That children should do chores might seem so obvious as to be unworthy of mention. I considered the question in a recent Boston Globe article. No suspense: I do think children should do chores. But revisiting an important book about the Reformation, of all things, strengthened that conviction.
Considering “The Religious Beliefs of Teenagers” in a chapter of his book, Protestants, The Birth of a Revolution, Steven Ozment observes that the “adolescents of the Reformation grew up in a world far more culturally unified that that of their modern counterparts.” Many features of early modern life might appear forbidding in contrast to ways of middle-class Americans. But youth centuries ago may have been more receptive to some important realities:
[Y]outh too recognized that conformity and obedience best served their prospects for success and happiness….By age fourteen or fifteen, the youth of early modern Europe had many useful and productive skills; by comparison with their counterparts today, they were mature….The early acquisition of true vocational skills rather worked to stabilize the young and to engender patience and cooperation, steadfastness and persistence, on the part of children and parents alike. In early modern Europe the young knew their talents as well as their place….Whereas the early modern parent believed that emotional happiness followed vocational competence (hence, early service and apprenticeship for children), the modern parent has become convinced that emotional maturity must precede vocational success, that a child must first ‘find’ himself before he can ‘define’ himself. Today a parent is more likely to recommend a therapist than a shovel to a teenager.
The passage in Ozment’s book struck me as I have been thinking about children and work. We tend not to put those nouns together easily, given the years of schooling that future jobs may require, the current model of childhood that prioritizes enjoyment and discovery, and our reasonable recoil from the very idea of child labor. But a modest measure of work is an appropriate part of childhood, especially work that contributes to the well-being of a child’s own family. Chores! American children on average do little—less than a half-hour a day—because these undesirable tasks are squeezed out by school, homework, activities, play. Parents instead pick up the slack, doing the work themselves, paying to have someone else do it, or letting it go. Without glamorizing laundry or dustmop or leaf-rake, I would insist on it in the register of the Ozment passage above. Perhaps sharing the load of family housekeeping could foster “patience and cooperation, steadfastness and persistence,” in children ready not just to be served but to serve.