For mother-of-three Gill Robertson, chores were part of what kept children healthy and active in the past. “We’ve lost a lot of that physical part of our lives in this country. Can you imagine what would happen if you went to the school and said to half the kids, we are going to walk five kilometres to get some water and bring it back and that is just for drinking, that is before we even talk about what you are having for your tea? We tend to think we are so much better off because we don’t have to do that but in some ways we are not.”
Robertson, who works from home, still does her best to get her children to do as many active chores as possible, sweeping up leaves, cutting grass, washing cars, and fetching and carrying.
“The other day I was sitting in my office and it started to rain. The girls came rushing out of the house to bring the washing in. I was watching them and there was some stuff they couldn’t reach so they were having to work out ways of getting up to it. They did it in the end. I believe that if everyone in the family works and contributes then everyone has something to bring to the table and everyone gets respect.”
News that Scotland’s obesity levels are second only to the US and that only one in 250 girls and one in 20 boys aged 11 are getting the recommended minimum one hour’s exercise a day is causing concern in many quarters. Many children, particularly girls, seem reluctant to take part in organised sport and teenagers are even less likely to reach healthy levels of physical activity.
Some experts believe that obesity and physical inactivity may be in part an “unintended consequence” of the labour-saving environment that is the modern home.
In the same way that immune problems such as asthma and allergies may be linked to the elimination of the parasitic gut worms that people evolved to cope with, eliminating the need to haul buckets of coal, scrub floors, chop wood and howk tatties may have damaging consequences for children.
Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University , says: “In the past, particularly from the age of about 11 or 12, girls especially would have done a lot of domestic work. Some of that work would have been very physical and it would have kept them fit.
“There is limited scope for keeping fit in that way now because everything about the modern home is labour-saving. Everything is designed to make life as easy as possible, so that you don’t even have to walk across the kitchen when you unload the dishwasher. Chores outside the home, such as taking the dog for a walk or running errands, are also linked to concerns about child safety.
“A lot of people in the past had a very, very hard life and we can’t go back to that. But people evolved doing physical work and there may be unintended consequences of eliminating that.
“Obesity may be one. Things such as increased levels of depression may also be linked to the sedentary life, certainly exercise seems to be emerging as an effective treatment for depression.”
He adds: “Doing physical activity along with other people is important not just for burning up calories but because of the social engagement.”
Anne Stanton, 71, a retired nurse who grew up in the Lanarkshire countryside, attributes her current fitness and energy levels to the hard-working habits she acquired as a child. “I was the eldest of seven and from the age of about six I was expected to work, to collect the eggs, to gather the hens in for the night, to weed the garden. We kept a pig and we would comb the hedgerows looking for things for the pig to eat. All these things were part of living in the country.
“From about eight or nine when I came home from school I would light the fire and start the evening meal. I helped with the washing, I scrubbed floors. We were always cleaning and tidying and scrubbing.
“I was fit as a flea and that early experience is part of why I have stayed fit and active.
“I think the way a lot of children live now is appalling. They come in from school and flump down on the sofa and sit there for maybe two hours and eat biscuits. I think that is so bad for them.”
Eva Walker, a musician in her thirties who moved to Edinburgh from Poland , also recalls a hardworking childhood. “It wasn’t that the adults worked and the children played. We all worked together. I remember coming in hungry and tired from the garden or the garage and we would wash our hands and sit down to a lovely meal of fresh food and dinner was really our reward for all our hard work.”
Nuala Gormley lived in Uganda as a VSO volunteer and saw children working hard there. She says: “Girls were trained from a young age to carry water. A boy might be responsible for a goat or something. At school they would work, too. The school would have a field and the children would dig it. I don’t think it blighted their childhood, they just had a different idea of what was required to keep a family going.”
Michael Clapham, a senior lecturer at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh , says: “There is some evidence that the amount of time spent watching TV and playing computer games does correlate to obesity.
“Children and young people need higher levels of physical activity. Doing chores and running errands could be part of that. Perhaps they could extend that beyond the family, run to the shops for the old lady down the road for example, or if it snows, go out and clear the snow off the pavement before it freezes. Or projects could be done on a community basis. These kinds of activities have lots of benefits. Children can get a feeling of satisfaction and self-worth.”
Germaine Greer, the feminist, has written about how adult women work hard in other cultures and in our own tend to spend their leisure time on what for her is “work repackaged”: shopping, gardening, needlework etc. She argues that “women like work”.
Educational psychologist Kairin Cullen agrees that the decline in children’s work may be a particular issue for girls. “I have been involved in a lot of sports projects in schools. It usually goes down very well with the boys but not nearly so well with the girls.
“It may be that some girls would be more interested in practical projects that were more nurturing. We should value that desire equally with the desire to play games but sadly a lot of the values of schools are quite masculine, they are quite competitive and see exercise in terms of sport.
“Perhaps we could unpick that a bit. We also have a view of childhood which says they shouldn’t labour and perhaps we need to look at that again.
“Most schools would be very cautious about getting involved in anything that seemed utilitarian. But I think it is a shame.”
Chores can be fun . . . no, really
*Show and tell – explain to your children how a task should be done. This can be enjoyable one-to-one time if you approach it in the right frame of mind. Make a fuss of them when they do a good job. Remember that teaching them to do chores is one of the best things you can do for your child.
*The chores game – an invention of mum Gill Robertson – involves writing various chores on pieces of paper and pulling them out of a hat. “I always write some saying 10-minute break, ” she says.
*The speed tidy – if guests are coming round, set a timer and get the whole family to do a 30-minute speed clean and tidy, and you will be amazed how much can be accomplished at a dash.
*Behind on the laundry? Take it and the kids to the big machines at the laundrette. It will be an outing or at least a change of scene and there is more space for the kids to help you.
*Washing the car – it may only cost a couple of quid to go to the car wash but your children and their pals can have a lot of fun with buckets of soapy water and it gets them out. Make sure you show them how to wipe it with a shammy – you don’t want streaks. Get them to valet the inside, too.
*Dog walking – even if you don’t have a dog, there may be someone around who would let your child and a pal take the dog out a couple of times a week.
*Other active chores could be sweeping up leaves, weeding the garden or watering a friend’s allotment, picking fruit, hanging out the washing, washing tenement stairs and picking up litter.
8th October 2007
© Jackie Kemp 2007