The Citizens Handbook
Indentured Moms

Charles Dobson

In December 2004, two parents, Cat and Harlan Barnard, went on strike to protest the unwillingness of their children to help with household chores. They set up a small tent on their front driveway and posted signs reading “Parents on Strike” and “Seeking Cooperation and Respect”. They slept on air mattresses and barbequed their meals only using the house for the washroom and shower. The Barnards decided to go on strike after the failure of every effort to get their 17 year-old son, and 12 year-old daughter, to help with house work. They had begged, pleaded, tried withholding allowances, and even sought the help of a professional psychologist. Nothing worked. Dishes, garbage and dirty laundry would pile up for days before the 45 year-old mom would have to do her children’s chores.

“This was our last-ditch effort,” Mrs Barnard said. People driving by usually honked their horns in support of the strike, but a few were critical. “One women said I should be ashamed for creating emotional stress on my children,” Mrs Barnard said. “I told her, ‘Well, they’ve been doing it to me for years.’” The action angered her son, who described the strike and ensuing press attention as “extremely inconvenient”. But her daughter said she understood. “I guess we don’t help out as much as we could.”

The story highlights a pervasive social disconnect. We place a high value on fairness, but unfairness is the norm in North American families. In the past, when stay-at-home moms were more common, it was less obvious. Dad would go out to do paid work, mom would do house work, and kids would do school work. Today, with most moms now working, it is clear that house-work should be shared by everyone. But in most families, that’s not happening.

How important is household work, anyway

Okay, the Barnards may be a little odd. Just how important is it that household work is shared? In 2007 telephone survey of two thousand Americans, the Pew Research Center discovered a surprising shift in what contributed to a successful marriage. Compared to a similar 1999 study, people felt the same way about most issues. But two responses were quite different. An increase of 24% rated children as less important to a successful marriage, and an increase of 15% rated the sharing of household tasks as more important. In fact, the sharing of work came in as the third most import ingredient of a happy marriage after fidelity and a happy sex life.

Dads aren’t the main problem any longer

A few decades ago, mention housework and a forest accusing fingers would point at men. But times have changed men. According to the Pew Research Center, most family men now do a fair share of cooking, cleaning and other housework.  Kim Parker, senior researcher at Pew, puts it this way: “Among the biggest fans of today's dads is a group of women who may well be the best qualified to evaluate them: working moms. They're married to these men after all, and they function at the epicenter of the busy households where modern dads must pitch in at every turn. Fully 72% of married moms who work at least part-time and are raising young children say dads are now doing as good a job or better than their counterparts did a generation ago; only 26% say they're falling short.

The problem is that kids contribute little

Kids are not doing their share. Still, you would never know it given the literature on parenting. Countless books and articles focus on what is good for children and how parents can provide these goods. Children are treated as objects of attention and concern, with virtually no responsibility for the well-being of the family.

Various US studies show that school-aged children perform approximately 11 per cent of all household work (1). Parents are stuck with preparing meals; doing the laundry; cleaning the bathroom; washing dishes; doing yard work; taking garbage out to the trash; looking after pets and grocery shopping, and minding young children. It’s a heap of work, but most of it is not difficult. Kids over eight can help with all of it, and children as young as two and three can help with some of it. How old do you have to be to wipe up a spill, tip some food into a cat dish?  Even outside the house, parents provide services that children could easy provide themselves. Thus, we see parents driving kids to and from school, to and from soccer games, music lessons, to and from friend’s houses. In a recent Canadian estimate, 25 percent of rush hour traffic comes from taking kids to and from school. According to a 2017 study, only 26 percent of Canadian kids make it to school on their own power, even though most trips are under a kilometre or a 10-minute walk. In many cities, waiting to pick up kids is so commonplace that anti-idling bylaws require parents waiting for their kids will shut off their car engines. Why not ask them to shut down the chauffeur service? Kids over ten can walk, ride a bike or take transit. Younger kids can get to school by joining a walking school bus. Why are parents run ragged doing so much dumb work?

