034: How do I get my child to do chores?

We have a pretty cool mini-mini-series launching today. I’ve been seeing a lot of those “chores your child could be doing” articles showing up in my social media feeds lately, and I was thinking about those as well about how children in other cultures seem to be MUCH more willing to help out with work around the house.  I’m not saying we want to train our children to be slave laborers, but why is it that children in Western cultures really don’t seem to do chores unless they’re paid to do them?

We’re going to hold off on the “getting paid” part for now, and we’ll talk about that very soon with my guest Ron Lieber, the Money columnist of the New York Times who wrote a book called The Opposite of Spoiled. But today we’re going to discuss the chores part with Andrew Coppens, who is an Assistant Professor of Education in Learning Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. If you’ve ever asked your child to do a task in the home only to have them say “No,” then get comfy and listen up, because I have a feeling that our conversation is going to surprise you and give you some new tools for your toolbox.


Coppens, A.D., & Acala, L. (2015). Supporting children’s initiative: Appreciating family contributions or paying children for chores. Advances in Child Development and Behavior 49, 91-112. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2015.10.002

Coppens, A.D., Acala, L., Rogoff, B., & Mejia-Arauz, R. (2016). Children’s contributions in family work: Two cultural paradigms. In S. Punch, R.M. Vanderbeck, & T. Skelton (Eds.), Families, intergenerationality, and per group relations: Geographies of children and young people (Vol 5). New York, NY: Springer.

LIFE Center (2005). “The LIFE Center’s Lifelong and Lifewide Diagram.”  Retrieved from: http://life-slc.org/about/citationdetails.html


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Jen:                                      [00:37]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a pretty cool mini mini series launching today. I’ve been seeing a lot of those Chores Your Child Should Be Doing articles showing up in my social media feeds lately and I was thinking about those as well as some of the ethnographic research that we’ve discussed on previous episodes of the podcast where I’ve read about six year olds cooking for a group of adults who were on a trip for a week and willingly helping to care for younger siblings and cleaning up around the house without being asked and as I often do when these kinds of things come up, I started to wonder why don’t our children cook meals at age six and willingly help to care for younger siblings and clean up around the house without being asked? I’m not saying that we want to train our children to be slave laborers, but why is it that children in western cultures really don’t seem to do chores unless they’re paid to do them?

Jen:                                      [01:29]                   So we’re going to hold off on the getting paid part for now and we’ll talk about that very soon with my guest, Ron Lieber, who’s the money columnist of the New York Times and wrote a book called The Opposite of Spoiled. But today we’re going to discuss the chores part with Andrew Coppens, who is an Assistant Professor of Education and learning sciences at the University of New Hampshire. Dr Coppens’ work examines how children from a number of cultural communities learn to help collaborate and how they get motivated to learn and the everyday activities of their families and communities. He’s focused on cultural practices regarding children’s everyday family contributions. What kids think about helping out and mothers ways of getting there. Children involved. If you ever asked your child to do a task in the home, only to have them say no, then get comfy and listen up because I have a feeling that our conversation is going to surprise you and also give you some new tools for your toolbox. Welcome Dr Coppens!

Dr. Coppens:                     [02:21] Thanks. It’s really nice to speak with you.

Jen:                                      [02:22]                   All right, so let’s start by defining chores. What kind of work constitutes chores in your research?

Dr. Coppens:                     [02:29]                   So, uh, I think we make one what seems to be a critical distinction and that seems to give us a window into a lot of cultural differences regarding how voluntarily kids do chores. And that distinction is between what we refer to as family household work, which is activities like helping with cooking a meal where other people are involved and where the benefits of doing that chore are shared across a number of people and we make that distinction be doing those kinds of activities and we call self-care chores, so things regarding my stuff, so making my bed or my mess, you know, some toys that I left out and where people tend to work in self-care chores a little bit more individually. So there’s a lot of different kinds of work around the house, but those two types tend to focus on those two types, tends to be pretty instructive.

Jen:                                      [03:21]                   Okay. So it’s the idea of taking care of yourself as in things like brushing your teeth and cleaning up your own mess versus something that has some kind of contribution to how the rest of the household runs?

Dr. Coppens:                     [03:33]                   Yeah. And of course self care chores have a contribution because it’s something that, you know, maybe a parent doesn’t have to do if a child does it. But where the distinction becomes important. I think is what motivates the child to get involved, so family, household work, things like, uh, you know, other things like sweeping the kitchen versus just sweeping my room or helping out with all the laundry versus just folding my socks. The family household work is a bit more social. So it’s that sociality of family household work, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit more that seems to support kids’ voluntary engagement.

