It usually begins with spankings of a disobedient toddler by, say, a towering six-foot-plus dad who leers, yells, then hits the helpless tot. (See related posts 1, 2, 3.)
Why? Aside from the excuse that “that’s the way my parents treated me and their parents treated them,” etc., ad infinitum, the most common rationalization is that children have to learn to mind, lest they run out into the street and get killed, or turn into juvenile delinquents, or become criminals.
“Didn’t hurt me none” is the less than introspective response of some adults when asked why they did not question their parents’ stick-motivation techniques.*
The assignment of chores to kids so they allegedly will learn how to work hard and become responsible citizens of society is another form of stick motivation.
Webster’s Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary both define “chore” as a tedious task that must be performed regularly, such as washing the dishes or hoeing long rows. The OED also says the word is a colloquial Americanism.
What astounded me when examining these two reference works was the absence of any mention that chores are not optional. Yes, adults sometimes do refer to their own monotonous tasks, such as brushing their teeth twice a day, as chores, but the origin of the term in American culture surely is coercion of the young.
Chores for children are almost never voluntary. Just ask a child what happened the last time he or she refused to do one!
Fortunately, novelist Jane Smiley, writing in Harper’s Magazine (paywalled here, available here), has put the kibosh on the supposed benefits of this favorite of coercive parenting.
Smiley was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, so she never had to clean her room or wash the dishes. She did have a horse and, as she puts it, through her love of and interest in the animal learned to work hard to groom and feed it and clean its stall, which meant removing the poop.
Smiley’s husband, on the other hand, grew up in Iowa, less than wealthy, and was forced to do chores—mixing concrete with a stick at age five and, later, pushing wet, heavy wheelbarrow loads of it across the yard.
Guess which one, Smiley or her husband, enjoys life more today?
Smiley’s husband feels guilty playing golf when there is always more work—chores—to be done at home; when doing the chores, his motivation is to get them over with as quickly as possible.** He was taught well. Chores are tedious drudgery, which means work is drudgery.
And that’s because parents give kids the dirty work as chores. Says Smiley, “Mom cooks and Sis does the dishes; the parents plan and plant the garden, the kids weed it.”
In addition to teaching the “value” of work, Smiley points out that another apparent purpose of chores is to make sure the children contribute to maintaining the family, by sharing the work that needs to be done. Smiley comments:
According to this rationale, the child comes to understand what it takes to have a family, and to feel that he or she is an important, even indispensable member of it. But come on. Would you really want to feel loved primarily because you’re the one who gets the floors mopped? Wouldn't you rather feel that your family's love simply exists all around you, no matter what your contribution? And don't the parents love their children anyway, whether the children vacuum or not? Why lie about it just to get the housework done?Why lie indeed? It is really a threat to withdraw love if the child is not obedient, similar to the withdrawals of love for disobedience that result in time outs and being sent to one’s room.
Smiley concludes: “It's good for a teenager to suddenly decide that the bathtub is so disgusting she'd better clean it herself. I admit that for the parent, this can involve years of waiting. But if she [mom] doesn't want to wait, she can always spend her time dusting.”
Parenting, after all, is a twenty-plus year contract chosen and signed by the parents. Children are not their slaves.
Presumably, the American concept of chores originated on self-subsistent farms, where there certainly was a lot of heavy, tedious work to be done to maintain the homestead.
The “justification” of requiring pre-school children to lug heavy pales of milk and to pluck chickens, however, is not the assumed necessity of a division of labor in the family. It is the value system of nearly all American farmers, absorbed by their citified descendants, of Puritanism. American culture still today is highly Puritanical.
And what might that value system be? The duty ethics of Christianity reinforced by philosopher Immanuel Kant. As one middle American farm-raised father said not too long ago: “You do your job because it is your duty, not because you enjoy it.”
As Kant said, never act from inclination, but always in accordance with duty. Fun and pleasure are out. Chores are in.
In contrast, visit a Montessori school to see how children are taught without coercion to love work, to associate pleasure with it, and to learn the skill of intense concentration.
*Corporal punishment in all settings, which includes spanking by hand in the home, is now banned in forty-nine countries of the world. The United States is not one of them. Sweden was the first, in 1979, and surprise, surprise, those children who were not smacked or beaten did not turn into juvenile delinquents or criminals!
The website corpun.com archives a large number of video clips from around the world of both adult and child corporal punishment. I could only stomach watching one: a Sri Lankan military trainer hitting female recruits with a long stick.
**Stemming from the same value system, this is the motivation for children who eat their peas first to get the disgusting stuff out of the way so they can enjoy the good-tasting meat and gravy last!