Kehrberg: Spare the chores, deprive the child

A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life. — Fydor Dostoevsky

Sarah Kehrberg

In mid-March, America went on lockdown. Everyone finds their own ways to cope, and one of my strategies is the chore list. What a refreshing change to hear grumbling about dusting the ceiling fan instead of the perennial whine, “There’s nothing to do.” Also, the house, in which we have all been unfortunately confined, is cleaner than normal.

However, I’ve noticed over the years that many children don’t have regular responsibilities around the house. Sometimes this is because a paid person does the work. Often times, it is parents who pick up the slack. I think it entirely possible that a child would leave their home after 18 years without ever cleaning a toilet or mowing their lawn.

It is not that our kids are lazy. Rather, they have been told by their parents and society that they are too important to take out the trash. We have encouraged, even pushed, them to put their energies into school and extracurriculars. When discussing children and chores, a parent once proudly told me, “She has better things to do.”

This is a deprivation. Our kids are not selfish, but they tend to be self-centered. Helping with the mundane rhythms that keep a home in working order teaches even the youngest child that they are part of a dynamic, needy and collective world. A world in which they are not the center.

At the same time, as an active part of the household, our children learn that contributing to community brings a satisfaction and self-worth that is unique to communal living, even if the task is disagreeable. Yes, my daughter was forced to prepare supper. And yes, she was not happy about it. But I saw her smile as she watched her hungry brother eating third helpings.

Chores also instill a deep and abiding knowledge that children have agency. If they need clean clothes, the washing machine is down the hallway. They do not need to wait until someone else does it for them. In fact, no one else is coming; it is their chore.

There aren’t right or wrong chores. One family may hire a cleaning person, another will engage landscapers. As long as our kids are responsible for a vital part of home life, they are becoming independent agents, serving the whole.

Now that I have children who are close to leaving home, I’ve come to appreciate chores for the lessons they teach about engaging with the world.

Alerting everyone about the grimy shower and cleaning it are two different things. Posting passionate pleas for racial justice on an internet site is significant and beneficial. But when the words end, there will be the hard and vulnerable work of creating a racially just society.

I am not using chores as a cute analogy or metaphor. I really believe they are an authentic way a child can first experience a collective entity (their family) and know their value within it.

They have unconditional worth simply by being there. They contribute in practical ways and are appreciated for the work of their hands and mind. At the same time that they make their own experience better by taking out the trash or emptying the dishwasher, they enhance the lives of others. And most important are the moments when they do a service for others that benefits themselves not a bit.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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