Jen:                                      [04:09]                   Okay. So you’ve alluded to my next question which is about money, which we’re only going to talk about really briefly because we will do a whole episode on that coming up in a couple of weeks. But the reason I want to talk about it is because it does seem really common in Western societies to pay children for doing chores. And I’m wondering how is this working out for parents? Because all the way back in episode seven of this podcast, we talked about how parents use some foods like vegetables as a gateway to other kinds of foods like desert and the children end up liking the vegetables less and the dessert more. And then in a subsequent episode, I think it was episode nine, we actually discussed how rewarding children with praise – but I can sort of see money as being a different kind of praise; it makes them want to do the thing right now – but as soon as the praise stops, they stopped wanting to do the thing that you praise them for. So I’m curious about how all those things that we’ve already talked about on the podcast fit together and how that is associated with the whole paying children to do chores thing and how that’s working out for parents.

Dr. Coppens:                     [05:13]                   Yeah. So this is a really interesting question. In one study that a colleague of mine, Lucy Alcala and I did a regarding basically different cultural approaches to encouraging children to get involved in chores. We ask college students about their experience with receiving allowances. So an alternative to allowances might’ve been in a indigenous heritage in Mexican-American families. And what was really common among the middle class students perspectives and backgrounds and what seems to be supported by a lot of the research is that one, I think there’s a wide range of ways that kids are rewarded or ways that kids are paid for getting involved in chores and one doesn’t really seem to emerge as a clear leader in comparison to the others. So a lot of approaches to paying kids are rewarding kids for doing chores. I think fundamentally what they do is they change the meaning of the activity for kids, um, and, and make what is potentially a multidimensional activity involving social aspects involving, Hey, I get to learn how to do this sort of cool thing that adults seem to think is important that it can in the perception of kids sort of change the activity into something that’s solely about if I do this, then I get that.

Dr. Coppens:                     [06:30]                   And I think that among many of the approaches of middle class families and not just in the US, this is throughout Mexico and other sort of European heritage communities. It’s that approach, it’s that basic contingency rooted approach, this, this quid pro quo assumption that is far more pervasive even if kids aren’t literally being paid or rewarded for chores. And so the alternative really removes some of these market principles from at least this particular child rearing practice all together. So removes this contingency frame completely from the equation, which I mean, if you grew up, you know, I grew up in the U.S. in middle class communities and, and that’s actually, that’s a hard thing to imagine even; those principles really pervade our lives.

Jen:                                      [07:12]                   And so you have studied how people in different cultures approach chores, right? So I think you looked at two different kinds of communities in Mexico. Can you tell us about those and how are they similar to and different from how Americans and people in Western cultures think about chores and children doing work around the house?

Dr. Coppens:                     [07:31]                   Yeah, sure. So maybe I’ll start with an example. So I lived and worked as a teacher in rural Nicaragua for a couple of years and so in my role as a teacher, I taught in the afternoons. So this was sort of, you know, sort of cowboy country and there were dairy farms and things like that and in the small towns and so really early five in the morning, you know, kids would come running by and knocking on my door, you know, wake up, wake up, and so, so I would go to the dairy farms and just sort of hang out and watch what was going on and, and so it was really, really struck by how kids, I guess learned and how they contributed in those contexts. And so what was most striking to me is that they weren’t asked or they weren’t required or paid to be there, but, but they woke up every morning at five and were dying to do it.

Jen:                                      [08:18]                   Which may be surprising to the average Western parent.

Dr. Coppens:                     [08:22]                   No, it was surprising. It was surprising to me in that I had those same kids in my classroom and in the afternoon and in some cases they were sort of my worst students, you know, they were just bored, you know. So, so my experience there, I, I, uh, I just became very interested in the kinds of learning and the kinds of motivation that characterize this, what we might refer to as an informal context or this sort of everyday context and how that differed from school based or maybe classroom based type. So I got really in the initiative the kids, the kids were showing in the morning and decided I wanted to go to Grad school and to learn a little bit more about that and that really built into a series of studies focused on household work in an indigenous heritage community, uh, that this is near Guadalajara and what we referred to in a cosmopolitan community, but really a middle class community with several generations of experience with formal schooling. And those studies looked at cultural differences between those two communities in how much kids were doing around the house to help. And then how voluntarily they were doing those chores. And in the indigenous heritage community, kids were both helping more extensively in a in a wide range of activities. But I was really most interested in, in the fact that they were doing that voluntarily, and in fact it seemed to be that the more voluntary contributions, the more they did, which, which again, you mentioned a sort of paradoxes, from the perspective of…

Jen:                                      [09:52]                   Might be shocking to Americans.

