The Strategic Involvement of Children in Housework: An Australian Case of Two-Income Families

Article excerpt

Note: The International Journal of Comparative Sociology invites communications in the form of short articles and reports about ongoing research, not exceeding 5,000 words, both in the empirical and theoretical fields.



Dependent on class and cultural background childhood signifies a stage in an individual's life course associated with distinctive songs, toys, and privileges. To some extent childhood has been commercialised by the capitalist nature of Western culture. In this socially constructed care free life stage children are expected to grow up to be healthy and safe, and able to look back with pride. Zelizer (1985:209-223) suggested that changes in social conditions such as women's liberation movement, the advocacy of children's rights, and changes in family structures will require children's contribution in household work. Children have been found to make a significant contribution to the household task performance (Cogle and Tasker, 1982; Blair, 1992). Studies have also shown that children spent about 7 to 8.4 hours per week on housework (Sanik, 1981; Blair, 1992). Children were encouraged to participate in household chores from the young age of two (White and Brinkerhoff, 1981; Cogle and Tasker, 1982) and a majority had set chores to perform (Peters and Haldeman, 1987).

Children have also been found to perform more housework when their mothers work outside the home (Hedges and Barnett, 1972). Recent Australian study by Burns and Homel (1989) have further shown that household task performance by children is gender based with boys involved in significantly more handyman tasks than girls. Goodnow and Burns (1985:47-51) found that in terms of the number and function of their jobs the country children are likely to have more jobs regarding the daily workings of their home environment. Another Australian study by Goodnow, Cashmore, Cotton, and Knight (1984:205) reported cultural differences in the age considered appropriate in assigning household tasks to children. They found although mothers in both cultures believed children should do household chores they differed on suitable time as Australian and Lebanese born mothers considered the ages of 5 and 6 and after the age of 7, respectively (Goodnow et al., 1984:205).

It is important to note that women's participation in the labour force in the last twenty years has increased significantly. For example, current employment for married women in Australia has risen to 52.6 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1991). Earlier and recent research has shown that women prefer to combine motherhood and employment (Shehan, 1984), and still carry more of the housework responsibilities (Berardo et al., 1987; Bittman, 1991). It has been reported that a lack of time and energy for housework performance have led to the renegotiation of traditional gender roles between two-income parents and their children (Gill, 1993). However, it is unknown how the time spent on household chores by children affects their leisure and educational attainment.

This study explores children's involvement in housework in two-income families from two factors: (a) socialisation theory and (b) the need for children's help. The socialisation model refers to the learning of expectations, habits, skills, values, beliefs, and other requirements necessary for effective participation in social groups. At least until the onset of schooling, apart from day care and community contacts, the family is the entire social world of children and act as the agent of socialisation (Riley, Foner, and Waring, 1988:243-290). Parents' schemata of child-rearing practices lead to their expectations of children's behaviour in households (Goodnow, 1988).

Social psychologists suggest that children's maturation takes place through expectation of privileges and acceptance of increasing responsibilities. Thrall (1978) found that both men and women consider and trust their childhood experiences in housework while forming their marital division of labour. …