twice a year cleanings of closets/ drawers when we seasons. We have a few rules-1) don’t leave dirty dishes and cups in your room 2) take your laundry down by laundry days, or do it yourself 3)don’t take items that are of common use into your room and lose them under your crap (there’s nothing worse than trying to find the tape measure in a teenaged boys closet-yuck! ) I find that even they get to a point and decide they need to clean it up, usually after they cannot locate anything they need anymore!


  7. Nice post.

    “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.”



  8. My boys (8 and 11) do their own laundry each week. It was a bone of contention when I used to do it. I was resentful of what they threw in the wash. They threw things in that weren’t dirty just because they did not want to put them away. Many times they needed something washed and didn’t throw it in the hamper and then were mad at me for not washing it in time. So, I told them they could learn to do it if they wanted to. Both were pretty excited about that idea so I taught them a few months ago. There are no grumbles, they just think of it as something normal, I guess. They each have a day of the week that is theirs. They chose the day and I do not have to remind them. Once, the younger one forgot to do his laundry and now remembers on his own as he had to wear pyjamas all day since his clothes were dirty. Not a punishment from me but just a natural consequence based on his own action (or lack thereof).

    I am following these chore/parenting discussions with interest as I was not required to do any chores at all as a child/adolescent. I wanted to help but was never allowed. My mother did everything for me, even (embarrased to say) laying my toothbrush out for me each night and morning with the toothpaste on it! (I was a teenager!!!) When I got married, I had not a clue how to do anything. Never changed a baby’s diaper until my firstborn came home from the hospital. Never washed a load of clothes until I went to college. I really want my kids to be able to feel the confidence that comes from being able to take care of themselves by the time they leave my home. Hopefully, we are on the right track.


  9. Reflecting on it, I think it’s true that my kids are much more willing to contribute to the group than to do something they perceive as personal. The real challenges are the places where personal stuff and collective space collide — no one seems to want to take care of those things! (That includes my husband.)
    I have really been reflecting on how to help our kids become successful contributors to our household lately. Thanks for your thoughts!


  10. Although I consider my children’s rooms their own domains, I’ve noticed that the fleas and allergens tend to take a more communal view of the matter.


  11. Ah yes, fleas and allergens. Not something we struggle with (or at least not yet). But I think that offers an ideal opportunity to instruct children on how those things have an impact on the rest of the house because otherwise, they don’t know. And as members of a household, they should care about the allergic reactions of others and the flea bites.


  12. The only rule in our house for the kids’ bedrooms is that there is a clear, straight path from the door to the side of the bed. An emergency route out for them or in for us that is safe to travel in the dark.

    After that, mouthing off might give them an assigned chore of cleaning up their room (out of my hair and doing something) but beyond that it’s their space.


  13. Oh, how I needed this perspective. Rocketboy and I have had many a struggle over the messy-room issue. I won’t go into it all here but I’d been thinking of it as housework because it’s housework for me, but it’s personal care for him. Aha. Aha.


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