Dr. Coppens:                     [09:55]                   Yeah. And, and you know, since then that’s really been my focus.

Jen:                                      [09:59]                   Yeah. So let’s probe on that in a variety of different ways. As I was reading your research, one thing that occurred to me that kind of seemed to be at the heart of the difference between the views of the chores in the indigenous Mexican communities that you studied compared with the more cosmopolitan communities in Mexico and also in the U.S., was that there seemed to be two very different kinds of views of what chores are in those communities. And when I think about doing chores and potentially assigning my still toddler, but she’s, she’s going to be doing chores soon, I imagine if I think about assigning work to her, it’s, it’s just saved me from doing something to free up time for myself to do something that I need to do or even that I want to do or even so that we can free up some time for the two of us to go and do something fun together. But it seemed as though, to me at least, in the indigenous community, it was almost like there wasn’t the same distinction between work and leisure and that to some extent leisure can be had by doing chores in the company of people whose company you enjoy. Am I misinterpreting that or was that kind of what you saw?

Dr. Coppens:                     [11:05]                   No, I think that’s. I think that’s spot on. I think that’s a part of the picture and many of the indigenous heritage communities and I think one of the things that supports this, this permeability between what in many middle class communities is a relatively strict line between time for work and time for play or time for educational activities is the autonomy that’s afforded for two kids, for engaging in work. So this connotation that many of us grew up with and in many cases still have around household chores being sort of onorous and we’re looking to do them as efficiently as possible and so that they’re over with and we can move on to other more enjoyable things. I think part of the lack of enjoyment of that kind of work have the ability to make a contribution in a shared contribution with others is that our engagement in those when we were growing up wasn’t so voluntary.

Dr. Coppens:                     [11:55]                   It was maybe coerced or it was sort of this uni-dimensional thing where we just did it for pay or to avoid punishment and sort of moved on. So in, in many of the indigenous Indian indigenous heritage communities that myself and colleagues have studied in Mexico, there is this permeable line between types of time, but I think related to that as a permeable line between really in a, in a broader sense, adulthood and childhood. So all around the world, there are adults in children that that much is pretty straightforward. But the extent to which adulthood defines a set of activities that are separate from childhood, that’s really quite a unique cultural phenomenon. And so to the extent that adults in children’s sort of social, and sort of their worlds, the worlds that they live in or defined as sort of interconnected, I think kids can, can make contributions and then seamlessly blend into playing and all of those kinds of activities are really shared by both adults and children.

Jen:                                      [13:02]                   Yeah. I’m thinking about when I took a trip to Guatemala, which I’m sure you would say much more elegantly than me. We took a hiking trip out of town and it was just a friend and I and a guide and they took us to this tiny village and I got up early because the kids were going to show me how to make tortillas and they were around and then they disappeared and I heard a motor running and then 20 minutes later they came back in the corn had all been pulverized and they’re making these tortillas for the family to eat that day by themselves. And they’re like age six and it seems as though what you’re talking about, the blending of the line between childhood and adulthood in some ways Westerners might look at that and think, well I don’t want my child to be doing things adults are doing; its their time to be a child. But in other ways it’s almost like a lot of learning occurs when children take on those kinds of responsibilities for themselves.

Dr. Coppens:                     [13:56]                   I think that’s right. And the concern about kids maybe growing up too fast or having too much responsibility, that’s a point well taken. And I think that’s a point that’s appreciated by many indigenous heritage communities and parents as well. And it’s, it’s why, well, it’s one of the reasons why children’s autonomy and engaging is so important. So parents I think are really are really waiting for signs of kids eagerness to get involved and then offer ways in rather than it being, you know, we sometimes assume that if kids are involved in productive work that, you know, they’re forced to do it or they have to. And in both ethnographic studies and in my research there’s there’s really very little evidence for that.

Jen:                                      [14:35]                   Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about that then for a minute because you know I have a two and a half year old and she wants to help with everything. We walk in the door when we get home from preschool and she says I want to cook dinner and if I get the vacuum cleaner out, she wants to push the vacuum cleaner. So right now it seems as though if we were to compare her with an indigenous toddler, they might be kind of similar and then at some point over the next few years some kind of shift is going to happen and the indigenous child is going to be taking on more and more work voluntarily and my child is potentially going to be paid for chores and is going to start resenting that and is going to do less and less. And is there something that I could do differently to short circuit that process of the Western child who resists chores; doesn’t find them enjoyable, doesn’t want to do them, has to be fought with to get them done.