In other countries, kids help out

In the most countries, kids help out. On average 25% of their day goes to activities that contribute to their families. Anthropologist Karen Kramer has studied the role of children in a Mayan village in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. She points out that Mayan children start work at age three. The amount of work they do increases steadily until, by the age of fifteen, they are working as much as adults. “They wash clothes, prepare food, haul water and care for kids. Along with the adults they plant, weed, and harvest fields of maize.” (2) Children are not a drain on the family, but an economic asset. While this take on children may seem strangely utilitarian to middle class North American parents, it benefits both children and adults. After spending over a year living closely with the members of this village, Kramer was struck by the overall level of happiness in the society. “They seem to be on the top of the curve for mental health.” The way they treat kids she feels, has something to do with the contentment of the adults. “I am convinced they are doing this right.” (3)

The relationship between kids and adults that Kramer finds in this Mayan Village is common around the world. In a study of the kids in four communities in Kenya, Belize, Nepal and American Samoa, children as young as three had chores that took up to 10 percent of their day and this amount increased with age to about 23 percent by age nine. They fetched water, tended cattle and goats, ran errands, cleaned pots, gathered or shopped for food, and took care of other kids. (4)  

In most places, older children look after younger siblings. In a study of 186 cultures around the world, Herbert Barry and Leonora Paxson found that older children rather than parents were the primary care givers for children over the age of one. Because moms are often at work in the fields or at the market, they need baby sitters. So, the older children, following models set by their parents, take over washing kids, feeding them carrying them around, toilet training them, protecting them from harm. They are never left totally alone, but always do this work as part of a large social group or household compound where there is adult supervision. By all accounts, older children in these cultures take responsibility for this important work and do it well.

Still, we find it unusual. We easily understand the shock of westerners who travel to New Guinea or Peru and find children doing most of the child-care, because we are so completely committed to the concept of maternal upbringing. “All the theorizing about the psychological development of children is based in the belief that mothers are the primary, and hence most natural, caretakers. But ethnographic data places those assumptions in doubt.” (5)  Instead of seeing child-care in less developed countries as backward, we might consider how older children might be integrated into our child care system. Certainly, it would help large numbers of low and single income families who cannot afford adult child-care.

What happened in North America?

Why is the role of children so different in North America? How did we end up with the family norm of parents being servants to more or less useless children for up to eighteen years? How did those who are well-off come to accept the idea of hiring “help” to cook, clean, tutor and chauffeur instead of asking children to do their share? At the very beginning, it is natural and unavoidable that the child is completely dependent on mom. During pregnancy and through breast-feeding this dependency is so aggressive that some biologists (6) say we should view mom as a host and baby as a parasite. Baby literally lives off her physical body. The effects are often quite visible: a new mom can look like she’s had the life sucked out of her, while the new baby looks full of vigour. As baby turns into child it stops consuming her body, and begins consuming much her life. Baby devours her sleep, leisure, career; in fact, just about anything that takes time. Eventually the child becomes more autonomous. Parents recover their sleep time, some leisure time and time spent dealing with bodily fluids. While parental care wanes after age two, it continues to consume large amounts of time.

Dependency extends far beyond what is required for the health and safety of the child, and sometimes goes on until the grown child leaves home. The groove of dependency is no doubt rooted in the strong emotional bond between mother and child. In the poorer countries of the South, necessity bumps children out of the groove when they can begin to contribute to family life. Parents simply cannot afford to support a dependent child for eighteen years or longer. In the richer countries of the North, parents can and do. The exception is poor single parent families and poor families with a lot of kids. In these families, children do more, but their contribution drops off rapidly if more resources become available. 

Canadian census data from 2016 shows that the length of time children depend on parents is increasing. A surprising 69% of young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 said they had never left home, up from 49% in 1986. There are many reasons for the extension of dependency. Some of those who live with their parents are boomerang kids that return home after failed careers or failed marriages, others never leave because of the cost of housing. Parents should certainly provide for adult children who need help. But do most kids really need thirty years of parental help? The Industrial Areas Foundation argues that temporary dependency can easily become permanent. To prevent this from happening they have an Iron Rule: “Never do for anyone what they can do for themselves.” If parents followed the same rule, wouldn’t they and their children be better off?

Those wretched marketers again

The idea of adults acting as servants of children may begin in biology, but it becomes embedded in the cultures of industrialized countries thanks to advertising, movies and marketing. Modern media has created a model of the ideal kid as empowered, self-directed, mini-being who knows how to get what he or she wants.
North American families have largely bought the model of the empowered kid because is seen as a stepping stone to adult independence. Empowered kids seem like a good idea until we ask the question empowered to do what? Does it mean empowered to ask for more help in the classroom? Or empowered to demand fairness on the playing field? Sometimes.

More often it means empowered to demand an ever-growing range of products and services. Marketers love the pester-pressure demanding children can exert on parents. Dozens of annual marketing conferences such as KidPower Food and Beverage, Hispanic KidPower, and KidPower Tweens are held every year to work out new ways to make kids and marketers allies in getting more stuff from mom and dad. With 52 million children aged 12 and under, marketers weave the idea of kid empowerment into kid-focused movies, products and TV programs.

