Willing helpers

A group of teenagers discuss why helping at home is only fair,
but warn against gender stereotyping and exploitation by parents.
Kate Coxon listened in.

How much do young people help out around the home? What sort of
tasks should they be expected to do and from what age? Should they
be given pocket money in return for housework, or should it be done
for free?

Of five 13 and 14 year olds, (three girls, two boys) I spoke to,
each felt that they did help their parents around the house. There
was agreement that parents expected that their children should be
responsible for putting their own clothes or possessions away at
the end of the day. Not doing this was a cause of stress and
arguments. “My mum gets home from work at six and I get home from
school at half-three. Me and my brother mess the house up, but then
at around five I start tidying up because my mum expects the house
to be tidy when she gets back. She doesn’t expect me to have
cooked tea or washed up the breakfast stuff or anything, she just
says that she wants the house to be tidy. If it’s not then
she starts shouting,” said one teenager. “My mum doesn’t give
me that much to do, but if I forget to open my curtains or leave my
shoes lying around she gets really cross,” said a 14-year-old

However, questions about how much the teenagers helped provoked
something of a debate within the group about whether young people
could talk honestly on the subject. “We got asked this question in
our French lesson last week and I was the only person who would
admit that I did any housework. No one else said they did any,”
said one 13-year-old girl. She said that nobody else would admit to
it “because it’s not cool to say that you help your

Helping at mealtimes appeared to be very common: laying the
table, washing up or putting plates away were all tasks that the
young people said they helped with on a daily basis. Doing the
vacuuming, hanging out washing or putting clean clothes away were
other tasks mentioned. Three of the six had younger siblings and
all said they did some form of babysitting or minding from time to
time, on average once a week. “There’s no point my mum paying
for a babysitter; it’s so expensive and she wouldn’t be
able to afford to go out if she had to pay someone £6 an hour
to look after us. Anyway I like it because I get to stay up late
and watch what I want on TV,” said one.

Strikingly, none of the young people said that they minded
helping out, and none of them said that their pocket money was
dependent on it. “But if I do something like wash the car or mow
the lawn I get extra,” said one boy. There was agreement that you
should get pocket money regardless of whether you helped your
parents or not, but young people who did a lot more than others
deserved more.

There was a strong sense among the young people that it was
important to support parents by helping out – those who
didn’t were “selfish”. “If you get paid to do everyday things
like lay the table then that’s bad, I think it devalues your
relationship with your parents,” said one. An example was given of
a girl at school who was paid £2 each time she stacked the
dishwasher for her parents. “She can earn a lot just by doing
normal things. Her parents aren’t loaded, she’s just
spoilt and selfish.”

The young people themselves said that they felt the amount of
work the young person was expected to do was related to how much
the parents worked or whether they were single or couple parents.
“Both my parents work full-time so if we didn’t help then it
would be really unfair. They’re knackered when they get
home,” said one.

One girl whose mother was a lone parent said that she felt she
helped out more than any of her friends. She had been doing
housework and looking after her younger brother since the age of
eight. “I think really it’s better to start doing it at about
10 or 11, but it’s only fair that I help, though sometimes I
think I do a bit too much. Two parents can share things out a bit

One young person proposed a law that sets out guidelines for how
much children can do. Other comments were that young people should
be relieved from duties when they had exams or tests, and that
teachers or social services should intervene if housework appeared
to be affecting a young person’s ability to study. An example
was given of a classmate who spent all her time looking after five
much younger siblings, to the detriment of her schoolwork.

Overwhelmingly, what provoked the strongest emotions was one
girl’s observation that there was an enormous gender bias
when it came to allocating household tasks. Not only were boys
expected to do less, they were more likely to be asked to help with
tasks like gardening, or the car. Girls were given housework. “My
dad always asks my brother to help mow the lawn or trim the hedge
and it makes me mad – why can’t he ask me?”

Girls felt they were often told tasks were too dangerous or
difficult when this wasn’t the case. “My dad once
wouldn’t let me help him move some furniture because he said
I’d get hurt, but then he asked my brother who is only eight
and I thought that was really silly.”

The greatest contempt was reserved for manufacturers who made
toy vacuum cleaners, kitchens and irons. “They only ever have girls
modelling them on the box. It’s usually young children who
play with them and the impressions they get early on might have a
lasting effect,” said one girl. Another felt these toys were
getting more and more sophisticated – such as mini-Hoovers that
actually worked – and she thought this might lead to very young
children being exploited by their parents.

How might the gender problem be addressed? “Manufacturers should
only be able to sell them if they advertise boys using the products
as well.” Men needed to be shown doing “non-macho” activities such
as cleaning. “More films like Billy Elliott would be really good.
In my school there’s a feeling that if boys are into dancing
or singing then they’re gay and it’s the same with
housework. We need to see more boys doing it.”

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