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Kids (Should) Learn by Doing

September 11, 2011

Boy Mowing LawnI saw something this morning that is – I realized with a bit of a shock – becoming a very rare sight.  Two doors up, a boy of about 12 was mowing the lawn (under the watchful eye of his father).  Forty-odd years ago – when I was that boy’s age – this would have been a ‘normal’ thing to see up and down the street. At the same time, inside the houses, ‘girl children’ would have been wielding dust cloths and polishing rags, making beds, or folding laundry.  Later in the day, children of both sexes would have helped set and clear the dining room table, and washed and dried the dishes afterwards; they might even have helped to prepare the evening meal. Depending on the season, they likely would have spent part of their weekend raking leaves, pulling weeds, shovelling snow, and/or helping with any number of other ‘household chores’. 

When I was young, ‘helping out around the house’ served two purposes:

  1. It gave us (as children) a pretty good understanding of what was required to run a household (budgeting, shopping, cooking, cleaning) and maintain a home (painting, mending, yard work), and
  2. It taught us to take pride in that home (and in a job well done).

Growing up, my sisters and brothers and I were always expected to ‘do chores’.  It wasn’t an option, and there was no room for negotiation (and we didn’t get paid for it either – you helped out because you LIVED THERE).  You did what you were told and you did it ‘right’ (or you did it again).  I’m sure we grumbled and groused about it (to ourselves) most of the time, and I doubt we ever thought it was ‘fun’.  But it WAS rewarding – because we gained so much from the experience.

Polished SilverWe learned how to shop ‘frugally’, what food cost and how much to buy, how to prepare a meal, how to sew, do laundry, and iron (I still recall very clearly my grandmother’s lessons on the proper way to iron a man’s shirt and a woman’s skirt), and which cleaning products were best for linoleum, wood, glass, silver, ceramics, etc. (when we were in our teens, my sister and I weren’t allowed to leave the house on the weekend until the dining room suite had been polished with lemon oil, and the various pieces of my mother’s antique silver gleamed). 

We found out firsthand what happened if you didn’t keep your eye on a nail when attempting to strike it with a hammer (ouch), the effect of painting the pickets on a fence horizontally instead of vertically (it doesn’t save you any time, and you end up with paint splatters on your clothes, your skin, and your glasses), and why it’s vitally important to know where the electric cord is in relation to the lawn mower (the ‘upside’ of running over the cord was that you learned how to fix it).  We were shown how to change a fuse, check the air pressure in the tires on the car, and fill and empty the bag in the vacuum cleaner (whenever my younger brother would complain about being bored, my mother’s response was always, ‘Then get out the vacuum cleaner’; the funny thing was – he usually DID!)  We became adept at cleaning toilets, sinks and bathtubs, sorting whites from darks for washing, pinning clothes on the line, and taking them down and folding them when they were dry.  We learned by DOING all the things we were going to have to do when we owned our own homes and had our own families.

Kids Raking LeavesToday, to society’s detriment, making kids ‘help out around the house’ seems to be an antiquated practice. You rarely see a young boy (or girl) mowing the lawn, shovelling snow, raking leaves, or helping Mom or Dad in the garden (you rarely even see them outside – instead they’re inside, hunkered down in front of the TV or the computer; I doubt they’re doing chores).  I can’t recall the last time I saw a young girl (or boy) over the age of five in the grocery store helping with the weekly shopping, and the only time you see school-aged children in the malls with their parents is when they want something for themselves (and expect Mom or Dad to pay for it). 

For some bizarre reason, many of today’s parents seem to think it’s hard-hearted, ‘mean’, or shameful somehow to expect their kids to help with basic household chores.  Certainly, many ‘baby boomers’ are more prosperous than their parents were (and can, therefore, afford to have housecleaners and landscaping services and ‘home handymen’ take care of common tasks), but I suspect that a good number of them do most of the household work themselves (in addition to working at jobs outside the home).  So why aren’t they insisting that the kids help out?  How and when and why did they lose sight of the fact that participating in basic household tasks teaches kids valuable lessons (including having a much better appreciation of what they’ve got and how much time and effort it takes to buy it, clean it, and maintain it)?  Why have so many given in to the ‘I don’t have to and you can’t make me’ stance (not to mention the collective ‘It’s not fair’ whining) of their offspring? 

So what? you might say.  Does it really matter? They’ll figure it all out eventually, won’t they?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

BugetToday’s ‘young adults’ are shockingly incapable of creating or managing a budget (the 18 – 34 age group carries some of the highest debt load in North America); they have little understanding of the concepts of price comparison, value, and compound interest, and few have any type of savings whatsoever.  Many see no difference between paying rent and owning their own home (it’s estimated less than 25% will ever own a home anyway, because they haven’t saved for a down payment and prefer to regularly spend 140% of what they earn).  They are the most likely group to be talked into an ‘upsell’ package, and the least likely to repair an item when it breaks (vs. replacing it).  They want the ‘latest, greatest’ electronics, clothing, cars, and accessories – and rarely wait for them to go on sale or be discounted before buying.  They are swayed more by brand name (and recommendations from friends) than by durability and price.

An alarming number don’t know how to cook a complete meal (or shop for the ingredients) – instead they prefer to spend three to four times the money eating out.  For the most part, they can’t change the oil in their car, fix a simple electrical problem, sew a button on a shirt or hem a pair of pants, differentiate between a weed and a flower in a garden, or build a simple structure.  Some call on Mom or Dad for help (often with alarming frequency); others simply ignore what they can’t deal with; the rest choose to pay someone else to do what they could (and should) do themselves (with a little effort).

I suppose you could say it’s ‘no skin off my nose’ – I learned well and I passed the value of those lessons along to my own boys (they had to make their own beds, clean the bathroom they shared, do their own laundry, help out in the kitchen and the yard and – for the most part – they’re managing just fine).  But the lack of required participation by kids in basic household chores strikes me as just one more way society is letting down the generations that we’re all going to have to depend on once we reach … the other side of 55.

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  1. Margie permalink
    September 13, 2011 8:11 pm

    I learned by doing, my kids learned by doing, and my grandchildren will learn, even if it is me who puts them to work!

    • September 14, 2011 9:23 am

      Good for you! I’m shocked at how many of my family and friends allow their kids to ‘do nothing’ – they aren’t doing them any favours!


  2. September 13, 2011 7:53 am

    This is so true. Children should learn to do chores now, not when they’re adults.

  3. September 11, 2011 7:07 pm

    Wonderful commentary!

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