Happy Children Do Chores

The New York Times

By KJ Dell’Antonia

Ms. Dell’Antonia writes frequently about parenthood.

Aug. 18, 2018

Credit Natalie Andrewson

Children should do chores. That’s a controversial premise, though not everyone will admit it. A few parents will declare outright that their children are “too busy for chores” or that “their job is school.” Many more of us assign chores, or say we believe in them, but the chores just don’t get done.

That’s a problem. For starters, chores are good for kids. Being a part of the routine work of running a household helps children develop an awareness of the needs of others, while at the same time contributing to their emotional well-being. Children who consider themselves necessary to the family are less likely to feel adrift in a world where everyone wants to feel needed.

One small longitudinal study, done over a period of 25 years, found that the best predictor for young adults’ success in their mid-20s was whether they participated in household tasks at age 3 or 4. Those early shared responsibilities extended to a sense of responsibility in other areas of their lives.

I don’t want to make too much of a small study, and there’s really no need. All that the research in this area does is confirm what we already know.

Children who help more at home feel a larger sense of obligation and connectedness to their parents, and that connection helps them weather life’s stressful moments — in other words, it helps them be happier. Their help, even when it’s less than gracious, helps their parents be happier, too.

But for all that their help matters, to us and to them, few kids are doing much around the house at all. In a survey of 1,001 American adults, 75 percent said they believed regular chores made kids “more responsible” and 63 percent said chores teach kids “important life lessons.” Yet while 82 percent reported having had regular chores growing up, only 56 percent of those with children said they required them to do chores.

We believe in chores. We talk a good game. But when we look honestly at who’s doing what in our kitchens, laundry rooms and bathrooms, many of us (including me) struggle to do what it takes to get kids to help at home.

Between 2001 and 2005 a team of researchers from U.C.L.A.’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families recorded 1,540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, dual-earner families with at least two children going about their business in Los Angeles. They found that the parents did most of the housework and intervened quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task. Children in 22 families made it a practice to ignore or resist their parents’ requests for help. In eight families, the parents didn’t actually ask children to do much of anything. That leaves two families in which kids meaningfully helped out. (One of the young researchers involved called working on the study “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”)

I asked 1,050 parents an open-ended question: What do you least like about parenting? The most common answer by far was “discipline,” which included enforcing chores and other responsibilities. Other answers: “Enforcing the rules, especially about household chores”; the challenges of “chores and disciplining a child”; and having to nag kids to do simple chores. We may think our children should do chores, but we really don’t want to have to make them.

And yet, when researchers ask parents about what qualities they care most about fostering in their children, almost all respond by saying they are deeply invested in raising caring, ethical children, and most say they see these moral qualities like these as more important than academic or career achievements.

But many kids seem to be getting a different message. Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, and colleagues surveyed more than 10,000 students from 33 middle and high schools around the country and found that almost 80 percent said they valued their own happiness over caring for others. Most thought their parents would agree.

“Our interviews and observations over the last several years also suggest that the power and frequency of parents’ messages about achievement and happiness often drown out their messages about concern for others,” Dr. Weissbourd said.

We can do better. Although household chores seem like a small thing, the subtle but pervasive message of requiring them isn’t small at all. Requiring a high schooler to contribute to the family well-being and the smooth running of the household before turning his attention to his books conveys the value you place on that contribution.

Sports and homework are not get-out-of-chores-free cards. The goal, after all, is not to raise children we can coddle into the Ivy League. The goal is to raise adults who can balance a caring role in their families and communities with whatever lifetime achievement goals they choose. Chores teach that balance. They’re not just chores — they’re life skills.

Persuaded? Then you’ll be looking, now, at the end of this article, for some golden advice on getting your children to step up. You might be worried that there aren’t enough words left here to encompass all you’re going to need to learn to make this happen. Is there another page perhaps? A link to click to make the magic happen?

There is not — because unfortunately, getting children to do chores is an incredibly simple two-step process: insist, and persist, until the chore is done.

Accept no excuses. Don’t worry if you must repeat yourself again and again. If you’re spending more time getting the child to do this job than it would take to do it yourself, then you’re doing it right. Getting children to do chores without nagging — that’s an entirely separate endeavor. Right now the goal is the chore.

Can an allowance help? Maybe. But if you’re trying to teach kids to share the responsibility of a home, paying them for routine chores is not the right message. After all, no one pays you to unload your own dishwasher, and no one ever will.

The good news is that children whose families have established an expectation that they will contribute to the workings of the household do just that. There are 7-year-olds in the suburbs who do the laundry, just as there are 5-year-olds in the Amazon who help harvest papayas. In our house, the kids clear their dishes, feed the animals, clean the kitchen after dinner and take out the trash. I’ve found they may not whistle while they work; they may require near-constant reminders; they will almost certainly not do the job to your standards without years of training, but children can and will do the work if you require it of them.

And in another 20 years, they might even thank you for it.

KJ Dell’Antonia is the author of the forthcoming “How to Be a Happier Parent,” from which this essay is adapted.

