For many of us, family work is like taking castor oil -- something we do as quickly as possible so we can get it over with and experience the least amount of pain. We want to get on with the other things we'd rather be doing. The old Erma Bombeck adage sums up these feelings nicely: Housework, if done properly, can kill you.
If your family's perspective on family work is this negative, you may be missing out on some important benefits. The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches that successful marriages and families are established and maintained on the principle of work (¶ 7).
What Is Family Work?
Family work is the everyday, ordinary labor required to build and sustain family life from one day to the next. It includes feeding and clothing our families, sheltering them from the literal and figurative storms of life, nurturing them when they are sick, and cleaning and enhancing their surroundings to preserve their health and give them beauty to enjoy. These daily tasks often are seen as unimportant and menial while, in fact, they bond us together. They are a gift from God -- an invitation to love and serve one another.
Value and Blessings of Family Work
Family work is essential for our growth and enriches our lives. It develops character, helps us become more self-reliant, teaches honesty, and makes us more aware of what others do for us, fostering humility and gratitude. When family members work together they learn how to serve each other and sacrifice for the other.
Unfortunately, because housework is generally seen as tedious and even demeaning, many people do everything they can to avoid it. They buy the latest time-saving household appliances, purchase many meals ready-made instead of preparing them, and hire help for cleaning. Although there's nothing wrong with getting help for housework, avoiding all or most of it deprives families of the opportunity to work and grow together.
According to family scholar Kathleen Slaugh Bahr of Brigham Young University, the real power of family work lies in "its potential to transform lives, to forge strong families, to build strong communities." Bahr argues that if we look beyond the common criticisms of family work - that it is mindless, menial, and demeaning - we can find an unexpected gold mine of opportunity. Some of the things people most commonly dislike about family work, she says, offer us "the greatest possibilities for nurturing close relationships and forging family ties."
For example, mindless chores require less concentration, leaving family members able to give their attention to one each other as they work together. As we work, we can sing, dance, talk, or tell stories. Laboring side by side with our children as partners often helps them feel more comfortable talking openly to us.
Because family work is menial, says Bahr, "even the smallest child can make a meaningful contribution." Children can set the table, fold towels, wash windows, and do many other tasks valued in the family. Since these tasks tend to be repetitive, they provide us with a natural setting to make emotional connections with family members again and again.
Finally, family work may be seen as demeaning because, according to Bahr, it often means cleaning up after someone else in a very personal manner. Changing diapers, washing soiled bed sheets, and wiping up vomit can be viewed as demeaning, or it can be viewed as humbling and a valuable service to loved ones. Family work thus can help us "acknowledge our unavoidable interdependence, encouraging (even requiring) us to sacrifice 'self' for the good of the whole."
Family work also teaches us how to be better individuals, better members of the family, and better neighbors. When we learn to work and do service for others early in our lives, we gain valuable skills that will serve us later. We learn a strong work ethic and how to be other-oriented. As we help one another in our work, we learn that the heaviest load becomes lighter when someone shares it.
Changing Your Family's Vision of Family Work
While there is no magic road to revolutionize your family's view of family work, several things can help, according to Bahr and others:
- As parents, adopt a positive attitude about family work. Children tend to mirror the attitudes their parents have about family work. If you view family work as drudgery, your children likely will as well. Make a conscious decision to see family work as an opportunity to be together and grow as a team.
- Limit the use of some technology. Some labor-saving devices cut down on the amount of interaction that could take place between family members. For instance, using the food processor to slice veggies may save time, but it may also deprive you of an opportunity to chat with your teen while chopping vegetables together. Before using such convenience tools, ask yourself what you may be giving up in exchange and decide whether or not it's worth it.
- Insist gently on children's help. Sometimes it's easier for parents to do all the family work themselves than to nag children until they do it. Or we may give children responsibility only for their own things, such as their own rooms or toys. But researchers have found it's wise to give children work opportunities that require them to do something for others. One study compared children who did "self-care" tasks, such as cleaning up their own rooms, with children who did "family-care" tasks, such as setting the table. The researchers found that children involved in family care tasks learned to be more concerned for others while children involved in self-care tasks only did not.
- Avoid a business mentality at home. Don't treat family members like employees. That means avoiding motivational and supervisory approaches you might use in the workplace. Instead, adopt a mentor role. A mentor is a trusted friend who knows the person being mentored and the task well and helps the mentored be successful.
- Work side by side with your children. If you simply send your children off to do their chores, you'll miss opportunities for connections as you work side by side. Wash the dishes with them. Paint the garage with them. Almost any task presents parents with the chance to be with their children for an extended period of time while they work toward a common goal.
- Make housework family work. Let each family member know that a clean house, laundry, and meals are responsibilities to be shared by everyone. Have a family meeting and discuss what each family member can do to help with household chores. Pick a relaxed time for the meeting. When everyone is in a good mood, they will be more receptive to requests for help.
Written by Vjollca K. Martinson, Graduate Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Bahr, K. S., & Loveless, C. A. (1998). Family work in the 21st century. In M. Proctor & S. Proctor (Eds.), Charting the new millennium (pp. 173-204). Salt Lake City, UT: Aspen Books.
- Bahr, K. S.,& Loveless, C. A. (2000, Spring). Family work. Brigham Young Magazine, 54(1), 24-34.
- Bahr, K. S., Loveless, C. A., Manwaring, K., Rice, M., & Worthen, V. E. (2000). The meaning and blessings of family work. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 177-189). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
- Cherrington, D. J. (1998). Rearing responsible children. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.
- Goodnow, J. J., & Bowes, J. M. (1994). Men, women and household work. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.