clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jenet Erickson: The secret power of family work

It’s that time of year again. With the rush back to school, many parents find themselves running kids from soccer to piano to dance and art lessons, then to church activities while trying to fit in a book report before midnight. For some years, a cultural fear developed that many children were “overscheduled,” that too many hyper-intense parents were committing their children to an excessive number of organized activities, resulting in stressed-out kids and families.

Now that fear has shifted to a bigger threat — screen time. In this day of “so much digital temptation,” many parents find that a critical way to restrict screens of one sort or another is scheduled activities. As Andrea Orr recently argued in The Washington Post, “engaging kids in soccer, band, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or even cotillion is a pretty sure way to sever the screen connection, at least for a few hours. And that in itself is a big benefit, even without the added advantage of physical exercise, learning an instrument or improving table manners.”

Being busy doesn’t end up being “so bad” after all, especially when considering the additional benefits associated with scheduled activities — supportive peer and adult relationships, skill building, higher self-esteem, greater sense of purpose and increased contributions to family, school and the community at large. In fact, one of the challenging disparities facing children in homes without the means to engage their children in extracurricular activities is the risk associated with dramatically higher hours of unstructured screen time.

But with all the benefits associated with enriching scheduled activities, there is often one area of loss, sometimes profound loss. That is, working together as families in the ordinary work of family life. A 2015 survey of 1,001 parents by Braun Research found that although 82 percent reported doing chores regularly while growing up, only 28 percent said they required the same of their children. Yet the reported benefits are substantial. Greater responsibility, self-esteem and capacity to delay gratification have all been associated with doing chores while growing up.

Marty Rossman’s 20-year study of 84 children across development into adulthood found that doing chores at ages 3-4 was the strongest predictor of education completion, career success and stronger relationships in their mid-20s. And the now famous 75-year Harvard Glueck study of inner-city men found that industriousness in childhood, including part-time jobs, chores and sports teams, “predicted adult mental health better than any other factor.”

What is often left out of discussions about the benefits of chores, however, is their unique potential to strengthen our relationships while building character. Findings show that children who do “family-care” tasks like setting the table, doing dishes or tidying shared space exhibit more helpfulness, thoughtfulness and concern for others than those who primarily focus on “self-care” tasks like cleaning their own rooms or doing their own laundry.

Such findings highlight why scholar Kathleen Bahr calls such work “family work,” rather than “household labor” or “chores.” And as she insightfully explains, ironically, it is the very things commonly disliked about family work that make it so powerful for building relationships and character. The fact that it is “mindless” means that we are free to focus on and engage with one another while working together. The minimum of concentration required also means that parents and children (even young children) can do it together, side by side. This process alone dissolves “feelings of hierarchy,” breaking down barriers and making it easier for children to bring up fears and concerns.

I marvel at how my mother found ways to be working in the kitchen or doing laundry when we came home from school. Her presence doing those ordinary tasks invited us to unload our hearts and minds just when we needed to. We were likely not much help, but the conversations that opened up while working together were central to our closeness and well-being. Although accompanied by less chatter, working beside Dad in the yard brought similar powerful feelings of security and closeness.

And of course the work was never done, another key to its power. Through their repetition, in Kathleen Bahr’s poignant words, “The most ordinary chores can become daily rituals of family love and belonging. Family identity is built moment by moment amidst the talking and teasing, the singing and storytelling, and even the quarreling that may attend such work sessions.”

In our harried efforts to keep our children busy with good things, we will be tempted to ignore the precious opportunities to build character and connection in the ordinary work of everyday family life. But that work has power, “available in every home, no matter how troubled,” that can, as Bahr concludes, “end turmoil, build character, link families and unite communities.”

Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University.