Children's Contribution to Household Labour in Three Sociocultural Contexts: A Southern Indian Village, a Norwegian Town and a Canadian City

Article excerpt

Rina Cohen (*)

ABSTRACT

Using cross-cultural data, this paper explores the extent and nature of children's participation in household labour in three social settings: a Southern-Indian fishing village, a Norwegian town and a Canadian large urban centre. It examines the gender division of domestic labour among children and compares children's contributions to that of adults. Children's household production was always a structural necessity for the maintenance of rural households. However, in the past three decades, as households in urban-industrial societies are restructuring, children's participation became indispensable.

Introduction

Most of the recent research on the division of domestic labour in families revolves around gender issues and is based on the assumption that women and men are the sole collaborators (Ferree 1990; Gill 1998; Kluwer 1998; Gupta 1999; Reily and Kiger 1999). Few studies look at children's participation in household labour. With few exceptions, such as Gill (1999), these studies tend to conceptualize children's contribution as an essential component for their development, stressing the socialization value of housework. They focus on the importance of performing household chores in developing children's character. For example: developing their sense of responsibility (Gill 1998), preparing for gender roles (Grusec 1985; Morrow 1992; Cunningham 1998; Blair and Sobelewski 1999), growth and autonomy (Verma 1999), or teaching children about family relationships (Gill 1998; Goodnow and Delaney 1989). Historical studies on the value of children's contribution to their families' households (Zelizer 1985) demonstrate that children's productive role in preindustrial households has shifted with industrialization, especially among middle-class families, from being defined as useful and instrumental to being defined as useless but educational and instructional.

A closer look at children's unpaid labour in different societies reveals that their contribution to their households is indispensable. Children's housework is a necessity, especially among rural families in developing countries. Moreover, it gradually gains importance in industrialized countries as families are restructuring in response to economic changes. With the dramatic increase in the number of both dual earner families and single parent families, children's roles in their households became evident. In general, the worth, or value, of children's contribution to domestic labour reflects their families' resources. The fewer the resources, the higher the value of children's contribution.

The differential significance of children's participation in household labour, which may vary between 15 and 75 percent of the total household work, is demonstrated in recent studies that were conducted in three social settings. The first social setting is described in a study documenting children's labour roles and their daily work routine in a fishing village in rural Southern India (Nieuwenhuys 1994). The second social setting describes children's unpaid labour in a town in Norway (Solberg 1990). The third social scene takes place in an urban area in Canada.

In the three different settings, data indicates that children's contribution is critical and that girls contribute more than boys do. However, while children's housework is an important feature of family life in all three social settings, fishing village, town and city, the amount of their labour and the level of gender segregation vary. These differences may be explained in terms of degrees of industrialization and urbanization. When comparing the proportion of children's household work (as a percentage of the total housework in families) in the above three societies, the children of the rural area of Southern India contribute more to their families' domestic work than the Norwegian town children and far more than the Canadian city children. …