The North Shore area above Boston, Massachusetts, is a fine place to survey the transition from industrial to post-industrial economy. Bypassed by the high-tech boom that prospered the corridor west of the city, Lawrence and Lowell and other factory centers house old stalwarts of American industrialization, the textile mills. Before railroads and steel mills, textile production was American industry. Beyond their worth as monuments of economic history, the mills encourage lessons on immigration, urban growth, and child labor. Therefore they are popular field-trip destinations, where children examine weaving machines, envisioning the roar and sweat of fiber-saturated rooms in full production. Properly horrified, young visitors draw the conclusion that only bad people would make children work. Then they retreat to their own world of school and play.
Too often American childhood is conceived as a span split between school and play. We construe education as the “work” expected of children, to give them skills needed later for rewarding jobs in adulthood. After school, it is time to play. But work needs fresh consideration as part of normal, healthy childhood. For some, this might mean help with a family farm or restaurant. For most American kids, though, it means at least the work nearest to their own good, the work that otherwise falls to their parents. Not homework. Housework.
Right now kids do not do much of it: current studies estimate that most American children do less than a half hour a day. Their parents, meanwhile, work feverishly to keep jobs, keep house, and keep kids involved and entertained. Why should children play all day when adults are presumed to work all day? Why should adults, in fact, work harder in order to enable child’s play?
Too Much Play
Even though we commonly assume that play is what children should be doing, we complain a lot about that leisure: that children spend too much time in front of screens, consuming trashy content and becoming unsociable, smutty, violent, and flabby in the process; that children are overweight, so they should be outside and active more; that children spend too much play time in organized sports and not enough amused by their own lights and building their own social sphere; that children in organized sports get concussions and suffer long. Some of these fears are well founded. Most often the remedy offered to problems with play is more play. Actual rather than virtual, outdoor rather than indoor, independent rather than adult-supervised. But still, keep them playing. Preferably with helmets and sunscreen on.
Most children have oodles of time to play, overflowing buckets of it. Professor Sandra Hofferth, who directs population research at the University of Maryland, discovered from time-use diaries that children aged 6–12 had between 5.5 and 5.7 hours of leisure time on school days and between ten and eleven hours on weekend days. And electronic play absorbs increasing measures of time, kids keeping screens on—television, computer, tablet, music player, smartphone—usually several going at once. Much of children’s remaining time is packaged into organized activities, a fact of childhood life for any who can afford it.
Some play is a cherished element of young life, but enough is enough. There is plenty more work to do, and someone has to do it. Perhaps egalitarian assumptions are wrong; perhaps some people actually are more suited to a life of leisure and so should be excused from household labor. But who? One of the difficulties of democratic order is in rejecting old means of sorting servile from leisured folk without the substitution of a truer sorting mechanism. We do not claim blood or lineage or wealth—or of late, at least without embarrassment, race, gender, class, or skin tone—as appropriate markers between those who labor and those who play. We should not make age the great divider either.
Mothers and fathers do a great deal of work not included in paid employment. The maintenance of a home requires significant time and labor. If the vast library of scholarship and contention over contemporary work and gender roles centers on positions of power at the top, at bottom, much boils down to housework. How much do men do? How much do women do? What change in each figure have we seen in recent years when women’s employment has risen? Usually absent from total hours devoted to sweeping floors or folding laundry are the contributions of minors. Men and women are left alone to divide those hours between them. Children hardly figure into assessments of housework except as another category of labor that man and woman may share or shirk. This is one key reason the way forward lies in making the idle hands of boys and girls busy.
A Short History of Housework
Before electricity, housework was a colossal labor. American women, their daughters, and sometimes servants muscled their way through the cooking of a meal or the cleaning of a home. These burdens have been reduced by appliances and the piecing out of tasks to industrial provision. Washers and dryers eliminate need for two days spent processing laundry. Canned, frozen, and chemically preserved foods make cooking quicker. Restaurants and cheap fast food cut the need to cook at all. The advent of labor-saving appliances, in some respects, saved a woman a lot of time at home. It lessened her imperative to delegate or teach the work to her children, either for immediate benefit in having their collaboration or for their later use when they had to do these things themselves.
