Acton Institute Powerblog

Bring Back Childhood Chores: How Hard Work Cultivates Character

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1940Today’s parents are obsessed with setting their kids on strategic paths to “success,” filling their days with language camps, music lessons, advanced courses, competitive sports, chess clubs, museum visits, and so on.

Much of this is beneficial, of course, but amid the bustle, at least one formative experience is increasingly cast aside: good, old-fashioned hard work.

In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Breheny Wallace points to a recent survey of U.S. adults where “82% reported having regular chores growing up, but only 28% said that they require their own children to do them.” Paired with the related decreases in youth employment outside the home, such a trend offers a worrisome glimpse of our economic future, but even more troubling for those who believe that work with the hands produces far more than mere material benefits.

Indeed, although household chores and other forms of work are bound to teach practical skills and discipline that yield specific “successes” later on, whether academically or economically, Wallace keenly observes that the more important feature at stake is the formative shaping and molding that work wields on our character (something I’ve discussed here, here, and here):

Giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance, according to research by Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota…She found that young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.

Chores also teach children how to be empathetic and responsive to others’ needs, notes psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In research published last year, he and his team surveyed 10,000 middle- and high-school students and asked them to rank what they valued more: achievement, happiness or caring for others.

Almost 80% chose either achievement or happiness over caring for others. As he points out, however, research suggests that personal happiness comes most reliably not from high achievement but from strong relationships. “We’re out of balance,” says Dr. Weissbourd. A good way to start readjusting priorities, he suggests, is by learning to be kind and helpful at home… Being slack about chores when they compete with school sends your child the message that grades and achievement are more important than caring about others.

Attaching work with empathy, service, and sacrifice is crucial, and ought not be understood only within the confines of a home or family setting. How we shepherd our children in these areas will shape their attitudes and imaginations in the here and now, but also as they mature into adults and venture out into the economy and society at large. The burden is shared with schools, churches, institutions, and policy to varying extents, but we as parents have the ultimate authority and oversight on these matters, and we ought to assume that responsibility boldly and wisely.

Whether we’re assigning to or collaborating with our kids in hard labor or mundane tasks, granting (or not granting) allowances, teaching them about tithing and giving and saving and spending, or guiding them to get a “paid job,” we as parents and citizens have a responsibility and opportunity to raise up children who understand work and economic exchange for what it really is: not a mere means for material gain and elevated status, but service to others and thus to God. For the sake of the child’s soul and character, yes, but also for the unity of the family and the harmony and health of society.

If, for whatever reason, you fall in that alarming 72% who have thus far absconded, assigning some basic chores is a great place to start.

HT: Jeremy Mann

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Work: The Meaning of Your Life

Where do we find the core of life's meaning?  Right on the job!  At whatever work we do -- with head or hand, from kitchen to executive suite, from your house to the White House. New Foreword by Stephen J. Grabill and Afterword by Greg Forster

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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