Dr. Coppens:                     [15:29]                   Well, I mean, let me just start by saying I think the picture that you laid out… So earlier, some of the studies I described were with six to 10 year olds, and just like you say, sort of predict large cultural differences and how voluntarily kids, at least across the middle class and indigenous heritage communities of the Americas. But you’re exactly right. I think if you look at two to three years old, both evidence in developmental psychology research and there’s been a big wave of this research on what’s referred to as prosocial helping recently, and lots of evidence that kids in so both ethnographic studies and developmental psychology studies lots of evidence that toddlers are really eager to help and which you have firsthand experience with. But in a recent study that we’ve done, we’ve called that sort of “joining in.” So kids will see an activity that’s already started and then really want to join him to help. And what happens from there, I think from parents is really crucial. So there’s a couple of things. One is kids at that age aren’t very good at estimating what they’re capable of doing. So just like you say, “I want to cook dinner,” right?

Jen:                                      [16:39]                   “I want to vacuum the house;” she pushes it three times and she’s done.

Dr. Coppens:                     [16:46]                   Yeah; the vacuum is twice as big as they are. So one of the, I think really skillful approaches of many indigenous heritage and this isn’t just indigenous here. We’ve also found that some middle class parents do this as well, but is in the face of a suggestion from a child for getting involved that’s really unfeasible to finding an alternative that keeps kids meaningfully engaged and allows them to make a real contribution, but sort of reshapes their interest in a way that that’s connected to something that’s more manageable I think is is crucial. So it maintains what I think is one of the central things which is kids being integrated collaboratively in family household work, but allows them to make a contribution that’s safe and that, like I said, it’s practical.

Jen:                                      [17:29]                   Every parent right now who’s listening to this is thinking: “So for example…”

Dr. Coppens:                     [17:35]                   So for example…well, I’m thinking of an example of that actually comes from my own childhood, so I think a lot of parents recognize like you mentioned that their kids are eager to get involved and if you walk through the aisles of toy stores and things like that, you know, there’s all kinds of toy play kitchens and play vacuums and play – in my own case this was a play lawn mower, but the interesting part about that lawn mower is that blew bubbles, but it didn’t actually cut any grass, but there are some toys that, that actually do that. So a small broom sweeps just like a large broom and um, and you know, plastic dishes are unbreakable and they’re easier to read, easier to wash. So, you know, there’s a lot, a lot of it depends or what people have around their house, but finding creative ways to keep kids involved I think is the, is one of the keys. Yeah.

Jen:                                      [18:29]                   And potentially it seems as though also just making it social as well, instead of sending your child off to tidy their room by themselves, if that is one task that needs to be done in another task is sweeping up somewhere. Maybe the two of you could work on tidying your room and the two of you could work on sweeping up one after the other. Is that another way of keeping that interest engaged?

Dr. Coppens:                     [18:53]                   Yeah. Yeah, I think so because when, when a child joins in to help; a toddler gets involved. We’re actually not sure…psychologists and parents alike. We’re not sure what’s motivating the child to get involved. So I think we want to, and it may vary, so on some days the child may just want to spend time with their parent on another day. They may want to figure out how does this vacuum work? And so keeping activities as rich as possible with as many different reasons for getting involved as possible, I think will help kids continue to be voluntarily involved. So if the social aspect is cut off, so if they’re know of the room and say, “Oh, pick up your toys in there,” well then on the days that they don’t feel like working by themselves, you know, that might be quite a bit more difficult to get them to do.

Jen:                                      [19:39]                   Yeah. And I’m thinking about, it’s kind of cool how this is touching on so many other things that we’ve talked about on the show already about how our culture thinks about fairness and our episode 24 actually explored Western ideas of fairness and it seems to be that western cultures are kind of about taking responsibility for yourself and if you make a mess than you’d better be the one to clean it up. And I’m wondering if you see different ideas about fairness in some of the other cultures that you’ve studied.

Dr. Coppens:                     [20:10]                   Yeah. So in one study we actually asked mothers my series of questions about fairness. So this is a study that we did in Mexico and we asked mothers from a middle class what we referred to as cosmopolitan community in Guadalajara and in an indigenous heritage community. And we ask them the mothers four questions, so would it be fair to ask your child to clean up the house, make an older siblings bed, make the mother’s bed or regularly care for a younger child and but mothers in both communities really answered very differently about childcare. But you know, both mothers thought that Oh, okay. For a kid that’s maybe a little too much responsibility, but for some of those other things, making beds and cleaning up the house, about half of mothers in the indigenous heritage community actually pushed back on the, on the fairness idea.

