A couple of weeks ago, over lunch, a colleague couldn’t stop talking about the day she’d had the day before with her six-year-old. The family was expecting dinner guests and, while her husband and their younger son were out for the day, she and the kindergartener had cleaned the entire house together, and then the kid had baked a yogurt cake for everyone from scratch. On Facebook, a friend bragged about his four-year-old helping him chop wood. Another FB’er beamed over her three-year-old taking a major shine to vacuuming, like the child had become a living, breathing Roomba.
In May, on The Times’s “Motherload” blog, KJ Dell’Antonia detailed the ups-and-downs of her campaign to make her four children more contributory members of the household. Back in January, a chart of age-appropriate chores for children originally posted on the “Maria Montessori” Facebook page was all the rage for a day. A quick Google of the phrase “age-appropriate chores” gives you a bounty of guides, charts, and how-tos. The world seems to be filling up with precocious little homemakers.
And yet it isn’t.
We’re in an era of deep paradox. Great opportunity and stagnant social mobility. Make the Bread and Buy the Butter vs. GrubHub. Even simply within the middle-class and among the wealthy, things are extremely polarized. We see some families making a concerted (and highly organized and researched) effort to cultivate self-sufficiency and domestic economy in their children: toddler cooking classes; mommy-and-me carpentry workshops. On the other hand, we see families that so hyper-program their children’s lives in the interests of college admission that the kids never learn to cook an egg. We don’t see much in between.
As tutors, we walk into a lot of households. We get direct access to some aspects of family life. We catch glimpses of others. We often see the beginning or the end of mealtime, when it’s clear if families eat together, who cooks, who clears, who cleans up. These are just fleeting looks, fragments of the life of a family, but there are things we come to intuit. How parents relate to kids about homework. How kids structure their time. We get a good feel for the level of independence families foster in their children.
And over time, we’ve observed a certain correlation. The kids whose families trust them with a certain measure of responsibility and demand a bit more of them domestically are the same kids who often get the most out of tutoring. They have a deeper sense of self-determination and independence of thought and action and that translates into their intellectual pursuits. Kids who do a bit of work and who have to contribute to the “grown-up” business of the house simply seem to learn just a little differently and maybe better.
This is not a harangue. We don’t hope or expect to walk into an Upper East Side apartment and see a two-year-old dusting the baseboards as “Maria Montessori” would have them do. But the results of getting our kids more engaged in the life of the house (and consequently more engaged with their family) can only pay dividends.
I hear the yogurt cake turned out really well.