It would be hard not to notice: kids don’t do very much around the house these days. Parents seem afraid to give them any task more onerous than feeding the pet, clearing the table after dinner or tidying up after themselves.

It is a pattern that became dominant in the 1980s, according to United States sociologist Markella Rutherford, who studied articles, advice and letters published in more than 300 parenting magazines between 1920 and 2006 to see how children’s autonomy and responsibility had evolved.

This is interesting research, showing how children’s autonomy has increased in some ways: freedom from chores, dressing how they like, defying their parents. But it has diminished in others: they have less freedom to move and act outside the home without adult supervision and it takes much longer for them to accept responsibility

Dr Rutherford says:

“In earlier generations, children and adolescents were given meaningful opportunities to be responsible by contributing not only to their households but also to their larger communities. This was seen as especially important for adolescents. Until very recently, greater autonomy and responsibility were emphasised as antidotes to teenage listlessness and rebellion.”

Until the 1980s, staff at parenting magazines and parents who wrote in agreed that chores helped children develop empathy and a desire to contribute to the well-being of others, she said. Between the 1930s and 1970s, adolescent and pre-adolescent children were expected to plan menus, shop and prepare meals for the family. They were given responsibility for tasks including nursing sick family members, keeping household accounts, decorating or even helping to maintain the family car.

“Even very young children were assumed to be capable of contributing to necessary tasks,” said Rutherford. “One mother’s letter describes how she taught her four-year-old to lay kindling and strike a match to start a fire.”

In the 1980s, though, “descriptions of children’s household chores all but disappeared from parenting magazines”. When more onerous tasks were mentioned they were invariably linked with “bribes” — payment or points that could be cashed in for toys, games or outings.

“In the past, parents didn’t feel the need to bribe children because they were confident chores benefited their kids by making them feel both responsible and an active part of family life,” said Rutherford. “Added to which, children of the past would not have expected to be bribed because their parents taught them to take pride in a job well done.”

Delayed responsibility for children means an extra load of responsibility for parents, Dr. Rutherford suggests:

“Today’s parents face demands that require near-constant surveillance of their children. Allowing children more autonomy to express themselves and their disagreements at home may well be a response to the loss of more substantial forms of children’s autonomy to move through and participate in their communities on their own.”

Of course, other things have changed too. Safety is a huge issue in cities. As a pre-teen I would travel by bus to the city, meet my girlfriends, go to the movies and bus home again. But today I would not like to be the one who let an 11-year-old go off for the day by herself. Still, there must be ways around this problem. Taking more responsibility at home would be a start.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet