For all the progress men and women have made on gender equality, it sometimes feels like few inroads have been made at all.
A Birmingham woman recently posted an ad on a British childcare site looking to hire someone to pick her kids up from school—and also teach them, as well her husband, how to do chores. In the nine years since the birth of her second child, she says, her husband has done no housework. Naturally, she’s worried about the example he’s setting for their children. “We’ve got two sons and I’m worried his bad attitude towards housework, particularly that it’s the job of women in the house, is rubbing off on them,” she writes.
And so the mother is looking for a care worker who can teach the rest of her family how to cook, clean, vacuum, do dishes and laundry, put clothes away, and iron. “I’d also like the childcarer to stay for an extra hour after we get home from work so that my husband can see the kids doing some chores, and learn a bit himself,” she writes.
The request may be unusual, but it points to a problem that many women can likely relate to. As I explain in my book It’s not you, it’s the dishes, which applies behavioral economics to conflict resolution in marriage, a main source of conflict for many couples lies in the question of how to divvy up housework. That’s in no small part because data from the Pew Research Center shows that when both parents have jobs, women still do more work at home.
Some recent UK data suggests that today’s young girls still have very unequal expectations for men and women when it comes to housework, though things seem to be improving,
A 2018 survey by GirlGuiding, a UK charity, shows that in 2009, when asked how the housework should be divided between men and women, 25% of 7-10 year-olds said it should be shared equally. By 2018, 45% said men and women should share the burden. There’s no denying that’s progress.
Ditto child care: Only 57% said the tasks should be shared equally in 2009, but 65% say that now. Sixty-three percent say bills should be shared equally, up from 48% in 2009, and 43% say both men and women should deal with the car, compared to 25% in 2009. Forward march!
And yet, in 2018, 46% of girls still said they would “expect the task” of housework to fall to women, down from 69% in 2009.
Maybe this is the model they know. When women do more work at home, everyone winds up thinks it’s yet another one of women’s jobs.
Raising a helpful, chore-friendly kid
Getting kids to do chores is not rocket science, but it requires something many parents are short on: time and patience (mea culpa). Toddlers absolutely love to wash dishes (suddsy water!), sweep, fold, and “help” cook. In one study, highlighted by NPR, 20-month-olds stopped playing with a new toy to help an adult pick up something from the floor; they didn’t need rewards to help. In fact, they helped less when a toy was offered as a reward afterward, the study found. According to NPR, psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello concluded, “Children appear to have an intrinsic motivation to help.”
But many parents fail to employ small children’s good will and hard work because toddlers are kind of terrible at chores. They’re messy, they take ages to do everything, and they almost always mess the task up.
But as with all things toddler, chores matter because they help kids learn about what actions are valued and what it means to be part of a family (no free riders, kid). This lovely NPR story shows how cultural housework can be: in indigenous families in Mexico and Guatemala, young children value helping and do it often without being asked. “Volunteering to help is such an important trait in kids that Mexican families even have a term for it: acomedido,” the story notes:
“It’s a really complex term,” Andrew Coppens, an education researcher at the University of New Hampshire, told NPR. “It’s not just doing what you’re told, and it’s not just helping out. It’s knowing the kind of help that is situationally appropriate because you’re paying attention.”
If you let kids help, and let them mess up along the way, they eventually learn that housework is a communal activity—and something that is expected of all family members (and, bonus! They eventually do learn how to wash a dish or fold a shirt without messing it up). Michaeleen Dorcleff, another NPR reporter, took the experience of the Mayans and tried applying it to her two-year-old in San Francisco, with successful results. She explains of her daughter, “She now voluntarily feeds the dog on a regular basis, rinses the dishes for the dishwasher, sweeps the floor with me and holds the door for me when I take the garbage out.” As for what how to model gender-equal domestic labor? Men need to be involved on the same terms as the kids: because it’s their family, and their house, too.