It seems like I am always coming up with a new plan to balance work and child care better. Usually that involves increasing the time that is available, like resolving to put the kids to bed earlier or bringing coffee to my husband in bed to rouse him enough to drive school carpool. But my own recent research has compelled me to make a resolution that will instead make it harder to get everything done: I’m going to take the extra time to help my children clean up after themselves rather than doing too much for them.
Using data from the 2012 International Social Survey Programme, I discovered that school-aged children in the U.S. add to their parents’ housework hours: That is, when your kids are finally old enough to help around the house, they instead increase your burden. I found this out in the course of preparing an essay for the 2015 World Family Map report on how couples across the globe divide paid labor, housework, and caring for others. Not surprisingly, having a child in the house increases the number of hours that both men and women spend caring for others the world over. It was the effects of children on housework hours that took me aback: school-aged children increase parents’ housework more consistently than younger children do.
The world is supposed to work differently. You are supposed to be rewarded for every smashed Cheerio you vacuumed up when your child was learning to eat solid food by an older child who can feed themselves and do the vacuuming. You can’t ask a toddler to extract fermented juice from the crevices of a sippy cup that stayed under the bed for a week, but you tell yourself that this phase will pass.
My research not only told me otherwise, but also showed that we Americans have it the worst. School-aged children increase housework more in the United States than elsewhere in the world: 1.4 hours per week per child for men, and 2.6 hours per week for women. That’s four hours per week more housework for each school-aged child. (Preschool children increase care work far more than that, but they don’t significantly increase housework.) Even if we discount the difference by children’s age by assuming that parents might report cleaning sippy cups as care work, we are still left with the unpalatable conclusion that when children become old enough to help with the housework burden, they are still adding to it.
There is more to children’s development than getting the most out of their school education.
These findings got me thinking about the many ways that parents prioritize academics over other aspects of their children’s development. Older children may increase parents’ housework the most in cultures that treat children’s education as the most important aspect of their development. If preparing children for the future means getting them the education they need to be productive, independent, and financially stable, then any number of things can prevent them from contributing to housework.
For instance, children can’t be put to work right away after school because they need time to decompress before they can start on homework. Then the homework itself has to be done by tomorrow, but the dusting can surely wait. There’s no way you would keep your son or daughter up past bedtime to scrub a toilet because they need to be well-rested for school the next day. And I wrote all of this thinking about my first grader: I’m sure that not just homework but also extracurricular activities rate above housework among parents who want their high-school children to look well-rounded on college applications.
But there is more to children’s development than getting the most out of their school education. I want my children to grow up thinking contributing to their family and their home is important. Not that I think cleanliness is next to godliness: I can see six shoes, one sock, a coloring book, a coat, various sheets of paper and some Easter grass on the floor from where I am sitting, and I am convinced that cleanliness is next to impossible—that a tendency toward chaos resulted from the fall of man.
But I want us to push back against chaos as a family. We’re in this together, and none of us like it when Cheerios stick to our socks when we walk across the kitchen. If I take the time now to involve my children in the housework, they may come to value service as highly as self-development. I can give up some efficiency today in hope that my children may occupy their places in their future homes as worthily as they occupy their places in the workforce.