For many of us, chores were the bane of our childhood – something to resent our moms and dads for making us suffer through before we were allowed to go play Super Smash Bros: Melee on our GameCubes with our big brother. But it turns out we might owe our parents an apology for all those tantrums about washing the dishes.
A new study, published in the journal Australian Occupational Therapy, has suggested that being made to do chores on a regular basis might have improved your executive functioning – your working memory, ability to think flexibly, and self-control. It may even have improved your academic performance.
“Parents may be able to use age and ability-appropriate chores to facilitate the development of executive functions,” Deanna Tepper, a PhD student at La Trobe University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“Children who cook a family meal or weed the garden on a regular basis may be more likely to excel in other aspects of life – like schoolwork or problem solving.”
That’s the conclusion from a survey of more than 200 parents and guardians of children aged between five and 13. Caregivers were asked about their children’s chores – what they did, who they were for (themselves, their family, or pets, for example), and of course, whether they actually followed through and completed these tasks.
Then, the researchers analyzed the data using statistical regression tests to establish whether helping out around the house was related to executive function.
“We hypothesized that children who engaged in more household chores would have better inhibition and working memory,” said Tepper. It’s a reasonable proposal: previous studies have shown that childhood chores are associated with higher personal, social, and academic satisfaction later on, and that certain chores can have a positive effect on executive function.
It makes sense intuitively as well: “Most chores require individuals to self-regulate, maintain attention, plan, and switch between tasks, thereby supporting the development of executive functioning,” Tepper explained.
There was one surprise: Pet-related chores, which the team had thought would be a strong predictor of executive function – after all, interaction with animals and owning pets are known to improve mood and act as social support, both of which help with executive functioning – turned out to have little effect on the outcome.
“Most families reported that their child played with the pet and provided food and water. As such, the non-significant results probably do not reflect a low level of engagement,” explains the paper. “It is, however, possible that tasks such as pouring kibble or water into a bowl are not complex or challenging enough to aid in the development of executive functioning, compared with chores like cooking which require multiple steps.”
While the survey did have several limitations – it didn’t account for the socioeconomic background of the children, for example, which is known to be related to both executive function and the levels of household chores children are expected to perform – the results nevertheless have some deep implications. Executive function is an extremely important set of mental skills, and the researchers believe their study may open new avenues for children and adults hoping to improve this area of cognition.
“It may be possible to improve executive functions by developing individualized learning activities and routines,” said Tepper. Cooking, for example, has been shown to improve executive functioning in older adults, while child-focused cooking and gardening programs, martial arts, and even video games are known to have a positive effect on childhood abilities and function.
“Executive functions are … critical to planning, multitasking, and initiating goal-directed behaviors,” concludes the study. “In the household, parents may also be able to facilitate their child's executive functioning development by encouraging engagement in chores. It is recommended that future research focuses on establishing the directionality of this relationship.”