Why We Need To Teach Our Kids To Take On Invisible Labor In The Household

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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“Get back in here,” I call to my son from where I stand in the kitchen. I’m surrounded by his mess: an open bag of bagels and a globby block of cream cheese splayed open in its foil and slowly heating to room temperature. The toaster has been pulled out from the wall and rests at the center of a halo of crumbs.

“What?” my 15-year-old says as he bounds happily back into the kitchen. His big brown eyes are innocent.

I stare at him.

He stares back, obviously confused.

“Just … look around,” I say, keeping my eyes on him. “Why do you think I called you in here?”

His eyes dart around the kitchen. He grimaces. “Oh. Crap. Sorry.”

He cleans his mess.

This scenario plays out in similar fashion about half the time my son prepares food for himself. Or anytime he does anything that requires moving things around, really. I won’t tell him what it is that needs to be done. I just call him back into the room and invite him to figure it out for himself. He’s slowly getting to a point where I have to do this less and less frequently.

I’ve also been assigning chores in a more vague way. When the kids were first learning to help around the house, I provided detailed checklists with a breakdown of each task to be completed within a specific chore. Cleaning the bathroom, for example, would be broken down into constituent steps like “clean the toilet” which would then be broken down further to “wipe down the base” and “use toilet bowl cleaner to scrub the bowl.” Now I just say “clean the bathroom.”

My son has never been one to automatically organize things, care how a space looks or whether it’s tidy, or think about a task once he’s moved past it. He often forgets to put tools away, whether it’s tools for cooking or literal tools. He has ADHD and his brain doesn’t automatically work that way.


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And that’s fine. I don’t expect perfection from my kids. My teenage son excels in other areas, and maybe organization and tidiness just aren’t his things. Whatever.

However, I’ll be damned if my son’s future partner ever looks at me and wonders with contempt why I didn’t bother to teach my kid to help out around the house. I’ll be damned if I raise one of those men who claims he just doesn’t “see the mess” and “all you have to do is ask/tell me what you need.”

I’ll be damned if I send yet another helpless cisgender man into the world who claims he simply doesn’t possess the skill of being able to walk into a room and deduce what needs to be accomplished in that room.

Most parents have figured out that we need to teach our kids how to do certain household tasks. But I think many of us, including myself until a couple of years ago, often neglect to teach the other component — the invisible labor of actually figuring out what needs to be done.

I don’t mean we should burden our young kids with the invisible labor of remembering all the things for the whole family. I’m talking about the everyday emotional labor of existing in a space, realizing a thing needs to be done, and simply doing the thing. This is the emotional labor that utterly exhausts so many women in cisgender-heterosexual relationships. Too often, even if the labor itself is split more or less equitably, the management of the household — the knowing what needs to be done — falls to the woman in the relationship. Study after study proves this true.

This doesn’t apply only to stay-at-home moms. It also applies to couples in which both partners work full time. Somehow it is the woman who ends up with the job of household manager, a job she didn’t ask for and doesn’t want. Too often, the man will suggest she should “just ask” for help. Women suggest this too. “If you want him to help,” they’ll say condescendingly, “you have to ask. He’s not a mindreader!”

Women who say this are stuck on the same stupid hamster wheel of invisible labor and don’t know how to get off, and they’re doing whatever they can to make the best of it even if that means justifying their male partner’s infantile behavior.

And then we end up with videos like this:

Imagine if men were expected from a very young age to look at a room, and by looking at it, know what needed to be done? What if we teach them what invisible labor is so they know that when a trash can is full, you need to take it out. That when you hear the washer buzz, you should move the clothes to the dryer. And that when you notice the dishwasher is clean, you should take it upon yourself to empty it — no asking required?

Imagine if they just … had these expectations from early on.

This is my goal for both of my kids, but especially for my son. I can’t stand the idea of him growing up to cause his future partner the angst and frustration that so many women endure from their lazy, entitled, apparently stupid husbands.


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Chore lists are great. They build expectations, which is important. But we need to also explicitly teach our kids to look at a space and ask themselves how they can improve it. We need to actively teach this skill by asking the question and following up with our kids: “Look at this room. What needs to be done here?”

It’s not a skill that comes naturally for most people, and too often we inadvertently assume boys are simply incapable of it. We either don’t bother demanding they learn this skill or we throw our hands up in defeat when we try to teach it and they don’t seem to catch on.

So, for my son, I’ve been telling him to turn around and look at a room before he exits it. Is it better than it was when he walked into it? If not, fix it. The goal is that a room should be at minimum as tidy as it was when he walked into it. In general, leave a space better than you found it.

If that’s not a good life lesson to instill in our kids, I don’t know what is.

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