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Why Are Childhood Chores a Dying Practice?

When I was 10, my brother T.J. threw a paint scraper into my arm. It was July, 18, 1991—his 14th birthday. We had Chris Mullin hi-top fades, and despite our ages, not only were we unsupervised while stripping the side of Dad’s white ranch house, but T.J. and Aaron—our 12-year-old brother, who sat in between us—were using blowtorches to remove the paint.

T.J. was angry because I had mouthed off. His savage overreaction was followed by a moment where everything froze: the blade lodged in my tricep, my brothers’ shocked faces. Then T.J. yanked out the paint scraper, and I screamed as blood gushed everywhere. After seven stitches and a month in a sling, I was left with a worm-like scar that serves as a reminder of what can go wrong when an alpha-male father assigns chores to boys.

I grew up on a two-acre property in a middle-class Pittsburgh suburb. My parents divorced before I hit kindergarten, but Mom moved us into a neighboring house 300 feet from Dad. We had a semblance of normalcy, but I bet no other kid in Allegheny County had this setup: a kennel of huskies, a pet wolf, and a garage full of car parts.

Using power tools was a rite of passage: We sanded Jeep frames, trimmed hedges, and removed tree stumps. The yard had to be perfect, and the dog pens had to be cleaned twice a day. It was a challenging, hypermasculine environment, and I hated it. Work became the foundation for how we were taught to be men. We learned about life, death and responsibility through the dogs, and landscaping instilled in us a blue-collar work ethic that Dad assured us would come in handy one day. But whenever we were doing chores, I just wanted to watch TV.

Now that I’m 36, sober and working a respectable job, I’ve begun entertaining the idea of parenthood. But if I have kids, I might not give them chores — and I won’t be alone. In a 2014 survey by Braun Research, 82 percent of 1,001 American adults reported doing regular chores growing up, but only 28 percent said they require their children to do the same. In his book, The Vanishing American Adult, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse argues that parents need to reverse this trend and implement a demanding chore structure for their children.

And the research backs him up: Chores, it seems, are crucial to a child’s maturation. A 25-year study at the University of Mississippi determined that children who began doing chores by 4 were more likely to become well-adjusted adults, with strong relationships and successful careers. Michael Gurian, author of 28 books, including The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys Into Exceptional Men, tells me that as long as the guardian isn’t abusive, chores teach responsibility, humility, and sacrifice. And not assigning chores is “dangerous to human development.”

“It creates immature kids who become immature adults,” Gurian says.

So how did America get here? Were the majority of today’s young parents raised by alpha-male jerks like my dad, who toed the line between demanding and abusive?

Probably not, if you ask Alyson Schafer, author of three books, including Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, which is about how parents should deal with discipline-resistant kids. Schafer said modern childhood chores began when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibited employment of most minors, and the culture around them didn’t take shape until after World War II, when suburbs popped up across the nation. An increase in wealth at the end of the 20th century changed what became a parenting norm.

“We’ve seen a shift where many parents do the chores and push their kids to focus on schoolwork and sports,” Schafer says.

This shift is understandable, since a college degree is now practically mandatory for most well-paying careers, and focusing on extracurriculars will give your kids more of a competitive edge than mopping the floors. But Anthony Rao, author of The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys, calls this culture a “success race,” and advocates for a return to childhood chores because they tell children “in order to make this thing work, we need your help and you’re important.” He adds that “enlisting [children] rather than just getting angry with them or pushing them in a negative way is really important.”

I was pushed more than I was enlisted. Though he created an amazing framework for learning the value of hard work, with 23 dogs and a baseball field in the back yard, Dad stumbled because he was impatient and had a temper. A chore as simple as taking out the garbage became a referendum on my manhood. Our driveway was a hill the length of a football field, and in one week, we could have five bags of dog shit, some weighing up to 30 pounds. If I didn’t carry one in each hand, I was called lazy or weak — by Dad and my brothers.

One evening when I was 9, I was too afraid to admit a bag was too heavy, so I dragged it down the driveway. The bag ripped on the asphalt near the top, leaving a brown trail to the bottom. When I returned to the top, Dad squeezed my neck and made me look at the mess. After I cleaned it up alone, he hugged and kissed me, then tried to turn it into a lesson about doing work properly. The message was lost, though. I ran home to Mom’s and cried in a bathtub.

Parents who want to reverse the current anti-chore trend have to be aware of promoting gender stereotypes when assigning chores. “Girls are good with tools, too, and need to be given the opportunity to do stereotypical male chores,” Schafer says. “And parents could have the next Bobby Flay on their hands. They have to let boys work in the kitchen and find out.”

Compared to the work we did for Dad, my brothers and I barely lifted a finger for Mom. She cooked, cleaned and washed dishes alone. I didn’t learn how to fold laundry until I got a job in the apparel department at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Rao urges parents to teach boys that chores “go to the more important broader social reason that being masculine is about taking care of people, being there for them, stepping up when it’s important, using your physical strength in order to help others, to be more empathetic versus you’re amazing because you can saw something.”

My dad said similar things, but he also encouraged competition. We argued over who was the strongest and most athletic. When we were small, we had a competition to see who could open the wooden garage doors after a storm. As teenagers, we went head-to-head in a chopping wood showdown. When I was ridiculed for losing these events, the connotation was that being physically stronger was more manly.

According to Rao, fathers sometimes make mistakes with regard to message consistency and recognizing developmental levels. There are charts to help parents with the latter, but my dad didn’t read parenting advice literature, so he was sometimes guilty of both. I didn’t mature physically as fast as my brothers, and though he had a patient and compassionate side, Dad’s anger issues often caused him to treat a task like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Gurian believes children need to be told when they do a bad job, but he suggests parents adopt a patient, three-strike method of encouraging better performance. Sometimes I did sloppy work as an act of rebellion. Rao says that this is another reason why many parents today are doing chores themselves. They’re stressed out from the office, want the task done right, and “don’t want to fight with their kids.”

One obvious solution to this is for parents to work alongside their children. My dad considered an afternoon in the yard as quality time together. He sometimes took this too far—like every year on Thanksgiving, when he forced us to rake leaves all day. But, along with the temper and impatience, my brothers and I inherited that work ethic. I’ve garnered a lot of praise from professors and bosses as an adult thanks to this, and if I ever become a parent, I would have to take into account the fact that, for the most part, my dad raised us right. And the chores were a part of that.

Gavin Jenkins has written for The Atlantic, VICE, and Narratively. He is currently writing a book about working at a gas station.

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