Dr. Coppens:                     [20:53]                   That was, that was a part of the question, which is a really rare and research for someone to suggest to you that you should’ve asked a different question, but they really said, look, this is neither here nor there. You know, I’m paraphrasing here, but fairness is a really irrelevant way to think about it. And so fairness in that community was less about the more immediate sort of small, you know, this is your mess, so you need to clean it up. This idea of ownership of responsibility, which really ties ties into, I think this idea about divided work. So if we divide up work according to, okay, this is your job, this is your job because it’s either your staff or your mess than I think one thing that does is really undermine opportunities for collaboration. Right? So if the, if the ownership for all the work is shared, then each time I engage in the work, it’s an opportunity for collaborating with other members of the family. So mothers really keyed into that idea and rather than contractual ideas about fairness and divided work, they were focused on the long term reciprocal commitment to shared goals. And within that children’s autonomy for engaging was really key.

Jen:                                      [22:00] Longterm commitment to reciprocal goals. That sounds like something we all aspire to. I’m thinking about something that I read in one of your papers about how the indigenous families set the expectation that children will help because it seems as though it does have that very long term focus and in several places in one of your papers, you describe the desire to help as being something that comes from within the child, but then in one of them I found a table of frequencies of certain activities in the family and it showed that the indigenous children take initiative more often, whereas the cosmopolitan parents make more requests of their children to do work, but then I saw that the incidents of punishments and rewards and struggles in negotiation was actually about equal across the two groups and the indigenous parents actually seems to use admonishments and threats more than five times as often as the customer Polynesian parents. So I’m wondering if it’s some kind of disconnect there between what the indigenous parents are saying about how the long term goal is this kind of cooperative relationship and actually how often they’re threatening their child to make them do chores. Am I misreading the results of the paper or is there something else going on here?

Dr. Coppens:                     [23:16]                   No, no. So the frequency refers to how many mothers in each community occasionally use things like threats and these were empty threats, actually a threat, a threat that was followed through, we coded as a punishment. So, um, you know, these are sort of threats and admonishments and scolds and things like that. So based on sort of a global read of how mothers were talking about those things, what we came to understand there was that these were really an indication of mothers communicating to their child what’s important. So in the indigenous heritage community for family household work, so for work that was held a shared benefit for a number of different family members. Um, you’re right that, that indigenous heritage mothers or more indigenous heritage mothers reported sometimes using admonishments and threats to remind kids or to insist on kids staying involved and being helpful in family household work.

Dr. Coppens:                     [24:11] However that didn’t include, or less frequently included parents telling kids exactly what they needed to do. So, you know, hey, it’s your job on Tuesday, you know, you need to really empty the trash or, or, you know, why don’t you go do this. That wasn’t a part of it, so it was, you know, sometimes sternly reminding kids that know the expectation here is that you’re helpful but, but still keeping it in kids’ hands how exactly we’re going to be helpful and when that was appropriate and so kids in all communities sometimes need to be reminded and sometimes you know be given a little, a little nudge to remind them of expectations and things like that, but the extent to which those reminders remain supportive of kids’ autonomy I think is key

Jen:                                      [24:54]                   And you’re reminding them of the importance of your family value as it were, but not that the trash needs taking out, but that the value of your family is to help one another and everyone contributes to what it takes to make the family work. Is that right?

Dr. Coppens:                     [25:12]                   Right. That’s right. Yeah. And I think the avoidance of the contingency is really key. You don’t have to go to an indigenous heritage community of Mexico to really, uh, you know, to really have evidence of that. I mean, we have decades of psychological research on motivation that suggests that, that those contingent sort of reward and punishment paradigm approaches to not just with kids, but really, you know, you can look at this in the workplace as well. They’re only effective for motivating, really, really, really pretty menial and simplistic tasks.

Jen:                                      [25:44]                   You sound like an Alfie Kohn reader.

Dr. Coppens:                     [25:46]                   Right, I know. One of my favorites.

Jen:                                      [25:52]                   Yeah, we covered the sort of mata-analysis that he’s done on punishments or rewards in our previous episode. Yeah. So paying kids for tourists, I guess this is sort of a plot giveaway for the next episode, it? Paying kids for chores isn’t necessarily a great way to get the chores done. You know, if you have other reasons to, to pay kids money to give them money, then that’s one thing. But if you’re using it as a way to get chores done, what you’re saying is that it’s probably not all that effective.

