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Kid, load the dishwasher and build a little character while you’re at it

As a child, I knew my place in the world: second oldest of six siblings, student in Detroit Public Schools, refuse removal specialist at 6115 Penrod Street.

Not only did my father expect me to carry our household waste to the trash cans in the alley behind our house every evening, he expected me to do so without being "begged," as he put it. Taking out the garbage, he told me, was my job, my responsibility, my contribution to the operation of the household that nurtured me. It was not, he insisted, too much to expect of me.

"Nobody has to remind me to go to work every morning," he said.

I'm not saying I was flawless in my execution. Nor would I contend that, while trudging my 50-foot Trail of Tears between the back door and the alley, I never felt exploited, put upon, unappreciated, victimized, downtrodden or resentful. But the tiny seed of common sense taking root inside me restrained me from complaining too loudly. Even then, I knew my dad had a point. Furthermore, I was no Cinderella, slaving away while my siblings skated. Everybody in the family was expected to pitch in.

My wife and I reared our four kids the same way. Nobody got a free ride. There was a lawn to mow, leaves to rake, a supper table to set, floors to be swept and vacuumed. There was plenty of grunt labor to go around.

I thought of this when I read recently about a national study commissioned by Whirlpool, and cited in the Chicago Tribune, which revealed that, to a large extent, modern parents no longer expect their kids to perform chores. Researchers found that while 82 percent of American adults did household chores as children, only 28 percent expect the same of their own kids. That conclusion was based on a survey of 1,001 adults taken in mid-September.

Ironically today's parents, according to the study, still believe chores are good for kids. Seventy-five percent said they believe chores teach kids responsibility and 63 percent said they think "important life lessons" arise from a child's mandatory participation in household tasks.

As far as I could tell, the researchers offer no explanation for the trend away from chores, or for the disconnect between what parents believe and what they practice. Maybe it has something to do with the infamous overbooking of today's kids into organized activities - the same phenomenon that crowds out the free time kids need to exercise their imaginations and initiative.

Or perhaps it's the parents who are overtaxed, and are unwilling, or unable, to invest the time and energy it takes to teach their kids how to help out. In the beginning, it always takes more work to get "help" from a kid than to simply do the job in question. The payoff comes later.

Possibly today's parents underestimate the capabilities of their kids, or associate chores with an underprivileged upbringing. Or maybe they're too willing to take no or an answer.

I doubt that my father, in assigning me the garbage detail, thought much about life lessons, or character-building. He was just a man with his hands full and a belief that people should make themselves useful as soon as possible. Reluctantly or not, I helped him and, in the end, it helped me.

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