Like many teens, my parents expected me to help out around the house by doing chores. Taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, and keeping my room clean were my usual tasks. The conventional wisdom is chores like these taught us a little bit about a key character strength — self-control. Self-control can be described as putting off an immediately enjoyable activity for something less enjoyable (that may have long-term benefits, like homework). On the surface, it makes sense that chores may teach self-control. Even as a teen, I can remember thinking, “Okay, if I mow the lawn now, I can play video games for the rest of the day and mom and dad won’t pester me about it.” But a recent study from the University of Houston suggests there may not be a clear link between the development of a young person’s self-control and doing chores.
What did the study find?
Researchers used data from a 10-year study of almost 700 Mexican adolescents. Some of these adolescents were born in Mexico and some were born in the US, but all were enrolled in schools in California. At age 10, 12, 14, and 16, adolescents were given a list of 14 chores and asked to identify which ones they do at home. These included chores like doing laundry, dishes, yard work, and cleaning the house. At the same ages, adolescents and their mothers were asked about the teen’s ability to practice self-control. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that there was no significant connection between between doing chores and the development of self-control at these ages.
In separate analyses, the researchers found a link between self-control and several job-related outcomes at age 19. Adolescents with high self-control at age 10 reported less stress at work and a greater sense of feeling like they were a good fit for their job by the time they hit age 19.
What can parents do?
The study authors were as surprised as I was that there does not appear to be a relationship between doing chores and building self-control during adolescence. And they were quick to point out that this finding doesn’t mean parents should discourage their teens from doing chores. After all, learning how to do chores in adolescence fosters several important life skills. It helps them learn how to maintain a clean and organized home. More importantly, it teaches young people the value of contributing around the house and helping out their family. This is the element of doing chores as a teen that has stuck with me as an adult. Sure, taking out the garbage is annoying and smelly, but it means I’m helping out my loved ones and making their lives easier.
The findings from this study simply mean that parents shouldn’t necessarily expect that doing chores is the best way to develop self-control in their teens. Better ways for parents to encourage self-control in their teens include role modeling and praise. If you keep your cell phone out of sight and avoid checking it during dinner time, your teen will likely do the same. If teens mow the lawn before sitting down for a marathon gaming session, applaud them for it. You can also create opportunities for teens to practice self-control. If you keep fruits in plain sight instead of donuts, your teen is more likely to pick up that apple or banana. Previous research shows it’s critical for children to develop self-control because it’s tied to numerous positive outcomes in adulthood, in addition to the job-related ones shown in this study.
Chores serve an important function in childhood. But, this study suggests parents would be wise to look beyond telling their teens to do chores if they wish to help them build self-control.