Dr. Coppens:                     [26:23]                   Right. And at least in the contingent way. So it’s, you know…so one of the thing…so in the study that Lucy Arcola and I conducted Mexican American students when they were kids reported sometimes getting money from uncles or grandparents and things like that, but this was done in a way that celebrated the whole family and the whole family’s contributions and it wasn’t focused a reward for a specific chore. So you know, if the whole family got a lot done for the week or if particularly stressful time around the holidays and a lot needed to get done and kids had to pitch in and parents had to pitch in a shared reward for that shared work. I think there’s, you know, there’s evidence that, you know, that can be supportive of kids’ engagement rather than undermining.

Jen:                                      [27:04]                   Okay. And so in thinking about how children learn and learn to pitch in and you have a specific term that you use which is learning by observing and pitching in or LOPI for short in your papers and how children learn what contributions they can make to work in a household. And as I was reading about that, I realized that it’s still present in some communities in what researchers tend to call WEIRD societies are western educated, industrialized rich and democratic societies. And specifically I was thinking about children who grow up on farms because when I read Ron Lieber’s book, he actually describes a family living in northern Utah and they have seven sons between age six and 19 and I’m going to quote “and there’s a presumption that the youngest son will work and that his family members will teach them how and then he’ll be good at it quickly. Their parents know that not every boy will grow up to work in the family’s farm business, but they’re confident that not one of them will be afraid of the effort it takes to succeed somewhere else.” So it seems like as a society we haven’t totally forgotten how children can do work by observing their siblings and their parents and sort of taking on a small task by themselves and observing it first and taking it on more and more. But those of us who aren’t farmers tend not to do it very much. Why is it a relic that still exists in the farming community and the rest of us don’t use?

Dr. Coppens:                     [28:28]                   Sure. And in your mention of learning by observing and pitching in, I really need to give a sort of acknowledgement and credit to a large group of researchers of which I’m a part and Barbara Rogoff is really a central leader in that. And we’re all really concerned with the questions that we’ve been talking about today. And how can we draw on this paradigm of learning that I think, and I’ll start to actually answer your question here. Um, that is built on I think, I think first built on kids’ integration in what we sometimes call mature productive activities. So activities that are not child focused or child specialized, but our real, even in terms of the daily activities of adults. But I think what’s key there and where there might be similarities in Utah or in other parts of the world even more distant, is that kids are integrated into these activities.

Dr. Coppens:                     [29:17]                   And that integration has, I think two aspects that are important to keep in mind. One is obviously they’re physically integrated so they’re there and having kids be there is hard enough in many middle class communities because kids spend so much time in school and of course that’s important time, but an unintended consequence of have so much time in preschool and daycare and school is that in some ways it closes off access to kids’ learning by observing and making small contributions and increasingly more meaningful in bigger contributions to quote unquote adult work. So many of us adults in our workplaces, we spend a large part of our day really, really not seen any kids. And that’s something that, that many of us take for granted. But in fact, in fact, culturally and historically it’s quite unique. And then the other aspect is, is what I’d refer to as psychological integration.

Dr. Coppens:                     [30:11]                   So when kids and parents are together, to what extent are our kids and parents or kids and other adults working together working collaboratively toward joint purposes and shared goals. And when those two aspects are in place, when kids have – and not just one opportunity, but sustained opportunities to observe a work and activities that are happening around them and have the chance to, I guess you could say psychologically collaborate with adults and make contributions, you know, in a way that’s sort of alongside adults, or horizontal in some way that I think a lot of, you know, a lot of good things can happen. But I do think that this isn’t a pattern that’s been lost in many middle class communities. But I think we’ve come to overlook it. And an example that, that I think is instructive is it’s sort of a miracle that kids learn to speak fluently this whole language by the time, you know, usually by the time they’re about two and a half, you know, and, and so we can ask how do they learn to do that?

Jen:                                      [31:19] Learning by observing and pitching in?

Dr. Coppens:                     [31:23]                   I think that’s about right! You know, um, and so kids as they’re, you know, in strollers and as they’re sort of being held and cared for I think are somewhat accidentally privy to the mature aspects of their linguistic community and I think kids are really compelled to participate socially in that community. And an argument could be made that the do the best they can to, to learn words as quickly as possible as such, that they’re able to do that.