The new efficiency of electric appliances helped birth the storied 1950s housewife: prosperous, vigilant in battling ring-around-the-collar or residue on linoleum, but also elegant. We might be tempted to say that this housewife had too much time on her hands, time she was condemned to idle in since so many worthy works were closed to her: what Betty Friedan called The Feminine Mystique. This was never the lot of working-class women, in any case, and is not the lot of most women today. Now, the majority of American mothers with young children also are employed. Today’s middle-class American mother is the opposite of that leisurely, smiling, crisp-crinolined housewife. She is put upon, busy rushing from job to child-servicing to housework.
What happened to that shrinking load of housework, lightened by a flip of the switch? Some of the many fine books on the American history of housekeeping explain the change succinctly through their winsome titles, like Never Done or More Work for Mother. Machines did not make housework go away. They raised the bar for the satisfactory doing of it. Hand-laundering took a lot of elbow grease, but people have more clothes now, and with children at soccer practice from one afternoon to the next, laundry hampers are always full. Household furnishings need to be updated and redecorated frequently. A rising standard of living means that for every household task simplified, some new garnish or nicety has become de rigeur.
Consider the way family eating has changed. Family dinner is complicated by pangs of conscience over mass-produced chicken breasts, recognition of the value of sitting down together at table, and the marking of status by how many vegetables one’s offspring voluntarily ingest. Clever menus are partially an effort to pique flagging appetites, that is, to induce us to cook at all. Cookbook authors tout cooking as therapy: not as a drag you do every day, but as an artistic outlet when you have leisure to enjoy it. Children are not much involved in the process. Perhaps they may stand in the kitchen occasionally, as a treat of the parent’s time or to be given a token task to raise awareness about the source of their food. Theirs are not usually the hands that cook family dinner. Why not? It is easier for the parents just to get food on the table by themselves, or expect children to play until they are called to dinner. Parents’ effort at feeding children decent food has a remedial thrust. Trying to persuade kids to eat that poached fish and broccoli instead of a burger and chips is hard enough, so that asking a kid to help make his own medicine would be asking too much.
With this combination of high expectations for household goods and foodstuffs, plus a schedule that has parents busy and children’s daytimes stuffed full of playdates and soccer practice, how does the house get clean, dinner get cooked? You could pay someone to do it. But this is not the single solution to the disordered balance of work and benefit in American families. Hiring someone else to do laundry or cook or clean boils down to this: father and mother work more to pay someone else to do housework so that children can play more.
What Is There to Be Done?
In decades’ worth of “mommy wars,” of women comparing the relative worth of employment and at-home parenting, weighing day care and nannies and shared responsibilities, trying to figure out whether it was possible to do all, some consensus has been reached over the issue of housework. Women cannot do it all, and if time is to be divided between work and children, housework is the safest thing to let slip.
It is possible to do less and make the doing more efficient. There is no reason to romanticize mopping a floor. Yet we do wish to enjoy our homes, find things easily, discover pleasant touches—fresh flowers, clean towels, no thatch of dog hair in the corner of the stairs—that make home a retreat from the bustling workaday world outside. It takes work to make the house so. The way to improve domestic environments and give children a more balanced use of time than alternating school and play is to devolve to them a share of maintaining that comfortable space.
Like adults, children not only may prefer play to work but may prefer some jobs over others. Nevertheless some jobs must be done even if they are unpleasant. And some jobs might even be peculiarly suited to children, as nineteenth-century utopian theorist Charles Fourier imagined when casting them as natural garbage collectors since they love to frolic in filth.
A dear friend gave me Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House some years ago. It is a serious, literate housekeeping manual, not a coffee-table display, just hundreds of pages on making your life better by cleanliness and order. A beautiful world emerges from these pages, with no dust on the blinds or scum in the tub, with a sheen on the silver and ripe fruit in the bowl. Neither men nor women may wish to do this cleaning, or have time to do it, but surely many of us would rather live in elegance and comfort than in disarray. The triumph of Martha Stewart at her peak was to make us admire and aspire to skills of housekeeping, even if we compartmentalized the ordinary stuff as someone else’s task while we schooled ourselves to conjure up profiteroles, handmade wrapping paper, a cornucopia centerpiece. Who has time to do all this stuff? Your children.
