Trends: The Death of the Chore

From Bryn Mawr to Blue Bell to Rittenhouse Square, kids today don’t do squat around the house. Are we raising a generation that won’t know how to do anything?

Of all the millions of things one can be fearful about as a parent — that your kid will do too many drugs (perhaps even more drugs than you did yourself), or somehow morph into Lindsay Lohan (the current Us Weekly-ish, perma-bikinied Lindsay, not the cute Parent Trap Lindsay), or not get into a single college, even her backup of backups — there is one phenomenon in 2006 that is especially ominous. As you drive along, enjoying the view while you pass beautiful houses in Chestnut Hill and on the Main Line, you might notice the workers toiling in the yards of those beautiful houses, and realize:

There is not one teenager mowing his own grass.

Wherefore art the glory days of the 1960s and '70s, when you could — at least for a couple of hours a week — treat your child as a glorified miniature servant? Or sometimes get him to set the table? Even in Narberth, where some people actually take care of their own lawns, it's the parents who are out there toiling amid the daylilies, not the kids. “I'm giddy with joy if my kids put their dishes in the dishwasher or take out the garbage without being asked,” says my friend Dasha, who lives in Gladwyne. “I'm not sure if I'm overprotective because of their tough schedules — ballet, horseback riding, lacrosse, extreme skating, football, hours of homework — or if I'm so tired myself from schlepping them from one place to the next, but it's easier to do it myself than to nag.”

Of course, having your kids help out at home isn't really about the actual washing of the (Williams-Sonoma) dishes or setting of the (West Elm) kitchen table — it really is quite a bit easier and quicker to do it yourself. Rather, we're thinking about responsibility, cooperation, being a family. But the nature of childhood has changed enormously in Philadelphia over the past few decades. At one time, kids were beloved extensions of the parent, but now we're the satellites revolving around the sun that is our children. It's as if an entire generation has overreacted to what felt like too-controlling parents, and ended up with a society-wide inability to serve as authority figures in the home. Combine this with our current state of mass affluence, and you have a scenario where, circa 2015, we'll have a population of excellent musicians and lacrosse players who are unable to operate a toaster.

“For me, it stems from my having to do chores when I was growing up and hating it,” says Barbara, an accounting manager who lives in the city, and whose kids, ages 13 and 18, are essentially chore-free. “My kids are going to be screwed when they move out, because neither of them will know how to function — to do laundry or cook something other than a scrambled egg.” (Her kids can scramble an egg?)

If we didn't feel conflicted enough about all of this, psychologists are ­concerned — more like terrified — as well. “I see in my practice that a lot of kids don't have chores,” says Jeff Bernstein, an Exton psychologist whose books include 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. “Too many kids today have a serve-me-up mentality. That can create a lot of entitlement, which can be detrimental to relationships, friendships, work relationships and intimate relationships well into adulthood — perhaps for the rest of their lives.”

Worried yet?

“I REMEMBER BUYING yards of mulch,” says a father of three in Bryn Mawr. “I had to make numerous trips with the wheelbarrow to distribute the mulch; I would pass the family room on every trip, and I would look through the window, watching my kids watch TV. But they were young, and I was a schmuck.”

Of course, all of this is our fault as parents, but that doesn't mean we can't blame our current affluent society, and a few specific others, too. First, there's Alice, the Bradys' live-in housekeeper. Few people but the super-rich had housekeepers before Ann B. Davis appeared in her dependable, uniformed wryness, rarely leaving the Brady Bunch's avocado-green kitchen, except for a night of nooky with Sam the Butcher. Ann B. Davis might have been the first manifestation of a new economy — the very economy we now luxuriate in, in which you can often pay someone else to do grunt work. Then it was taken a step further by shows like Dallas, where suddenly in 1970s America there were servants running around like they did in Middlemarch and The Philadelphia Story. (Dallas was absurd, it's true, but this kind of Falcon Crest silliness nonetheless fueled our collective aspirations to live in seven­bedroom houses staffed with maids.) “The kids don't have chores; come to think of it, the parents don't have chores!” observes a friend. “How precious would it be to see Mommy and Princess in their matching Lilly Pulitzer outfits scrubbing the 10 toilets, and Daddy and Junior sudsing the Jag?”

