Opinion / Berlin Fang

Household chores part of a child's education

By Berlin Fang (China Daily) Updated: 2013-05-02 08:00

Household chores part of a child's education

Traditionally, Chinese people, from the elite gentry to the vast peasantry, placed great emphasis on having youngsters do chores around the house as part of their upbringing. Reluctant children received an earful of wisdom such as: "If you do not clean up your floor, how can you clean up the world?"

Zeng Guofan (1811-72), a senior official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), wrote numerous letters to his family urging the younger members to do chores as part of their daily routine, even though they had servants who could do them.

This was because doing chores is good for children. It nourishes both their physical and mental well-being.

It is first of all a physical exercise to do chores. Whether you are sweeping the floor or mowing the lawn, your body is active. A singular activity in a gym may train a particular muscle or a group of them. Housework on the other hand gets the entire body in motion. It may not build your strength as quickly and effectively as weight lifting does, but housework can do wonders for your health if it becomes a lifelong habit. When I called home recently, my mother, now in her 80s, said she was picking tea on a hill. She still walks at a pace that makes me pant for breath while following behind.

In recent years, an increasing number of universities in China have been canceling their long-distance running programs as students are not fit enough to run very far. This is because they've spent too much time on academic studies and structured extracurricular activities before college, doing little or no physical exercise, and their parents and grandparents have kept them away from any kind of work in the house.

There is a shocking lack of imagination in such an arrangement. Eventually, these children will grow up, get married and have their own families. Who, then, will take care of the household chores? Few parents seem to care about this. It is as if some fairies will show up during the night and do the laundry or cleaning. Many parents probably expect the future spouses of their children to do these chores, but unfortunately, these future spouses' parents may have similar thoughts.

Compared to days when education was mocked, or even attacked, it is progress for parents to value education above anything else for their children. However, a well-rounded education goes beyond the subjects systematically taught in schools, and even beyond extracurricular activities. Children, and adults as well, learn things when actively involved in doing work at home. They apply various motor, cognitive and problem-solving skills to do tasks at home. Even a task like folding laundry has the potential of training children to categorize or prioritize. Today they may be sorting clothes by pants, shirts and socks. Tomorrow they may be identifying themes and patterns in a qualitative study. Doing chores also builds professional ethics and work habits. Children doing chores learn to be responsible. They can be held accountable for the results and the quality of their work.

Sometimes parents know the importance of sharing work at home with children, but they do not know how. For instance, children are reluctant, or are asked to do tasks that require assistance. It takes plenty of parenting skills to get children to do chores in a way that builds them into healthy and productive individuals.

As a parent, I feel a great need to learn the skills to effectively assign tasks and get children to become involved. I hope fellow parents will share their experience and wisdom so that together we can find ways to get work-shy children back to doing and enjoying work.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 05/02/2013 page8)

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