Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dust Pans and the Dean’s List: The Lessons of Housework

By JoEllen Zacks

Sorry kids, but your parents now have a few more reasons for you to clean your room beyond just maintaining a tidy house. Research shows that children who help with family chores starting in the toddler years get better grades, are less likely to try drugs and have more positive ties with family and friends.

According to a study by Marty Rossman, professor emeritus of family education at the University of Minnesota, “the best predictor of success for people in their mid-20s is the extent to which they participated in household tasks at age 3 or 4.”

As part of her research, Dr. Rossman interviewed young adults whose families participated in a sweeping longitudinal study that began in the late 1960s. Professor Rossman analyzed the success of the study participants’ children, looking at indicators such as grades, educational attainment, getting started on a career path, relationships with family and friends and drug use. After factoring in a number of variables, such as parenting styles and IQ, she found that the most successful young adults came from families in which children were given household responsibilities at a young age.

“Through participating in household tasks, parents are teaching children responsibility, how to contribute to family life, a sense of empathy and how to take care of themselves,” Dr. Rossman said.

The words of Ann Landers echo the Montessori philosophy.
This study is just the latest validation of the groundbreaking research conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy and a pioneer in the study of child development and psychology. In 1907, Dr. Montessori founded the Casa dei Bambini in Rome, a school in which scientific research on brain development influenced its subject matter, classroom materials, student-teacher relationship and even the furniture.

In her work, Dr. Montessori learned that young children want to belong, to make a contribution and to control or organize their surroundings. Based upon this research, Dr. Montessori integrated basic household and garden chores into her school’s curriculum to help children structure their environment, build confidence and develop a sense of belonging.

“Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow, and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be,” said Dr. Montessori.

More than a century later, an estimated 4,000 schools around the world, including Mountaineer Montessori School (MMS), 308 20th Street in Charleston, have adopted Montessori’s scientific-based approach to education. Founded in 1976, MMS offers a rich core curriculum, approved by the Kanawha County Schools, for students ages 3-12. The school is affiliated with the American Montessori Society and collaborates with the University of Charleston Education Program. Its strong academic program is enhanced by an on-site reading specialist; music, Spanish, art and computer classes; after-school and summer camp programs; and physical education classes conducted at the UC pool and gymnasium facilities.

As with all Montessori schools, practical life skills are the foundation of all learning to come at MMS. Through the learning of "care of self" and "care of the environment," children develop order, coordination, concentration and independence. “These qualities are essential for all academics and equally necessary for people to be contributing members of society,” explained MMS Co-Director Julie Margolis.

Dr. Montessori's observations revealed the child's instinct to work and an innate drive for independence. The "Practical Life" area of the classroom provides an opportunity for both as children are allowed to do the work they have seen at home by adults.

When you walk into an early childhood Montessori classroom, you may see a child cutting fruits or vegetables with a paring knife preparing a snack. Others may be washing windows, or dusting a shelf, watering plants, wiping the snack table, polishing shoes, sweeping the floor, pouring water, handling glass objects or sewing with needle and thread. A child may be forbidden to do these at home, but may practice to perfection at school.

Each task is carefully presented to children, who are allowed to make mistakes. The children learn to be careful in handling the materials as many are fragile or sharp. “In doing this ‘work,’ children develop problem-solving skills in coordinating their efforts to complete a task,” said Margolis.

“There is such a sense of joy, accomplishment and independence as the child controls what she is doing ‘all by myself,’" she explained.

Dr. Montessori maintained that a child, given the proper environment and guidance, will develop powers of "spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, and social sentiments of help and sympathy for others." While the materials are useful and necessary, the work of the child is more profound than mastering a task, she believed. The materials enable the child to carry out an internal mission.

The child, said Dr. Montessori, "toils" to make a man, yet he is "fashioning humanity itself."

“The practical life activities benefit both the individual child as well as society as a whole,” added Margolis.

By giving children responsibilities at an early age, parents and schools can play a big role not only in an individual child’s growth and development, but also in building healthy families, harmonious classrooms and strong communities.

Sounds like a curriculum for success. Now go clean your room.

MMS, a private, non-sectarian school, is now enrolling students for the 2012-13 school year. A new financial aid program is now available to qualified families. For more information, or to make an appointment for a tour, call 312/342-7880, or email: You can also learn more at or by following the school on Facebook and Twitter.

The author, JoEllen Zacks, is a mother, lawyer and writer who spends her days changing the world and changing the litterbox.

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  1. Great article ! It's so true that little ones want to help with house work. So often I found myself shooing Anthony out of the way when I just wanted to get a chore completed. Huge mistake! Now that he is a bit older he doesn't really want to help out. I should have started a chore routine with him while he was willing and we wouldn't be arguing over it now.

    The only chore we don't argue over is helping carry groceries. He loves it! It makes him feel very manly ;) can't wait till he's old enough to do yard work.

    1. Thanks, Shelley! After reading this, I realized it's something we need to work on too. Really good information in this article, I think, and an intriguing approach to education.

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