Care and Feeding

What Is the Point of Chores?

Is it to teach kids how to contribute to a family, or is it to actually get the dishes clean?

Girl with broom looking unhappy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Schnapps2012/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When my oldest was born, my father told me one of his biggest parenting regrets was not assigning regular chores to me and my siblings. I took this advice to heart with my three wonderful boys, now aged 16, 14, and 11. Since the boys were little, they’ve had some form of daily cleaning responsibility, starting with a “10-minute tidy” with us every evening and, as they got older and ostensibly more responsible, additional age-appropriate chores.

This is their list of current teenage responsibilities:

• Keep bedrooms tidy
• Put away clean clothes
• Keep common areas tidy
• Feed cats
• Wash and put away dishes
• Set and clear dinner table
• Sweep as needed, vacuum living room at least once per week
• Clean bathroom
• Take out garbage and recycling, as requested
• Help with yard work, as requested
• Help with dinner, as requested

This is where my husband and I philosophically differ: What is the point of chores? Is it to teach the kids that they are part of a family and that being a member of a household carries with it certain responsibilities? Or is it to ease the burden on the parents?

Another sticky wicket for my husband and I: How well should the chores be done? If, say, the hand-washed dishes aren’t quite clean, do you make the kid do them over, or do you just accept that kids are still learning and do it yourself but tell them to do it better next time?

How many chores should kids have? (I’m pretty sure mine do more chores than their friends, but should they be doing more?)

Please, tell me your ideas about chores!

—Keepin’ It Clean(-ish)

Dear KIC(-ish),

In my humble opinion both you and your husband are right. The point of chores is for your children to take care of what is their responsibility in the world, rather than you doing it for them. It’s really that simple. They should be doing the dishes because they’re eating the food.
They should be picking up the shoes and socks because they’re wearing them. It is important to help kids recognize that they are getting a whole lot of food, clothing, and shelter for free. That food, clothing, and shelter require work, so they, therefore, are responsible for taking part in some of that work.

And furthermore, if they don’t do it, someone has to, and at a certain point it’s unfair for that someone to be you and your husband. It’s a tremendous amount of work to run a house, and doing it without help leads to resentment and parental stress.

They should absolutely learn to do the chores correctly. It is not ceremonial. It is cleaning the dishes. Which is a useless task if the dishes aren’t, in fact, clean at the end. So, you show them how to do it correctly. And then they still don’t do it correctly because they are kids. So you remind them. Try to rely more on consistency than on emotion. They’re not doing it incorrectly because they’re selfish disrespectful brats. (They actually sound like great kids!) More likely, they’re doing it incorrectly because they are children with underdeveloped executive functioning whose minds are often elsewhere.

The number of chores you have them doing is fine, as far as I can tell. Our job is to gently and consistently bring their focus back to the tasks and responsibilities at hand, and to repeat that until they can do it themselves or they are out of our homes, whichever comes first.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two kids, one in the third grade and the other in sixth grade. On various occasions they have both come to me in tears because of their frustration with a video game. How am I supposed to respond to this? It is my inclination to tell them to cut it out because, what can I say, it’s a freaking video game. I suspect there’s a way I can respond that acknowledges their frustrations but puts them in perspective, but I’m stumped.

—Game Over

Dear GO,

You’re supposed to respond to this the same way you respond to a kid’s frustration about any other thing. If they were reading a book and something terrible happened in the book that they found upsetting you wouldn’t be like “It’s a freaking book!” Even though you know that it is, in fact, a freaking book.

If it helps, don’t think of it as a video game. Think of it as your kid trying to do something that is important to them and struggling to do it. Your job is to show them how to deal with such a situation. You identify with the fact that it must be frustrating. You hear them out as they explain why it’s hard. You ask if they want you to help problem-solve. You remind them that they don’t have to play the game and that if it’s too frustrating they can do something else. You let them know that sometimes things we want to do are hard, but that you believe they can get it done. And finally you let them know they can take a break whenever they want. In my experience, the result is that whether they go back to whatever they’re struggling with or they move on to something else, they are greatly assured that the suffering they thought was unavoidable is, in fact, largely optional. Which is good. Because that’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This is an etiquette question. Years ago, my friends, “Jen” and “Brad” were a couple, until he broke it off with her and ended up with “Angelina.” Brad and Angelina got married and had a baby. And while you wouldn’t say Jen stayed close with the couple, they all stayed within the same circle of friends.

Jen is a professional speech pathologist, specializing in early childhood development, and has casually observed that Brad and Angelina’s child is completely nonverbal at 18 months. No cooing, warbling, or hand gestures at all. She approached Angelina with an offer of performing a professional evaluation of the child’s development for free (a service she normally charges hundreds of dollars for). Angelina flat-out refused and thinks her son needs no evaluation.

I know Jen to be a kind and generous person who generally shies away from conflict and drama, so I have no doubt she made the offer out of concern for the child’s well-being. But did she overstep by insinuating that her ex’s child is developmentally disabled? Is Angelina being unreasonable? My understanding with developmental disabilities is that the sooner they are confronted, the better off the child will eventually be. Is there anything I can or should say to Angelina and Brad to convince them that an evaluation wouldn’t hurt? Or should I mind my own business?

—The One Where the Kid Doesn’t Talk

Dear TOWtKDT,

I’m sure Jen is great. But she should have talked with Brad first. What in the name of patriarchy suggests that she should have this sensitive and potentially painful conversation with a parent she does not know that well and also has a … delicate relationship with, rather than the parent with whom she once had a long-term, trusting, and intimate partnership? I also question whether she should have offered to perform the evaluation herself, rather than referring the couple to a colleague who hadn’t had sex with anyone involved. Only if price was the main barrier to the couple taking action might Jen have then offered to do it herself for free or a reduced fee.

Angelina may be overreacting a little bit, but it’s entirely understandable. Imagine your partner’s ex coming up to you to tell you that there’s something wrong with the child you just gave birth to. Most reasonable people would bristle somewhat, no matter what else was going on.

All that being said, not having any words at 18 months could very well be something serious and could require significant intervention. It should also be noted that it doesn’t take a speech pathologist ex to raise a flag about a nonverbal 18-month-old. Pediatricians, caretakers, day care providers, and friends like you will all say something if it is indeed an issue. By all means if you have sway with Brangelina, then get in there and tell your friends they should talk to a professional, whether or not it’s Jen, to rule out worst-case scenarios and they should do so posthaste.

—Carvell