There’s strong evidence that feeling useful builds resilience in children, but how much and what sort of work are modern parents asking kids to do?

Next time your child complains about chores, tell them it’s for their own good.

Giving children meaningful household tasks and the autonomy to complete them may be key to making them more resilient and capable in later life. But are we giving them enough opportunities to feel useful or are we leaving them on the shelf, wrapped in cotton wool?

An Insight into Family Resilience

The idea that it is important to foster a child’s capacity to help others goes back to groundbreaking research published in the 1970s on the impact of the Great Depression on US families that suggested many kids thrive when the going gets tough.

By analysing longitudinal survey data, US sociologist Glen Elder discovered that among families hit by poverty during the Great Depression, people who were infants at the time, and so wholly dependent on adults, struggled throughout their later lives to overcome their circumstances.

But he found that those children who were aged 9-10 when the Depression hit and threw their families into poverty tended to instead do much better later in life. Importantly, they outperformed their peers whose families had been unscathed by the Depression. Professor Elder theorised that these children benefited from increased self-esteem by having to roll up their sleeves and help out.

But if required helpfulness helps build self-esteem and resilience, what then is happening with children now when most enjoy a standard of living that the Depression kids could only have dreamed of? Do we need to be providing more opportunities for children to feel useful and worthwhile? How much responsibility is too much?

Changing Times

Child welfare expert and honorary professorial fellow in social work at the University of Melbourne, Professor Dorothy Scott, worries that modern Australian children may be missing out on the self-worth that comes from doing meaningful help for others. She notes that in the past the family was an economic unit in which everyone needed to work and contribute to keep food on the table.

But in the wake of the technological and digital revolutions, she argues that families are now units of “passive consumption”. She suggests modern children may be at risk of losing some of the resilience that appears to come from being useful and helping others.

“The historical shift in families is very clear. When the family was an economic unit, children were an important part of it. But now in our consumer society, children have only a minor role to play in terms of contributing to the household,” says Professor Scott, a former Foundation Chair in Child Protection and the Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia.

“Positive psychology talks of resilience being related to factors like being part of something larger than yourself as an antidote to the passiveness that comes from a consumer society. The hypothesis is that by promoting required helpfulness and contributing to the wellbeing of others we might be able to help children build their own identity.

– Andrew Trounson

Read more: Why Helping At Home Is Good For Kids

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