For three years I lived in the guys’ dorm at Moody Bible Institute. As you can imagine, two dozen guys living on our floor produced a bit of mess! Who should clean up that mess? It was only appropriate that each of us would take turns cleaning the lounge, doing the dishes, and vacuuming. It would be unfair for guys to live with all the benefits of community without helping pay the price. Except for the year we had a paraplegic on our floor, everyone always took their turn. To be able-bodied, but refuse to pitch in would be freeloading. And few things irk us more than freeloaders!
Similarly, we don’t appreciate freeloaders in our society at large. We get upset with those who could work but don’t–those who benefit from the hard work of others without helping. This is an attitude of entitlement. They are takers, but they refuse to be givers.
In healthy communities, capable members share the responsibilities and don’t mooch off the others. We see this exact philosophy in Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonian church, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thes 3:10b)
Now I’d like to take this thought a step further and suggest that families are communities in exactly the same way. Which brings to mind…
Five Principles for Family Chores
First, household chores are the natural cost of living in community. In order to run a home someone needs to do the shopping, launder the clothes, shovel the walk, pay the bills, take out the garbage, scrub the toilets, cook the food, mow the yard, etc. Without any of these things, the family system is hindered. Each family member reaps the benefits of the chores being done and each family member suffers when they are left undone.
Second, I think parents are wise if they require kids from a very early age to be contributors to the family system by doing their fair share of chores. (To not do so teaches our kids to be freeloaders, leaving the parents to do the bulk of the work. An entitlement mentality is being taught by this approach.) From preschool on, I believe every family member should understand that their family is depending on their help. The family is a team and everyone must pitch in for the team and do their fair share.
Third, when I say “fair share” I mean that as they age, their responsibility level should increase according to their abilities. A toddler can help the home in tiny ways, such as picking up the toys. Here it’s the child’s effort that’s important not the amount of his contribution. But stretch them to do as much as they are reasonably capable of and continue to increase their responsibility level over time until it comes close to matching the household workload of the parents. There are very few chores–if any–that a teenager can’t do, so they should be expected to do their fair share of them.
We first thought to implement these concepts in our home when the kids were about three and six. We had a family meeting one day where we listed out all the things necessary to run our home. It was a long list! We explained that as a family it only made sense for everyone to pitch in–parents and kids. So, we started writing down names next to each chore, taking volunteers at first and making reasonable assignments with what was left. Lexi thought it would be fun to scrub the toilets. Brenda chose to cook on Mondays. On it went until we had a reasonable distribution of tasks: vacuuming, laundry “whites”, packing lunches, garbage, recyclables, setting the table, doing dishes, cooking on the other nights, etc. We all agreed Cindy should continue to pay the bills! I just found the first edition of our Chore Chart for those interested. Over the years we’ve revisited our list and have made lots of adjustments as you can tell from this version. Now we don’t have a chart at all, it’s just intuitive. And thankfully, we’ve come to the point where–with the girls now being 13 and 16–we’re approaching chore equilibrium!
Forth, giving kids household responsibility prepares them for life. What a gift it is for kids to have learned all the lifeskills that go into running a household! Think of how much better equipped for college, marriage, parenting, and life they will be if they’ve been cross-trained on a variety of household chores!
Finally, should allowances be tied to chores? My view is “no” for two good reasons. A. To me, chores are what we owe to the other family members. At our house, we say, “no one will thank you, no one will praise you!” Chores are simply what we owe each other for the privilege of living in this family.” B. Chores should be a relational issue, not a monetary one. When we neglect (or forget) our chores, the other family members will naturally suffer and the relational consequences of that must be faced. If Lexi forgets to fix dinner on a Tuesday, three hungry people will begin complaining! If people don’t have clean clothes to war the laundry person will be confronted. If I don’t take out the garbage, my family will complain about the smell. When our neglect lets others down, family chore assignments force us to deal with people, not piggy banks! We have to resolve our relational neglectfulness in ways that a mere loss of allowance money can’t fix. (For example, some kids don’t care a thing about money–is it ok for them to “pay their way out of” ever having to contribute to the family system?) Making chores unpaid forces us to solve the relational problems that our negligence creates. Sometimes the solution involves making a deal with another family member to cover the missed chore (such as hiring them!) Sometimes it involves some form of restitution. Sometimes, it’s just an apology. But it’s always primarily relational in nature.
(Note: we do give our kids “stipend” allowances, but they are not at all connected to chores. We see them as part of the benefits that come with being members of the Forstrom family. When we do our family budget each year, we apportion such allowances. As the kids get older their allowances increase–as do the number of things they are responsible to buy for themselves! But that’s the subject of another post!)