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Children, young people and families, Memory

Doing more chores linked to better executive functioning in kids – but direction of effect is unclear

Children who did more chores had better working memory and were better at ignoring distractions – but results should be interpreted with caution.

02 August 2022

By Emma Young

When kids do household chores, this clearly helps out the family. But it benefits them, too. Research shows it boosts feelings of autonomy and is linked to greater life satisfaction and sociability. Now a new paper in Australian Occupational Therapy suggests that doing chores may even improve working memory and the ability to ignore distractions or temptations to focus on a task (known as inhibition).

These two so-called executive functions are very important for success in life. So if doing chores does indeed develop them, this could represent a strikingly simple way to help kids to help themselves, while also assisting the rest of the household.

Deanna L. Tepper at La Trobe University, Australia, and colleagues recruited just over 200 parents and guardians of children aged 5-13 years for their online study. Almost three quarters of participants lived in Australia, with the rest from other countries in Oceania, Europe, Asia and North America.

As well as providing demographic information, the participants completed two main questionnaires. In the first, they rated the child’s executive functions (their ability to plan and regulate themselves, for example), resulting in overall scores for working memory and inhibition).

In the second, they indicated whether the child did various household chores, such as helping to prepare meals, sorting laundry, unloading the dishwasher and organising their own belongings for school. If the family had a pet, they completed a further survey, in which they reported on the child’s participation in various pet-related chores, such as feeding and grooming.

The results showed a statistical link between doing more chores (though not those related to pet care), and better scores on working memory and inhibition.

“Our findings likely reflect that most chores require individuals to self-regulate, maintain attention, plan and switch between tasks, thereby supporting the development of executive function,” the team writes.

What might explain the absence of a link between pet care, specifically, and executive abilities? The researchers suggest that it’s because pet care is relatively simple — so if putting out food for a dog or grooming it, say, doesn’t really challenge a child’s executive abilities, it doesn’t train them.

However, there are a number of weaknesses in this study, and so reasons to be very cautious about inferring that greater engagement in chores actually boosts executive abilities.

“Our findings likely reflect that most chores require individuals to self-regulate, maintain attention, plan and switch between tasks, thereby supporting the development of executive function.”

To begin with, though the team in fact gathered self-report data on socioeconomic status, they didn’t control for this in their analysis (though they did control for age, gender, and disability). Lower SES has been linked to poorer executive function in children. So if higher SES caregivers expect their kids to do more chores, this could have influenced the link.

Another reason for caution is that earlier work has found only low-to-moderate links between results from the executive abilities questionnaire used in this study and actual objective lab measures of executive abilities. In other words, the parents’ ratings of the children’s working memory, self-control and so on can’t be expected to be especially accurate.

Most importantly of all, though, a link between doing chores and better executive abilities, if it does exist, could easily run the other way around: it could be that parents are more likely to get kids who are already good at organising themselves, and so on, to do chores. Because, let’s face it, if a kid needs supervision, lots of reminders and encouragement to complete a chore, it could be a lot quicker just to do it yourself, especially if you’re in a rush — and every family knows exactly what that’s like.

I can think of a lot of reasons why getting kids to learn to look after themselves and others is a very good thing for them, as well as the rest of the family. But the evidence just isn’t there — at least not yet — to say that boosting executive abilities is one of the benefits of childhood chores.