Requiring children to do chores

David Deutsch

From the archives: Posted on Fri, 1 Aug, 1997

A poster wrote, in defence of requiring children to do chores:

I’m not willing to go to work everyday to earn the money needed to pay for the computers, toys, food, etc that everyone else buys if I must live in a messy house because the person who made the mess didn’t feel like cleaning it up today and decided to wait until next week!

This unwillingness of yours, stressed by your outraged exclamation mark, means that you cannot be happy unless someone else does certain chores that you want done. On the other hand, ‘requiring’ others to do these chores (which is a euphemism for hurting them when they refuse or fail to perform to your satisfaction) makes you unhappy too. It follows that you are destined to be unhappy.

Or does it?

You see, there’s another way of looking at all this, and that’s what Taking Children Seriously is all about. But from the way you are analysing this problem, I guess that your main obstacle in understanding what Taking Children Seriously is all about will be a moral one: you believe that a parent’s financial support and other services for his children morally obliges the children to provide certain services in return. But there is no justification for that belief. It is just a rationalisation of the traditional status quo between parent and child. The truth is that there is a moral asymmetry between parent and child: in the event of an intractable dispute between them, the parent chose to place the child in the situation that caused the dispute; the child did not choose to place the parent there.

Hence the fact that you “not willing to go to work every day” etc., without receiving services from your children in return is (morally) your problem, and not theirs. The fact that your children would be unhappy without those services, and are also unhappy to provide you with the services you demand, is also (morally) your problem. You chose the latter problem for yourself; you were saddled with the former by your own parents.

The poster then wrote:

No one ever wants to do chores! You must learn to be responsible and do your part. Children eat and children make messes. For me it follows

It is not up to you to choose what follows! In fact, it does not follow.

that children have a part in helping with providing food and cleaning up messes. I’m not saying that a child will not be responsible and do their part without being coerced, but the child needs to learn that the parent is in charge and if the parent says that the corn needs to be planted today then they help with the planting today.

It’s interesting that to make your point, you choose subsistence agriculture as a metaphor: a primitive way of life that is nasty, brutish and short, and where there are no trade-offs, no options and no scope for creativity because every decision is a matter of life and death.

Whether or not things ever were like that, your vision of your own life today as fundamentally comparable with that situation is a statement about your own psychology, not about the external situation you are in. In taking it for granted that life, or a significant part of it, consists of things that “no one ever wants to do”, and that children in particular must therefore either force themselves to do such things or be forced to, you believe that you are transmitting an unpleasant fact about the world to the next generation. But in reality, you are merely passing on a set of hangups that have little or no basis in external fact.

David Deutsch, 1997, ‘Requiring children to do chores’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/requiring-children-to-do-chores/