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That was THEN, this is NOW

Bucking a modern trend, parents - and children - are finding value in chores

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2010

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Every day, there’s more dirty laundry.

And every day, 9-year-old Ethan Charles sorts mounds of it generated by the six members of his Framingham family - meticulously separating towels, sheets, and clothes by darks and lights.

His older sister Olivia then loads the washer, and later, bundles everything into the dryer.

When it’s done, she folds. He puts it all away.

“We can’t go to school ’til it’s done,’’ said Ethan.

Chores are the minutiae of the day-to-day, the background tasks that regulate the beat of daily life.

The amount of chores done by children, though, hasn’t always been consistent - insert the “when I was your age’’ phrase of choice here - but today, there’s a movement to restitch them into the family fabric.

“There are things that need to be done to maintain a household,’’ said Framingham mother Kristin Romine, whose two children perform a regular rotation of chores. “They’re part of a family. It’s their responsibility to help out.’’

More parents have been reasserting this position as the 21st century unfolds, according to Markella B. Rutherford, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College who explored children’s changing levels of autonomy in a research project.

Backing her up are dozens of websites and research papers espousing the values of daily chores; Littleton blogger Susan Tordella also advocates for them in her soon-to-be-released book, “Raising Able: How Childhood Chores Develop Good Decision-Making.’’

For her research, published last year, Rutherford pored over parental advice doled out in nearly a centu ry’s worth of magazines.

What she found: In the early 20th century, children were considered miniaturized adults, of sorts - not equipped to take on all family responsibilities, but able to perform substantial tasks like cleaning, preparing meals, planning menus, and grocery shopping. Some were even given the responsibility of balancing family checkbooks (a terror-inducing notion, no doubt, for some contemporary parents).

But in the 1970s, this all started to change. Constant parental supervision became the norm; children weren’t as free to roam neighborhoods and streets. There were safety concerns due to increased traffic and fears of abduction, said Rutherford, a mother of two who divvies out a few chores of her own.

So instead, parents put a greater emphasis on schoolwork, she said.

But that’s shifted yet again over the last 15 years, Rutherford found, as moms and dads have sought to strike more of a balance between home and school duties. And in some cases, she said, the new balance is encouraged through rewards systems, and at times it also requires schedules or formal plans.

Not always, though.

“I would never tie in payments for chores,’’ said Dennis Charles, Ethan and Olivia’s father, who does give his children an allowance.

It’s a philosophy on parenting he’s more than willing to share. The father of four runs the Fourth Wave Institute in Sudbury, which offers career programs for adolescents; he also organizes the Metrowest Parents of Teens Meetup Group, whose roughly 25 members gather monthly to discuss ways to prepare their children for the responsibilities of adult life.

Ethan and Olivia attend Sudbury Valley School, a private school in Framingham based on a philosophy that gives students the responsibility of deciding how to spend their time.

A side benefit of the school’s flexible schedule is that it gives Ethan and Olivia time to finish their morning chores, Charles said.

Charles said he believes that it’s limiting to focus just on education. “The main responsibility for them is to become functional adults,’’ he said. And getting there results from “a combination of doing schoolwork and participating around the house.’’

Newton mom Rhanna Kidwell agreed. “I wouldn’t sacrifice chores because they have schoolwork,’’ she said.

Still, compared with the expectations of the 1940s and ’50s, today’s chores are “rather trivialized,’’ observed Rutherford - acknowledging that this is no different with her own family.

Romine agreed on this point: Ben, her 14-year-old son, and Megan, her 10-year-old daughter, spend anywhere from one to three hours a week on chores, handling tasks like loading the dishwasher, making their beds, taking out the garbage, and mowing the lawn.

Sometimes they procrastinate, she said, and they don’t always do the careful job their parents might.

But “it’s more important that they learn than to have it be perfect,’’ said Romine, president of the Framingham Townwide PTO.

Children need to learn that “the family doesn’t just revolve around them,’’ she said.

Those are sentiments shared by Kidwell, copresident of the Newton PTO Council.

Her 10-year-old Charlotte and 8-year-old Wesley are responsible for the trash and recycling; they also sweep the kitchen, clear the dinner table, help with laundry, and unload groceries. And cleaning their bedroom and making their bed are a given, she said.

All this serves to show that “their parents aren’t just here to serve them. We all pitch in.’’

The daily routine is a bit more structured in the Charles household.

Ethan and his older sister Olivia usually do two loads of laundry a day, their father said, and are responsible for neatening up and caring for their two younger siblings when their parents aren’t around.

Ethan is also in charge of mowing and tidying the lawn, retrieving firewood, and hauling the trash out.

And you won’t believe what he has to say about it. “I have lots of fun doing it,’’ said the polite and talkative 9-year-old, who wants to be a police officer when he grows up. “I feel like I have a lot of responsibility and stuff.’’

All told, these daily duties amount to about 10 hours a week, his dad figured.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of structure Charles wishes he’d had. Growing up, he had no chores to speak of - which he directly correlated to “floundering’’ when he graduated. “I didn’t have a sense of what work would take,’’ he said.

But now, Ethan does.

“If we didn’t help out, we would be in our pajamas all day,’’ he said. And “if no one cut the lawn, it would be all high.’’

His sister recognized the wider implications.

“If my parents just did it all, we wouldn’t know how to do it when we’re older,’’ said the 12-year-old. Plus, it would cut into quality family time. “They’d be tired and wouldn’t have time to spend with us.’’