Jen:                                      [31:55]                   Yeah. And they mess it up some of the time. Right. They say “poon” instead of “spoon,” but you get the idea of what they mean and eventually over time they correct themselves and it’s almost a parallel process isn’t it? She can’t vacuum right now, but maybe she’d be able to push it around the room or something.

Dr. Coppens:                     [32:10]                   Ah, that’s right. And the assessment of their learning in that context. So you know, when they mess up a word or if it sounds quite a little different, you know, they get feedback on that immediately, you know. So maybe maybe people will sort of laugh. They might get a little embarrassed or maybe people won’t understand them and it won’t quite work, but the feedback is right there. So I think the, try this out, make her contribution, get feedback, improve, you know, those cycles are really, really rapid and it’s, you know, it’s one characteristic of this way of organizing learning.

Jen:                                      [32:39]                   Yeah. And I’m just thinking for parents who might be thinking, oh my goodness, another thing to learn and remember to do and why, why do I have to bother? I, I’m thinking back to episode 10 of the podcast and we had an interview with Roberta Golinkoff and she wrote the book Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells UsAbout Raising Successful Children and she told us about the six Cs that will be critical to our children’s functioning as they’re adults. And those six Cs are collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, which I think was because I doesn’t start with a C and confidence. And so if I think about, you know, what does it really make a difference if I help my child to clean up the toys or if I tell them to do it because it seems as though it’s harder for me to help them than it is to tell them even if I have to fight them a bit to tell them. If I think back to those six Cs then if I think about a child understanding their place in the family and taking an initiative to help someone else, it hits three or four of those six Cs. Do you see it in the same way?

Dr. Coppens:                     [33:44]                   Yeah, I do. It’s just one of the reasons that my, my research focuses what seemed to be relatively mundane things like chores around the house is that I I think they’re really rich, really consistent and really accessible means of kids learning some of these really valuable things. So, uh, there’s a, there’s a center focused on, uh, on informal learning at the University of Washington that has has generated this really great graph that the main message of this graph is that developmentally speaking, even in the times where kids are spending or most intensively engaged in school and spending a lot of their time in school really only about 18 and a half percent of their learning is rooted in formal contexts. So throughout the life course, at least for, and this is true of all of us, uh, according to, you know, this, uh, this estimation around 80 percent of our learning is really rooted in informal context.

Dr. Coppens:                     [34:40]                   So understanding I think some of the ways to get the most out of these, these really, really pervasive opportunities for learning is I think in, in many middle class communities, a really untapped resource for a developing in kids some of the, some of the things that many of us agree are really valuable. So initiative, which is the area that I focus on, you know, it has to do with, you know, many educators talk about self-regulated learning. So a child that takes, takes initiative to see work around the house that needs to be done and then does it. That’s self-regulation

Jen:                                      [35:15] Mhmm. Which is a key skill for succeeding in adult life.

Dr. Coppens:                     [35:18]                   No, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. So, so I think it’s, I think it’s, it’s worth the effort you parents are really wondering because early on it’s tough because kids don’t really know how to do it. It slows everything down and many of us have very busy lives, but I do think it’s worth it.

Jen:                                      [35:34]                   Yeah. Alright. So I’m, every parent is wondering right now, do you have kids? And if so, do you make them do chores?

Dr. Coppens:                     [35:42]                   I do not have kids. I’m a super uncle so my, my brother has two young toddlers and yeah, I mean it’s a question that I get from, you know, when I’ll talk about these findings at conferences, you know, many of the people that are listening are busy middle class parents and they’ll say, okay, “yeah, yeah, well that’s great, but how do I get my kids to do their chores? Boil it down for me.”

Jen:                                      [36:04]                   “Did you miss the last hour?”

Dr. Coppens:                     [36:09]                   And I think even embedded in that question is a very, very instructive information, you know, this is the, you know, you always turn the question around on somebody that’s sort of a tactic. So how do I get my kid to do their chores? So that question presupposes that the children have their chores that were maybe assigned to them and that other people would have other kinds of work so that evokes this divided paradigm, which I think is counterproductive for kids voluntarily doing chores. And it also, the question also assumes that parents have a critical role in motivating kids to do the work. When if we look at toddlers, you know, many of us share that observation that the toddlers are really eager themselves to do the work. So I think the question is how do we as parents capitalize on that early eagerness in ways that develop into this more full-fledged form of initiative. So it’s about sort of changing the paradigm within which we, you know, we sort of come to understand how kids and adults interacting together in a way that gets everyday work done.

