Child Labor or Virtuous Chores?

For the last month and a half my nine year old son has successfully maintained the laundry for our family of eight.

I’m not going to focus on the philosophical aspects around why kids should do chores, though I strongly believe that for multiple reasons they should. For me it’s practical: it is impossible to keep a house with six kids orderly without everyone contributing. But what’s the best way to get everyone to contribute?

I’ve tried every approach to create a fair system that gets everyone involved while respecting their ages and abilities. I’ve had the schedules and charts and just like Kendra at Catholic All Year points out, they all have proven impossible to maintain despite early excitement.

But now I feel like I’ve finally found a system that works, and I am going to argue that it’s the best approach.

The Backstory

In a house of our size, laundry can quickly become the bane of existence. With my wife homeschooling and a newborn recently arrived, laundry was once again becoming a constant headache. If you know anything about this type of situation, it isn’t bad as long as you diligently do it every single day. But miss a single day, or worse, have a week of sickness or vacation and LOOK OUT — hopelessness ensues.

So after several other failed approaches to taming the beast, I started by having a conversation with our nine year old boy. He was the only one mature enough to stay on top of a task this big. In other failed iterations the older kids would quickly lose heart when the younger ones didn’t pull their weight to make a system work. I decided that just like in business, every project needs a president.

Instead of making a lowball offer, I considered what having the laundry taken care of was really worth. I settled on offering him $50 a week for staying on top of all the laundry in the house. The amount of money got his attention as he quickly analyzed what it could afford him. (A Lego Superstar Destroyer was only two months away!) He thought through the details and we talked about how staying on top of it each day was the key to making it manageable. Having done enough laundry, he realized the worst part of this system would be sorting his three sisters’ clothes. I agreed with him; sorting their laundry is next to impossible, but I pointed out that his six year old sister could sort it faster than any of us. So we invited her to the conversation and it was quickly agreed: he would get $40 for managing everything but sorting the girls’ laundry, and she would get $10 for taking on that task.

After striking the agreement, the first week began slowly. It didn’t have the initial excitement of the charts and despite having a few second thoughts, they both quickly got up to speed. The necessary early promptings and encouragement have given way to nearly flawless execution.

Why does it work?

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases.” (from Rerum Novarum or “On the Condition of the Working Classes: Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical that describes just principles of capital and labor)

The key principle, I think, is accepting that kids are just like adults: they recognize the inherent inequity in a deal. If I were to pay my son $10 for a week of laundry or give him a ticket for a family movie night, he’d quickly realize that the exchange was either not equitable or not properly in his control.

I calculate that the kids are earning right around minimum wage in California, but for them it is a huge sum of money and for me it’s a great deal. My son is also basically free to do as he pleases with the money rather than be confined to an economy I’ve created with charts and rewards. So far I have watched him tithe at Mass without prompting and save up for Lego purchases.

Not only is the laundry caught up but he’s earning his own money, learning to tithe and save, all while immensely helping the family. He’s learning that the key to staying on top of things is doing a little bit each day and connecting the consequences of not taking care of his bath towel to the work it creates for others.

Now I just have to find a job for the seven year old who eagerly wants one.