- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

Around-the-house jobs usually are not called "chores" in the Basil household.

They are called responsibilities. When Angelica, 7, and Charles, 9, bathe themselves and make their beds every morning before school, their mother, Denise Dixon-Basil, says her daughter and son are "cooperating and being organized."

When the children vacuum, wash the windows, take out the trash and care for the family dogs, "that's their part," says Ms. Dixon-Basil, a bank sales manager who lives in Annandale. "Doing what they have to do is important to the house running right."
The decision by parents to assign household jobs to their children has ramifications that extend far beyond the obvious relief. Chores teach responsibility and commitment, boosting self-esteem and confidence, family specialists say. Perhaps the most important intrinsic value, though, they say, lies in the strengthened connection of each child to the family unit, born out by the core feeling of working for the good of the group.
"Chores should be contributions to the family," says Jim Fay, president and co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute in Golden, Colo., an organization that offers child-rearing and training products and information to teachers and parents. "Every time a kid does a chore, it should benefit the whole family and make everyone a winner, even the kid."
Most parents believe that household chores are integral to healthy family life. Sampson Lee Blair, an Arizona State University sociologist, has studied the American family for more than a decade and says a vast majority of parents regard daily and weekly chores as "a means of instilling more positive characteristics."
Mr. Blair conducted a study last year on children's household labor, sampling 3,152 children of various ethnicities. He learned that white children perform about 7.5 hours of housework per week, black children perform a little more than eight hours per week, and Hispanic children complete slightly more than nine hours per week.
"Kids perform roughly 12 [percent] to 13 percent of total housework performed in the family," he says. The jobs tend to fall into four basic categories: basic cleaning activities such as sweeping, vacuuming and dusting; tending to dishes; assisting with cooking; and laundry.
From the ages of 6 to 12, boys and girls are equal contributors, Mr. Blair says. During the teen-age years, however, "there seems to be a very strong tendency toward sex type: Boys usually do what fathers are doing," and girls copy their mothers, he says.
Two schools of thought bolster chores, Mr. Blair says.
"One, parents love their children and want to instill the best qualities," he says. "They view chores as a means of child rearing. The counter-argument is that today the dual-earner form of the family is the prevailing form… [which] takes [parents] out of the household for longer times. So the rationale is more pragmatic: Parents recognize that chores have to be done, and someone has to do it, so the logical argument is to assign them to children."


A good start

Teaching children responsibility through chores is best achieved by starting at an early age, says Dr. Joan Kinlan, a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, who has a private practice in Washington.
"Parents can start by having kids put their toys away," Dr. Kinlan says, "and you have to break it down into small amounts."
In her practice, Dr. Kinlan says, she sees a number of dual-income families in which the parents decline to assign their children chores because the parents "are too stressed and don't have the patience it takes to teach their kids to do the chores. It's easier just to do them themselves."
Big mistake, says Mr. Fay, a former teacher and administrator and co-creator with Dr. Foster W. Cline of the audiotape "Didn't I Tell You to Take Out the Trash? Techniques for Getting Kids to Do Chores Without Hassles."
"Getting the kids to do chores is one of the easier parenting skills to teach," he says, "and when the kid sees the parents controlling whether he does the chores, they get a sneaking suspicion that parents can control other things."
Mr. Fay suggests a number of techniques to help parents effectively assign and oversee chores.
Post a list of every job that keeps a household functioning from balancing the checkbook to ferrying the children to and from activities and appointments. Call a family meeting and tell the children that it is time to divide these jobs among family members.
"Ask the kids right away who wants to take the job of earning the money for the family," Mr. Fay says. "Say, 'I'm proud to do that. Now, who's big on shopping? Who's big on cleaning toilets?' If they don't want to do any, say, 'Well, pick out the ones you least hate, because we're all going to do our share.' By the time kids are teen-agers, we don't let them cop out by saying, 'I hate all those activities.'"
Give children some autonomy in deciding when to complete their tasks.
"Never tell the kid to do it at a certain time," Mr. Fay says. "You don't even like it when your boss tells you that. Give a reasonable time line 'reasonable' is long enough for me to figure out what I'm going to do if [the child] doesn't do it. 'End of day' might be one; this even is OK for a young child. Another deadline could be, 'Get that job done before your next meal' or… 'before you go into the back yard to play.' For an older child: 'Do it at your leisure. Just have it done before noon on Saturday.'"
Parents have the job of setting limits, and children have the job of testing the limits, he says. "So you need to arm parents. If you get an arguer, tell the child, 'I love you too much to argue.' Just keep repeating it."
Refrain from nagging.
"Never remind them," Mr. Fay says. "The reminder comes in the form of 'Chores done?'" If a child decides to get his or her jobs done at the last minute just before dark, for example expecting to be permitted to get the "reward" of being permitted to play outside, Mr. Fay says, "ask her, 'Do you suppose it's going to be too late by then?'"
Never forget to thank children for completing their regular tasks.
"There should be a lot of appreciation, but they should never be paid," Mr. Fay says.


Work for food

Paying a child for performing work for the family can be detrimental, says Gail Gross, a Houston-based child behavior and development specialist.
"Children shouldn't feel that everything they do, they should be paid for," Ms. Gross says. "In our culture, there is a great deal of entitlement. Chores are about practicing and experiencing life. You need those skills to live on your own. Managing money is something that is very important, too. But everything in balance."
Allowances should be viewed as sharing the family wealth and family finances not as salary.
"Your allowance is spending money that is part of the family income," she says. "On the other hand, your chores are also part of the family. That is something different it's the teamwork that is needed to make the family go."
Ms. Gross does believe in rewards, however.
"There are many ways to reinforce a child: hugs, kisses, extra story time, a movie on Saturday. Many tokens can be given. Dinner out we'd take each child by themselves to the restaurant of their choice. Whatever you do, you're trying to teach something."
Veda Herman of Dunkirk, Md., says she and her husband, Robert, taught their five children, now grown with homes of their own, that "there were certain expectations that they, as members of the household, needed to do." No questions asked, no arguing, no exceptions.
The chores had to be finished every Saturday by 11 a.m. or "they knew they were in the house for the weekend," Ms. Herman says.
Beyond the basics rested an offer the children could not afford to refuse: Extra work earned spending money.
"They could bid on them every week," says Ms. Herman, the chief financial officer at a downtown nonprofit agency. "All the dirty chores no one wanted to do, like scrubbing toilets and showers, cleaning out closets things I ordinarily wouldn't have them do. They would put their names beside [the jobs], and they would check them off, and then we'd do calculations of how much they'd earned."
Accumulated cash payoffs could range from a couple of coins to $15.
"It was the only way for me to really manage," she says. "All of my kids certainly learned the basics and were able to take care of themselves, and they all ended up with those kind of life skills that I think are needed. I was never required to do that I would spend 45 minutes on the phone asking my mother how to cook, let alone run a washing machine. I didn't want that to happen with my own children."
The Hermans are raising their grandson, 13-year-old Kannon Cummings, but they haven't needed to set any firm rules for him, Ms. Herman says.
"He's really an exceptional child he has been making his bed since he was 3," she says. "I've been blessed. He doesn't do laundry, but his [dirty] plate automatically goes to the sink. He doesn't leave things lying around."


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