Making an All-Play Childhood Unfashionable
Start with the basics. It might be hard to fix an exact age to particular skills, but an ordinary child of ten should count these among his skill set: load and unload the dishwasher or wash dishes by hand; dust; sweep or vacuum floors; clean bathrooms; put away groceries; set the table; cook a meal; clean up after a meal; take out trash; fold and put away laundry; change linens and make beds; water plants. However much a child might affect a Cinderella pose—Woe! My parents used to love me but now they make me scrub the floor!—a quick comparison with pre-industrial childhood would remind her how modest her work requirements are. Even young children can manage a fair amount. Indeed, when children are young they are most inclined to help, glad to be mimicking parents or garnering their praise. Our kids may look pretty incompetent, but Christine Gross-Loh’s 2013 book, Parenting Without Borders, calls this bluff with exhibits in competence from around the world, like five-year-olds preparing dinner for the family. Young children understand keenly the reward of being trusted to contribute. Not assuming that competence of children is like making them bat from a tee because you do not believe they could ever hit a pitch.
Some parents might think domestic skills beneath their children’s worth, a waste of their precious time. But children usually have ample time to expend, and necessary household tasks actually do not eat into that stock very far. Of course, children should take their schoolwork seriously, not skip geometry proofs or verb declensions to match socks, but I think the trade-off very seldom works that way. Work at home does not have to be a punishment but a positive aspect of growing up, a recognition of self-care and respect for the things a family holds in common.
A more practical objection is that teaching kids how to do household tasks takes much more time than it does for parents simply to do it themselves. That recognition should underscore the importance of the time devoted to instruction. Parents’ hours given to showing a child how to wash dishes or mow the lawn is an investment akin to time spent showing a child how to read or how to balance a checkbook. Parents might balk at taking on yet another task in teaching children how to do things, but these are too important to let slide.
Getting kids to do housework could require a lot of effort on the part of parents to cajole, instruct, insist, and model. It is understandable that busy parents decide it is easier not even to try. The other reason all that effort seems vain is the kids’ habitat. It is not an American cultural expectation that children contribute meaningfully to the household. If your kids complain that none of their friends has to take out trash/fix beds/empty the dishwasher, they probably are telling the truth. One parent cannot make another require chores of their children, but it seems to me that there are some sources of influence, some ways to adjust culture.
Children’s literature is a rich source. Many books show children in other times and places contributing to family weal. A few popular ones, like Katherine Patterson’s Lyddie or Elizabeth Winthrop’s Counting on Grace, show the struggles of textile-mill life. But among the best are the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, providing matchless models of helpful children. Not that they should be read just for this purpose. Laura, Mary, and Carrie often are busy, sewing and washing as Ma commands, making festive decorations to mask want at holidays. But Laura’s husband-to-be Almanzo Wilder beats all. The eponymous Farmer Boy is the son of prosperous upstate New York landowner James Wilder. James expects a lot of his children. Almanzo has to feed livestock and clean stalls at crack of dawn and end of day, in bone cold and beating heat. He helps plant and tend fields of crops. Some of the work he likes, some he hates, but he does it because the work is there and it has to be done. All that farm work does not make him a dull boy. When we meet the handsome Mr. Wilder later as the worthy object of the author’s romantic interest in The Long Winter, he is a master horseman with the finest steeds in town. He lays claim to land though he is underage and by law not exactly eligible for it because he counts himself as skilled as any grown man in the duties required of homesteaders: “the Government wanted this land settled; Uncle Sam would give a farm to any man who had the nerve and muscle to come out here and break the sod and stick to the job till it was done… Almanzo considered that he was as good, any day, as any man twenty–one years old.” On top of all this, he cooks! Author-wife Laura takes care to note that “not even [his] Mother could beat Almanzo at making pancakes.” That is a large measure of what we hope the long stretch of training given to kids equips them to do: flourish as responsible adults as soon as they can.
The caricatured 1950s housewife is a personage now broadly disparaged. Little girls do not want to grow up to be her. Even if we ourselves pine for a shiny floor we know we could never get clean enough because time is short, we still do not want to be that person. If we have gotten past that model of motherhood, why do we still have a soft spot for Dick and Jane? A soft spot for that model of childhood spent in whole days of play, updated by the addition of more complicated and expensive electronic amusements on top of ordinary leisure?
It is time to make that all-play childhood passé. Doing so does not require an act of Congress, or even a federally funded slogan—Let’s Move! Five a Day!—as much as different parental behavior. Children should do some regular work, not as a punishment or privation but because embodied life requires it. We should imagine children’s lives once again as blending work, school, and play.
Agnes R. Howard is Assistant Professor of History at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.