When Another Child Wants to Be Friends and Yours Does Not

The New York Times

Photo

CreditiStock

Sometimes every parent needs advice. For our occasional advice column, we post readers’ questions that we know (or at least suspect) plague more than one parent. You — the readers — provide the advice: How have you made this work better in your family? I invite an expert to add to the discussion.

This quandary came via email, and concerns middle schoolers interacting with their peers — a trouble spot for many. Here’s the question:

My middle school child has been dealing with another child at school who is pursuing him — sometimes just hanging out near him, sometimes actively trying to get his attention by doing things like spraying water from the fountain at him in the hallways. My son doesn’t want to be friends, and he’s been getting in trouble for responding to the other boy in kind.

How do you help your middle schooler handle kids who are bothersome, frustrating, annoying or just not someone they want to be friends with? Sometimes, especially if that child has demonstrated some level of social awkwardness, it can feel like polite adult tactics won’t work. My son has talked to his teachers and even the vice principal and thinks the school understands that this other child is a challenge, but the situation hasn’t changed. How should I help my son respond better? Should I approach the school? I don’t want to intervene, but I’m wondering if I should.

“There are so many dynamics going on here, ” said Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist, parenting educator and the author of “Taming Tantrums.” “There’s a real disparity in maturity level at that age. ” In middle school, a child with a good amount of empathy who can understand other people, read their body language and consider what they’re thinking may be seated next to a child who is still entirely self-focused. That is part of what makes middle school interactions so tricky, she says.

As adults, we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with other people. Our children have not, and it’s tempting to want to jump in and solve the problem. Ms. Nair suggests considering what your child needs to learn to handle a situation on his own rather than just focusing on the immediate problem. Before she gets involved, “I always ask myself, am I going to help or hinder?”

With a middle schooler, she advises parents to make sure the child has tried everything before intervening. In this case, the son has approached adults at the school and now needs to have a strategy for handling the other student himself.

“Say, ‘I know this is tricky,’” she said. Let him know that everyone has trouble figuring out what to do in similar situations, and ask him to help think of ways to respond rather than to react. “A reaction is knee-jerk,” she says, and often something we regret. A response is something we have considered, that says the things we want to say.

Parents should let the child take the lead in coming up with responses, but can and should help. Most children will want to start with a nonverbal approach, because directly telling someone that you don’t want their company is hard. Children can lower their eye contact, turn their backs or look in the other direction when the other child is approaching, Ms. Nair says. If the other student begins a conversation your child doesn’t want to participate in but can’t easily physically leave (at a lunchroom table, for example), your child could respond with “mmm-hmmm” or take out a book.

If a more direct response is needed (as it may be here), help your child plan words that are appropriate to the situation. Remind him, too, says Ms. Nair, that things might get worse before they get better. “They’re likely to keep pushing and getting in your face because they’ve had a response before,” she says. “They’re expecting some kind of engagement.”

Finally, she suggests talking together about why this child might be doing these things. “There’s a difference between understanding and empathizing, and being O.K. with it,” she says. You can help your child learn that we can appreciate why someone might do something without having to like the person or the action.

How have you helped your child handle challenging middle-school social situations? Have you had to intervene with a school or even another family, and did it help?

Is It Really ADHD or Just Immaturity?

The New York Times

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CreditGetty Images

New research shows that the youngest students in a classroom are more likely to be given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than the oldest. The findings raise questions about how we regard those wiggly children who just can’t seem to sit still – and who also happen to be the youngest in their class.

Researchers in Taiwan looked at data from 378,881 children ages 4 to 17 and found that students born in August, the cut-off month for school entry in that country, were more likely to be given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. than students born in September. The children born in September would have missed the previous year’s cut-off date for school entry, and thus had nearly a full extra year to mature before entering school. The findings were published Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics.

While few dispute that A.D.H.D. is a legitimate disability that can impede a child’s personal and school success and that treatment can be effective, “our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade when diagnosing A.D.H.D. and prescribing medication for treating A.D.H.D.,” the authors concluded. Dr. Mu-Hong Chen, a member of the department of psychiatry at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan and the lead author of the study, hopes that a better understanding of the data linking relative age at school entry to an A.D.H.D. diagnosis will encourage parents, teachers and clinicians to give the youngest children in a grade enough time and help to allow them to prove their ability.

Other research has shown similar results. An earlier study in the United States, for example, found that roughly 8.4 percent of children born in the month before their state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility are given A.D.H.D. diagnoses, compared to 5.1 percent of children born in the month immediately afterward.

So how should we interpret data showing different rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis among populations of children who are similar in everything other than relative age at school entry? Cautiously, says Michael Manos, the head of Cleveland Clinic Children’sA.D.H.D. Center for Evaluation and Treatment.

“The kind of attention that you have to use in school is the kind of attention that’s difficult for a person with A.D.H.D.,” so attention deficits are more readily recognized in a classroom situation, he said. “If the diagnoses are performed accurately, then some kids are getting noticed sooner than other kids,” he said. If younger children with A.D.H.D. are starting treatment earlier because they’re starting school earlier, then that’s a good thing.