But it's not just rich kids who are giving themselves pedicures whilst parents hump the recycling bins out to the end of the driveway — it's kids at almost every income level. And if you're like many of the double-income (or just one big income) families in the suburbs and Center City, there aren't that many chores to do. The reality since the 1960s is an ever-growing number of women with demanding careers, and because these women have zero extra time, they hire cleaning services. And since they don't see their husbands or kids much during the week, no one wants to spend the weekends doing housework, or showing the kids how and where to rake the leaves, because doing that requires even more time.

You can also blame your own parents for your kids not doing squat. If they hadn't been so critical and controlling, you wouldn't be beset by doubts and problems, reading books such as Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. For baby boomers, a generation that has always questioned authority — and valued selfhood and well-being to the point of ­obsession — the attitude boils down to: If taking out the trash is unpleasant, it might be damaging, and therefore not something my beloved child should do. It seems so difficult to differentiate between loving and spoiling. But not to a shrink: “Oh, stop it!” says Temple University psychologist Frank Farley. “Get over feeling guilty asking your children to do things. That's very bad for them, and it's not trivial.”

“Parents have a job to do, and that's to parent your kid,” adds Jill Belchic, of Childhood Solutions, a pediatric psychology practice in Fort Washington. “It's not to be the kid's best friend. No mother or father wants to end the day yelling at their kids, but they would feel a lot less stressed if they instilled these things, and the kids would feel proud.” This is the key to why children should be asked to do things around the house, she says: “Chores are really important to instill a sense of responsibility, to help kids feel like they're part of a community. And it really gives them a sense of accomplishment,” even if it's your five-year-old carrying plates to the table — which you then praise profusely, she adds. And perhaps doing a chore helps prepare kids a bit for the looming reality ahead: Soon, not so far down the road, life will be bitter, lonely, SEPTA-fumed drudgery, and even if your child ends up being a Lexus-driving tax attorney, she'll still have to work to earn money.

OF COURSE “TOOK out the trash” doesn't stack up on a college application against “spent 10th-grade summer staging my one-man play, Angst in Ardmore, off-Broadway,” or captaining varsity field hockey, or whatever. For some kids, there literally is no extra time, and they're so tired that it seems unfair to add anything else to the mix (though it's the same parents who don't want to burden their kids with chores who are signing them up for endless lessons and leagues). “But no matter how stressed-out kids are, there's always an opportunity to put their clothes in the hamper or clear the table,” Belchic says. “And there are great opportunities for families to spend time together. Maybe the kids can help make a salad while their parents are cooking.”

It seems some kids can learn responsibility without chores: My husband says he didn't do a single thing his entire childhood other than watch TV and play his guitar (he was once asked to weed, but complained so wretchedly that his parents finally told him to go inside), but is today a self-professed chore fanatic, compulsively folding laundry and cleaning out the dishwasher at 5 a.m. He works extremely hard, so perhaps he has a work gene that trumped a childhood of non-choredom.

Still, lately, when we're home with my two stepsons, whom I adore, I get a little worried that the boys don't know how to do anything. Granted, they're seven and nine, so there's not all that much they should know how to do (at least in our culture; they might be able to sew a pair of jeans in a factory had they been born somewhere else on the planet). They're little, cute and helpless, and there is nothing more heart-swellingly, goofily adorable than they are, all good-smelling and cute in their pajamas. But I've started to fear that if we don't help them learn a few things around the house, they may suffer more in school and with friends, and literally have to eat takeout for every meal of their entire lives when they finally move out.

We would do anything for them. But I have a strong feeling that while there's no end to how much we love them, we might be doing a little bit too much for them.

ROLL BACK THE CLOCK to the early 1980s, to a pre-fabulous, somnolent Wayne. There I was, cutting the grass for several hours on a really fucking hot Saturday, wearing something early-'80s-ish like acid-washed jeans shorts, with my curly hair and glasses. As if that wasn't bad enough — as if I didn't already feel enough like a loser just existing — the boys next door would roar by me on their gleaming tractor, making me eat their dust, and literally heckle me as I trudged along behind our push mower, sweating in my pubescent misery, my hair getting frizzier by the minute in the August-in-Philly swelter.

This was the Main Line, but a totally different Main Line than we know now — the fact that both my sister and I and the neighbors' boys were responsible for our lawns wasn't unusual. I might have longed to be like my friends who shopped at Suburban Square and swatted tennis balls at country clubs — but none of them led a truly glitzy existence, and most every kid did some work around the house. This was long before Neiman Marcus came to town, when no one could have dreamed of renting out a Stephen Starr restaurant for a bar mitzvah; Gucci loafers with green-and-red ribbon trim were about as glam as things got in the Philly 'burbs. My parents had bought a big old 1920s house in a pre-Bobos in Paradise world, and were both working hard to pay for it, and I don't think ever even considered hiring a lawn guy. Why should they? They had me and my sister.

