Wall Street Journal AUGUST 27, 2008
Quiz for the day: How much time each day, on average, does a 6- to 12-year-old child spend on household chores? If you guessed more than a half-hour, you’re wrong. Children are spending a mere 24 minutes a day doing cleaning, laundry and other housework — a 12% decline since 1997 and a 25% drop from 1981 levels, says Sandra Hofferth, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, based on a forthcoming study of 1,343 children. In the glacial realm of sociological change, that amounts to a free fall.
It also reflects “important behavioral and values shifts that will affect lives for years to come,” Dr. Hofferth says. One consequence is never more obvious than at this time of year, when hundreds of thousands of college freshmen move into their dorms and promptly begin destroying their laundry. Other studies suggest the shift may have longer-term implications for marriage and community life. Of course, children aren’t doing housework partly because they’re spending more time on such worthy pursuits as reading, studying and youth groups, Dr. Hofferth’s data show. Parents are doing less housework themselves, hiring help or just making peace with dust bunnies.
Nevertheless, research into the role of housework in human relationships suggests we may be losing something of value here. While most parents today focus mostly on teaching kids self-reliance — keeping themselves clean, fed and botulism-free — the benefits of learning housework run deeper. For example: Pitching in at home has become a crucial marriage-preservation skill for young men. Studies show parents still assign more housework to girls than boys. Yet these same young women hope as adults to find men who will help out; 90% of 60 women ages 18 to 32 studied by Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociology professor, said they hoped to share housework and child care with spouses “in a committed, mutually supportive and egalitarian way.” After controlling for other factors, U.S. marriages tend to be more stable when men participate more in domestic tasks, says a study of 506 U.S. couples published in 2006 in the American Journal of Sociology.
Housework has unique value in instilling a habit of serving others. Analyzing data on more than 3,000 adults, Alice Rossi, a professor emerita of sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, found doing household chores as a child was a major, independent predictor of whether a person chose to do volunteer or other community work as an adult. Thus for parents who value service, housework is an important teaching tool.