Jen:                                      [37:11]                   Yeah. Okay, so as we look to conclude here, I’m curious about what suggestions that you might have for those of us who have heard this last hour and are thinking about reconceptualizing, how work is done and in our house and maybe thinking about more of an integration and collaboration model and less segregated work. And I’ve been trying to make a start on this myself. I used to try and do as much of the dinner preparation as I could before my daughter got home and then sometimes we’d stop off the park on our way home from, from her daycare and we’d sort of rush through the rest of dinner prep when we got home. And we still do that some days but other days I make a point of not doing any prep in advance and we just come home and she gets up in her little helping tower and she helps me cut vegetables with her little plastic knife and, and we just chat about what songs she sang today and what she was doing in the sandpit. And, and it’s, it’s really fun time and even though it’s not leisure time per se, because we’re not at the park, it almost starts to feel like leisure time and I’m thinking, am I on the right track? And do you have other suggestions for kinds of activities if I am on the right track of ways that I could sort of take it to the next step?

Dr. Coppens:                     [38:23]                   Yeah. So one thing, and, and this is gonna sound pretty general, but in a recent study this really, really seemed to matter. So I think one is when kids show eagerness, even if it’s a little misguided or, or, or what have you, it seems to be very important that parents assume that children are motivated to help. So sometimes we can make the assumption that toddlers may not even understand what it means to help or they may, you know, maybe they really want to play. I know they really like splashing around with the water and we just don’t have time for that. Right? So by contrast, if we assume that kids want to help, even if we’re not convinced, we just said, okay, I’m just saying, okay, what they want to do is help here. Then as you know, as good parents, we help kids to help, you know, we help them along with something that they’re trying to do.

Dr. Coppens:                     [39:08]                   If we assume that they want to want to play or, or then what we’re likely to do I think is help kids to play, which may involve disengaging them from the work and engaging them in an activity that’s more focused on play. So just making that initial assumption that kids want to help I think can go a long way and then we’ll find a way for them to be helpful if it’s appropriate. And another thing is, and there’s really, you know, as much art in this science but allowing for kids to make real contributions I think is key. So you know, if that’s drawing something off, if that’s, you know, just carrying something. But I think kids have an intuitive sense of whether what they’re doing is real or whether it’s somewhat contrived. So even when things are tense and stressed and hurried, you know, thinking in advance about, okay, I know I’m going to be pressed for time.

Dr. Coppens:                     [39:59]                   I know, for example, I’m baking a birthday cake for somebody and I want it to look good, you know, so I’m not going to have them frost the cake. But uh, you know, uh, what is the way that they could help? And then in being engaged in that small way, they’re allowed access to learning, so they’re hands on with this small way of helping, but they’re also observing what’s going on around them and they’re gaining a sensibility of how does this work. And that sensibility I think will allow them to make more and more complex contributions later on.

Jen:                                      [40:29]                   It seems like laundry is a fertile ground.

Dr. Coppens:                     [40:33]                   Yeah. Laundry’s great.

Jen:                                      [40:35] Matching socks.

Dr. Coppens:                     [40:36]                   That’s right. Yeah.

Jen:                                      [40:38]                   Maybe getting a step stool and throwing stuff in the washer or something.

Dr. Coppens:                     [40:40]                   Yeah. Yeah. And, uh, you know, and then I think resisting maybe the… For me, I think it would be a default temptation, but resisting the temptation to divide up what is potentially a shared activity into. Okay, here are your socks. Why don’t you fold those, right?

Jen:                                      [40:56]                   Let’s match the socks together or something then.

Dr. Coppens:                     [40:59]                   Yeah. Yeah, and another way of saying that is just to keep it social and keep the work connected to contributions that are made on behalf of many people.

Jen:                                      [41:08]                   So we’re folding everybody’s socks, not just the child’s socks.

Dr. Coppens:                     [41:11]                   Yeah, yeah.

Jen:                                      [41:12]                   Okay.

Dr. Coppens:                     [41:12]                   Those would be my recommendations, but you know, everybody knows their kid very, very well and it’s likely to vary from one family to the next.

Jen:                                      [41:18]                   Right. Well thank you for helping us to completely reframe what we think about. I certainly didn’t see this coming when I started to research this episode. So grateful for the that you spent talking it through with us.

Dr. Coppens:                     [41:34]                   Oh yeah, thank you. I had a really great time.

Jen:                                      [41:36]                   So for listeners who are interested in the references that Dr. Coppens mentioned in today’s episode, you can find those on YourParentingMojo.com/chores

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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