In the last twenty years, marketers have focused so intensely on kids, they have been able to take over the landscape of childhood virtually unopposed. Their invasion has devastated what used to be a protected zone, profoundly affecting the relationship between children and parents.

As a result of the occupation and corporate reconstruction of childhood, kids today lead lives of continuous desire for the next doll, toy, video game, movie, cell phone and the next fun event, sleep over, birthday party. Parents rush about trying to keep up, while fighting a losing rear-guard action against hordes of marketers that comprise the Legions of More. Marketers convince kids that they have a right to as much fun as possible, all the time. In her book Born to Buy, Juliet Schor says: “[Marketers] have put themselves squarely on the side of hedonism and gratification of desire rather than the modern socialization processes of discipline over bodily urges and suppression of physical energies. Marketers stand for fun over work. . . “

Of course, non-stop fun is only possible with a non-stop supply of new stuff, new events, new entertainments. The demand for continuous fun contributes much to corporate profits, but displaces much of what is important to childhood. Thinking about anybody other than number one seems bizarre. Creative play, reading, imaginative daydreaming seem boring. Learning new skills that require patience and practice, seems onerous beyond belief. Parents who want to see their kids happy, feel obliged to provide a torrent of fun, a task that is next to impossible especially during the summer. So much time to fill. Many adults confront the problem by planning their summer time-off around a kid’s agenda. In the US, the most popular vacation destinations are the Disneylands. What better evidence that kids’ needs for fun trumps adults’ needs for relaxation? And what benefit accrues from this Herculean effort to stave off boredom? At best, nothing at all. At worst, children develop a sense of entitlement; they come to believe in getting without giving, in rewards without effort, in rights without responsibilities.

Anxious parents

Social historian Peter Stearns, in his book Anxious Parents, presents a deep understanding of the relationship of parents and kids. Much of Stearns’ research comes from 20th century advice books on child-rearing. There has never been a shortage of advice books. After the 1940s, one of Doctor Spock’s books sold for every baby born; my local library has over a thousand titles on the subject of child-rearing. The advice offered to parents in these books both reflect and promote ideas about children. Stearns shows how advice books helped to create the concept of the vulnerable child. The job imperative of parents, especially mothers, was to protect their vulnerable children. The number and range of threats to children grew steadily through the 20th into the 21st century, with new concerns replacing those that fell by the wayside. During the 1940’s, parents worried about their children’s posture, but when experts in the 1950’spointed out that posture was usually adequate, parents dropped that concern and began to worry about diet. Throughout the last 60 years, parents have worried about germs and inadequate hygiene, accidents in the home, sudden infant death syndrome, dangerous traffic; child abductors, lack of sleep, illicit drugs, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and poor school performance. Even children going out on Halloween were vulnerable; parents needed to be especially vigilant in case a neighbour put a razor blades into the Johnny’s trick-or-treat apple. Besides being vulnerable to physical threats the child was also vulnerable to emotional threats. In the 1930s much attention was devoted to the child who was frightened of animals or the dark. Advice books and parents worried that a fearful child would not be able to cope later in life. Most recently the subject of bullying has become a subject of concern for parents. Concern arises again from the core idea of the fragile child. A few insensitive words might be all that was necessary for permanent damage. Criticism could scar a tender psyche, sending a child into a tailspin “forever.” Certainly, a major family upheaval like divorce could wreak untold damage. How many moms have become slaves to their children in a guilt-ridden attempt to make-up for a divorce. What is the effect of all this worrying? You guessed it: more work for parents.

The scourge of mom guilt

Recently, the Globe and Mail newspaper (7) ran a story headlined “Working mom’s guilty little secret.” It’s about a mother of two school-aged children, Anita Dumanski, who works as a business unit director for Roche Canada. The story is about how Ms. Dumanski likes business trips because she can do a few things that she can’t do when she’s home. “With no children to cook for, no homework to help with, she can just kick back after a day of meetings and enjoy much-needed ‘me-time’.”  “Unlike family vacations, where a working mother continues to do many of the things she does at home, a business trip allows for an almost complete break from family life . . .”  Apparently, many women enjoy a reprieve from the long hours spent serving their children, but many feel guilty about not putting their families first when they do take the time off. They are double-duty moms, women who work outside the home but still feel responsible for looking after the kids like any traditional stay-at-home mom.

Many moms defend double-duty by saying, “I don’t want my kids to feel they come second.” But does that mean mom comes second?  Without paid help, it means long hours for the 70 per cent of mothers with children under 18 who work full time outside the home. While moms are super touchy about how much time they spend on their kids, few find the workload of double-duty attractive.