But that presumes the diagnosis is an accurate one. “When you take people who are in a 15-minute pediatric primary care physician’s office visit, and the mother describes hyperactivity and the physician automatically prescribes medication, that’s a problem,” Dr. Manos said. Many parents who describe concerns about children’s behavior “aren’t describing developmentally inappropriate behavior,” he said. “They’re describing behavior that does not meet certain expectations,” and that can be the issue in classroom settings as well, where some students are older than others.

“I think the link between age at school entry and A.D.H.D. diagnoses are not really about being young or ‘not ready,’” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who has studied kindergarten readiness, by email. “Instead, I think they are about a child’srelative age. “

“In early childhood classrooms, where a month or two age difference can make a big difference,” she continued, “ teachers perceive the youngest children in the class as having more attention struggles, and behavioral struggles, than the older children, irrespective of the child’s actual age.” When those teachers flag those struggles, the path to a diagnosis is paved, but the diagnosis itself still depends on the expertise of the clinician.

Stephen Hinshaw, co-author of “A.D.H.D: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that early recognition of attention deficits “could be an opportunity for early intervention for all kindergartners, as our society struggles to balance achievement gaps, ever earlier and stronger achievement expectations, and high student-teacher ratios in Transitional K programs, as well as for evidence-based intervention for 4-year-olds with bona fide A.D.H.D.”

“On the other hand, if this is the ticket for overzealous labeling of kids, mainly boys, who are simply needing more time to mature, that’s not what we need,” Dr. Hinshaw said.

The Growth Mindset: “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode
By KJ DELL’ANTONIA JANUARY 21, 2016

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.

Dear Parent: If Your Child Left It Home, Don’t Bring It In

Motherlode

Here’s an interesting article…reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Never do for kids what they can do for themselves, and never do for kids what they can almost do for themselves.”  What do you think about this school’s policy?
By KJ DELL’ANTONIA SEPTEMBER 14, 2015

A school in Seminole County, Fla., has a rule, clearly posted in the front office: “Attention students and parents: We do not accept items for dropoff such as lunches, backpacks, homework, sports equipment. Please plan accordingly.”

Lake Mary High School is bucking what it saw as a trend: parents coming to the rescue when their children (as children do) forgot what they needed for the day, and didn’t want to deal with the consequences. That sign caught the eye of Leslie Postal, an Orlando Sentinel reporter. “I’d just been at another high school and watched several parents come in with items their kids had forgotten,” she told me, via email, “and, to be honest, I’d recently run a notebook that my son had left in his room over to his high school. So the sign (and the policy behind it) struck me as interesting — and story worthy.” (Read High school cracks down on drop-offs of forgotten items for the principal’s rationale—and the initial reaction of parents to the no-rescue policy.)

Is the school micromanaging parents, or spot on? Motherlode readers (and writers) have long disagreed about whether a parent should deliver that which has been forgotten. Jessica Lahey, who writes the Parent-Teacher Conference here and is the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” rather famously left her son’s forgotten homework on the table even though she was going to the school later that morning anyway.

“We had just been talking about how doing the work wasn’t enough,” she says. “It was his job to get it in his backpack and get it to school.” To her, that was a turning point for her son: He made a list that’s still on the fridge to remind him to take the things he needed in the morning.

In ‘Not Rescuing’ Our Kids Shouldn’t Mean Letting Them Flounder, Catherine Newman argued for a different approach — one that wouldn’t fly at Lake Mary High School. “The basic premise sounds right,” she writes of the idea (although not this specific policy). “Teach your children to take responsibility for themselves by letting them experience the natural consequences of their actions.”

But, “I’m thinking about the pound of flour I spilled on the floor recently, of Ben [her son] rushing in with a broom and his good nature. I picture him saying, instead, ‘Maybe next time you’ll be more careful’ and cringe.” Her proposed middle ground: “Not dependence, not independence, but something more like interdependence, where we acknowledge our mutual reliance, count on cooperation, and nurture generosity, compassion and charity.”

In our family, we straddle a line on this one. The odds are high that we wouldn’t be able or willing to deliver a forgotten item (two working parents, two different schools, one a half-hour away). Only one of the four children even has a phone to text a request. But if the stars align, as they do once in a while, we’ll help you out (and we’ll certainly remind you to grab whatever it is if we can see that you’ve forgotten it). Interdependence. Our children do sometimes point out that it is “not fair” that other people’s parents can drop things off, and perhaps that is part of the point of ruling it out all together (although it’s worth asking whether it’s the children whose parents save them every time who have the advantage, or the ones whose parents do not).

But it would be easy to say you won’t do it unless it’s convenient, and then somehow end up doing it an awful lot, unless (as in our family) circumstances make it all but impossible most of the time. A no-rescue policy would certainly simplify the whole thing. I would welcome it. Would you?

Follow KJ Dell’Antonia on Twitter at @KJDellAntonia or find her on Facebook and Google+.