And, you know, rightly so. We still had plenty of time to hang out with our friends (at the mall, where else), and blab away on the phone. There weren't tons of activities: I used to ride my bike around a lot, and could even cycle over to a nearby barn (now the site of an on-ramp to Route 202) to ride horses, but my sister and I were both too uncoordinated to be good at anything else sports- or music-related. I remember one summer seeing Chariots of Fire eight times at the Anthony Wayne theater, because there was nothing else to do, so as soon as I turned 14, I got a gig scooping ice cream at Hillary's at the mall. (That $3.25 an hour paid for more acid-washed outfits.)

So even though we sucked at lacrosse, we knew how to cook dinner and do laundry by the time we were 11 or 12. Which gave us, perhaps, some sense of self-worth.

“As much as I hated doing chores, once I was married and on my own, I was appreciative that my parents instilled that stuff in me,” agrees Barbara, the accountant. I'm sure I got some allowance, I can't remember what, but my mother says she didn't base it on our performance: “I didn't believe you should make allowance part of helping out around the house,” she says. It turns out many experts agree that you're not supposed to tie helping out at home too closely with allowance: The shrinks say that doesn't foster the spirit of giving and cooperation and sharing that you're meant to be engendering.

That spirit is exactly what John and I wanted to create at our house, today, in 2006 — but we decided that cash would be our ace in the hole. What seven- and nine-year-old would turn down a few bucks? Plus, another camp of shrinks says it's not a bad thing to essentially pay allowance for chores; that, in fact, it teaches kids that money has to be earned. “That is a huge controversy,” Jill Belchic says. “The truth is that we go to work to get paid. Kids also need an incentive. Whether that's praise or a star on a chart, or staying up an extra 10 minutes at bedtime, that will work. I don't have a problem with allowance being based on it.”

“Here's the deal at the Breslow house in Upper Gwynedd,” public relations consultant Peter Breslow told me. “PJ Breslow, age seven, and his parents negotiated a bunch of chores for a realistic allowance a year ago, when PJ told us his friends at school had similar scenarios. He executes seven chores per week for $7, payable on Sundays. These include: feeding the dog daily, walking the dog, straightening up his room and making his bed; taking out the trash; helping put away the groceries; helping keep the pool area clean. If he didn't present this argument, we wouldn't have instilled this system as early in his career. That is, his life.”

PJ Breslow, age seven, is an entrepreneurial superstar! That was it. Hearing this, John and I had to get over the fact that like other schmuck parents, we were afraid the kids wouldn't like us if we asked them to do chores. Finally, we decided we would pay for some chores and not for others, and then bucked up and started boldly with … dessert.

Our kids actually do have time to help out, as much as one would reasonably expect a first- and a fourth-grader to. And it's not that they never want to help. Tyler likes to act as a sort of very short waiter/­bartender when we have friends over, but neither he nor his brother ever volunteered to do much else, and we'd never asked them.

So we did what anyone negotiating an important deal would do — we sprang it on them over dinner.

“About the ice cream tonight,” I said, as heads swiveled. “We're all going to rinse our own plates, and then we're going to get our own ice cream.” We were pretty sure this wouldn't be a hard task to sell the boys on, and Dylan looked at us and said, “I don't think I know how to get ice cream,” but he looked interested. The kitchen resembled a crime scene when we were done, but we were thrilled. And, as the therapists suggested, we “praised lavishly” as the boys carried their dishes. The next morning, Dylan helped John put the laundry in the washing machine.

“I helped Dad put the laundry in — and it was fun,” he said proudly, eating his waffles. They've started washing the car recently, and there was one night when we asked them to set the table and the incessant and mordant complaining almost got us to relent and tell them to just go watch Full House, but we stood firm. Sort of. We then went out and got them a DVD they wanted that was actually quite expensive.

Anyway, the setting of the table and the clearing of the dishes are going pretty well, though we aren't yet at PJ Breslow levels of achievement. And carrying the dishes to the sink is still a long way from mowing a few acres on a really fucking hot day in August. Overall, I guess we're still working on this chore thing.