There are a few critics of women who devote all their spare time to their children. One is journalist Judith Warner. After spending a number of years raising two children in France, she returned to the US able to see the relationship between parents and children in the context of another country. She was so disturbed at “uber-momming” she encountered in the families of her middle-class friends she wrote the book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety.

“In France, there was an atmosphere. A set of deeply held attitudes toward motherhood – toward adult womanhood – that had the effect of allowing me to have two children, work in an office, work out in a gym, and go out to dinner at night and away for a short vacation with my husband without ever hearing, without ever thinking, the word 'guilt'.”

"Guilt just wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t considered a natural consequence of working motherhood. Neither was the word 'selfish' considered the necessary accoutrement of a woman with children who wanted to take time for herself. On the contrary, work was considered a normal part, even a desirable part, of a modern mother’s life. It was considered something that broadened her horizons and enhanced her self-esteem – healthy and good for herself and her children."

"[In the US] on the airwaves, in the parenting magazines, in the local press, I was surprised to see laudatory stories of 'dedicated' mothers who spent their evenings and weekends driving to and from soccer, attending Girl Scout cookie meetings, über-momming, generally, twenty-four hours a day. I had never once, in almost six years, met a woman in France living her life at this level of stress. I had never met a mother, working or otherwise, who didn’t have the time to read a book, or have lunch with a friend, or go out to dinner once in a while. I had friends in France who were full-time stay-at-home moms with three or four children, but I had never once encountered a woman whose life was overrun by her children’s activities.”

The bleakness of leading a life of exhaustion weighs heavily against reproduction. Slavery has never been that popular, but more and more young women are saying “No thanks!” to the prospect of having children. This and smaller families overall have driven birth rates in industrialized countries below replacement rate. Canada’s birth rate hit zero in the 1970s and continues to spiral downward. Some might see the decline as conferring a broad public benefit by making western countries more multicultural, the result of having to import people from other countries to make up for a dwindling supply at home.

Everyone’s better off

A fair sharing of housework between adults and kids would be good for everyone: mothers, children, families, even civil society. Employed adults work increasingly longer hours; going to work after getting home from work, just adds more hours. Everyone, even parents, deserves some discretionary free time.

Parents clearly benefit from more equitable households, but what about children? Research shows they actually benefit most. Marty Rossman, Associate Professor of Family Education at the University of Minnesota, studied a group of children from pre-school through to their mid-twenties. She found the best predictor of a child’s success as an adult was that they began helping with chores by age three or four. Small children are usually eager to help. The trick is to let them help. Many parents take over simple jobs, saying it is faster if they do it themselves. That’s not a good idea according to a 2005 study of 379 children, published in the Journal of Personality. Researchers found that kids who had more responsibilities at home at age 5, got better grades at school at age 8. Children who can do more also tend to be more self-confident. If parents can be patient and show youngsters how to perform simple tasks rather than take them over, everyone benefits.

The inequitable work relationship between adults and children also has a cost outside the home. Studies of large scale social issues – everything from election reform to global warming – invariably warn that progress will only occur with much higher levels of citizen involvement. With adults spending so much time serving children, they have little time left to contribute to their communities, and to the task of building a vibrant civil society. We need to rebuild our communities, create social networks, and bring people together in clubs and associations in a way that counters the attraction of uninvolved private life. We need to create more of what Robert Putnam calls social capital.  But given the scene at home, it won’t be easy. When the League of Women Voters in the US asked people if they wanted to be more involved in their communities, the answer was “Yes!”  When asked what was preventing them from doing so, the answer was “No time!”  

Put the demands of kids up against the demands of community, and kids easily win out. With so much time going to children; parents have little time for civic life, little time to spend with friends, little time to participate in broader social networks. The demands of kids are particularly destructive in the way they remove women from civic life. Look closely at the grassroots and it easy to see why women are so important. Many are natural grassroots organizers; they know how to build local community, and they understand the importance of creating and managing relationships between people. Quite simply, the volunteer efforts of women are essential to the project of building civil society. We need more of their time. Children need less.

1 Numbers vary. See A will of their own by Manfried Liebel. One US study suggested that children in single parent families contribute almost double the amount of children in double parent families.

2 Reported in Kids, How biology and culture shape the way we raise our children by Meredith Small.

3 ibid

4 A 1984 study by Ruth Munroe, Robert Munroe and Harold Shimmin; American Anthropologist 86:369-79

5 Ibid, p 29

6 Find one

7 Globe & Mail July 4, 2007, c1

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