On the Virtues of Making Your Children Do the Dishes




On the Virtues of Making

Your Children Do the Dishes

Quiz for the day: How much time each day, on average, does a 6- to 12-year-old child spend on household chores?

If you guessed more than a half-hour, you’re wrong. Children are spending a mere 24 minutes a day doing cleaning, laundry and other housework — a 12% decline since 1997 and a 25% drop from 1981 levels, says Sandra Hofferth, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, based on a forthcoming study of 1,343 children. In the glacial realm of sociological change, that amounts to a free fall.

It also reflects “important behavioral and values shifts that will affect lives for years to come,” Dr. Hofferth says. One consequence is never more obvious than at this time of year, when hundreds of thousands of college freshmen move into their dorms and promptly begin destroying their laundry. Other studies suggest the shift may have longer-term implications for marriage and community life.

Of course, children aren’t doing housework partly because they’re spending more time on such worthy pursuits as reading, studying and youth groups, Dr. Hofferth’s data show. Parents are doing less housework themselves, hiring help or just making peace with dust bunnies. And clearly, some housework is best relegated to museums. While Allison O’Steen, Tryon, N.C., loved her late mother, she says, her habit of ironing sheets isn’t something Ms. O’Steen, a mother of two, wants to pass on.

Nevertheless, research into the role of housework in human relationships suggests we may be losing something of value here. While most parents today focus mostly on teaching kids self-reliance — keeping themselves clean, fed and botulism-free — the benefits of learning housework run deeper. For example:

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Pitching in at home has become a crucial marriage-preservation skill for young men. Studies show parents still assign more housework to girls than boys. Yet these same young women hope as adults to find men who will help out; 90% of 60 women ages 18 to 32 studied by Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociology professor, said they hoped to share housework and child care with spouses “in a committed, mutually supportive and egalitarian way.” After controlling for other factors, U.S. marriages tend to be more stable when men participate more in domestic tasks, says a study of 506 U.S. couples published in 2006 in the American Journal of Sociology.

Mindful of the issue, Kathy Helmetag, Troy, Mich., is instilling “the whole housekeeping thing into” her sons, 7 and 9, she says. Years from now, she believes, their homemaking skills will help them “score a few points with any significant others.”

Housework has unique value in instilling a habit of serving others. Analyzing data on more than 3,000 adults, Alice Rossi, a professor emerita of sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, found doing household chores as a child was a major, independent predictor of whether a person chose to do volunteer or other community work as an adult. Thus for parents who value service, housework is an important teaching tool.

David Jackson has consistently required his twins, 16, to help around the house, starting as toddlers when they began picking up their toys and adding harder chores, such as stocking bathrooms or mowing the lawn, at each new stage. He sees the chores as a way of teaching empathy and “stewardship — taking care of the community assets,” says the Tulsa, Okla., father. “It helps them realize the world is not all about them.”

If you enjoy a domestic art as an outlet for creativity or love, it’s worth passing on. I love sewing; making prom dresses years ago with my stepdaughter is a fond memory. But I was always rushing around too much when my two biological kids were small to sit down and teach them to sew. With 20-20 hindsight, I’m sorry that at ages 18 and 20, they still don’t know how.

If you lack time to teach a home art you love, look for other avenues. Keeping the family TV tuned to the Food Channel inspired Cindy Harris’s son Mikey, 8, to love cooking. For show-and-tell in second grade, he whipped up a chef’s salad; he concocts novel cookie recipes with chocolate, coconut, butterscotch and pecans. While the cookies can be strange, says the Novato, Calif., mother of two, the whole family nevertheless cherishes Mikey’s gifts.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com