Unschooling and Chores

When I first learned about the concept of unschooling, I read a forum thread about unschooling and chores. One mom was discussing the conundrum of how to get her kids to do chores, while still being true to her belief that children flourish when given free choice to decide what is most important. Having been newly introduced to the concept of “intrinsic motivation”, the idea that humans are innately motivated to be a part of their social group, and thus will learn the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in society, I sympathized with the mother’s concerns. What can be gained, I thought, from forcing kids to do jobs they hate and which often lead to unnecessary conflict?

While unschooling is theoretically an educational approach, in reality, it is often an expression of a wider set of beliefs about how to best instill the qualities we hope for in our kids. For me, it seemed like the natural progression from parenting philosophies such as Attachment Parenting, first popularized by Jean Liedloff in the classic “The Continuum Concept”, and Unconditional Parenting, a term coined by Alfie Kohn, which has been followed by many spinoffs. Both approaches emphasize supporting kids in what they need as oppose to enforcing our needs on them. While parents have needs to be considered as well, it seemed to me that enforcing roles on children was most likely to instill a hatred born of resentment for that particular task.

Fast forward 11 years. My twins are smack in the middle of pre-adolescence, with all the hormonal and attitude shifts that are naturally attendant. I have 21-month-old toddler and work several part-time jobs (not including the teaching job:)). When not working, my partner and I are passing each other in the car transporting children to their endless activities. An incredibly normal American family. And like many American families, we often feel harried, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the everyday “work” of life. While it’s true that we need to take responsibility for the life situation we have created, it is also true that at their age, I tend to feel genuinely resentful and honestly just hurt, if they do not pitch in to help occasionally.

In the Introduction to “Continuum Concept”, Jean Liedloff shares a story from the South American tribe she lived with while researching the book. I won’t try to recount the story in detail as it has been years since I read it, but it was about a man who had lived with Westerners for some years and returned to his tribal home with a hatred of work. Liedloff explains that these people have a different relationship with what we think of as “work”. It seemed to her that people there enjoy the tasks of living, for the most part, and don’t see it as an unfortunate aspect of life to be suffered or tolerated, as we often do in our culture. This man, upon returning to his tribe, decided that he was not going to do anything he felt fit into the “work” category, and lounged happily while people went about their business, procuring food, shelter and other necessities. She describes how the people engaged in this “work” were often laughing, roughhousing, and playfully teasing each other as they went. Eventually, it seems, the man began to feel isolated and bored in his self imposed “leisure” and decided to re-join his community in meeting their basic needs.

This story had a major impact on me when I read it 11 years ago, and I began to adjust my perspective about what things should be considered work and what are fun, or whether there should be any differentiation. I hoped that by modeling positive “work” attitudes- i.e. engaging in tasks together as a family or in groups, and not placing greater value on “recreational” activities, my kids would absorb an attitude of acceptance towards the necessary work of life. To some small extent, I would say that has occurred. Especially when they were younger, they were generally happy, even enthusiastic about helping with “adult” work such as gardening, animal care, or even some cleaning. As they have gotten older and we have all gotten busier, however, it seems we have all slid down the proverbial slope towards more modern perspectives on “chores”. They suck.

These days it seems we argue about chores more than almost any other topic. Whereas we used to let them help out with household tasks when they felt inspired, we now have assigned chores, just like most households ( that I know of. ) The tasks they have are relatively lightweight ( compared to some families I know), but that doesn’t stop them from procrastinating and complaining about twice as long as the actual jobs take. Whatever else we might have achieved so far, we have clearly failed to impress that sweeping, vacuuming and doing the dishes is actually a way of having fun together!

While I often consider eliminating this demand, just to avoid the conflict, the fact is that my partner and I genuinely need their help. We also genuinely expect it. As a family that has experimented with various levels of voluntary simplicity and homesteading, it’s hard to shake the sense that kids build character partly by learning to put their nose to the grindstone and do some real, old fashioned work, occasionally. So, going back to the forum post from years ago, how do I reconcile this with my belief that children learn to appreciate activities when they are not coerced into doing them?

In the end, like every other philosophical ideal, it seems to come down to a compromise. And, as in other such situations, I can only go back to straight-shooting communication to mitigate the seeming hypocrisy. I hope that by being honest and upfront, I can somehow transcend what might seem like simple coercion and actually engage them as full people, people who can also have compassion and common sense, who can see what needs to be done and chip in, in the interest of keeping the family lifestyle going. Hopefully, if I can forgo the desire to shout with frustration every time they stare at me laconically from the couch when its time to clean up, and can find the patience and energy to explain, again, that these are the tasks we as a family must complete every day in order to maintain a happy, healthy, home, they will absorb this instinct into their budding minds and bodies. If I can find the strength to overcome my own dread of the dish pile, put on some music, and join the kids in a game of chase with the dish towels, this tedious work of life will transform into just one more experience we share together. I’m not sure if or how that fits into the unschooling worldview, but I know it is a necessary part of life, and like all the other necessities, I hope to prepare my kids as best I can for what lies ahead.