When news came late Thursday that Chinese elementary and secondary schools are required to arrange for at least one session of housework, farm work or other forms of labor skills training per week starting this fall semester, the moms in my parent-teacher WeChat group let out a big hurrah.
"I'm fed up with picking up after my kid," one mom complained. "His room is such a mess."
"It's time that my daughter should learn some cooking skills," said another. "When I was her age, I often helped around in the kitchen and could already make a delicious pork chop stew. She, on the other hand, knows only to order takeouts from her mobile app."
Not yet 150 years from the child chimney sweep being banned in Britain, for the cruelty of that and unjust exploitation of child labor, people in many countries are worried that things have gone out of control in the other direction.
A study in Australia published in the journal Family Matters analyzed the contribution of 7,000 15 to 19-year-olds to household chores using data from past surveys. It found out that in the past three decades, teenagers' overall contribution to housework was small and is getting smaller. The researchers noted there was greater gender equality, with girls becoming more "domestically useless" like their brothers.
It was widely reported when the Spanish Parliament in 2014 passed a draft law requiring those under 18 to "care for the home and perform age-appropriate household tasks, regardless of their gender."
The quick growth of the Chinese economy and ensuing family wealth for many households, plus the many previous years of the "one-child" family planning policy, has given rise to a generation of "little emperors and princesses." Many children have never been asked to do household chores, especially those who live with grandparents or nannies. Given the fierce competition of academic learning at school, parents also are reluctant to have their children's precious time and energy diverted by household skills and chores. The agreed-upon definition of success in the Chinese society for most people, apparently, is a top university degree and subsequently a high-paying job.
The necessity for adding a labor skills training course at school lies not just in the goal of helping the young develop the basic living skills like cleaning and cooking. Its significance also lies in the hope that by urging them to pitch in around the household, these children will learn to be more responsible and selfless. Charity starts at home. No one gets paid for doing chores and serving their family members. If one is unwilling to take up responsibility and make small sacrifices at home, how can they be expected to grow into responsible citizens and serve the public?
This move may also be an opportunity to improve gender equality. In today's Chinese families, the bulk of household responsibilities still fall onto the shoulders of women, as evidenced by the moms' warm reaction to the news in my WeChat group. Although both parents are included in the group chat assembled by my daughter's head teacher, I've seldom seen a dad join the discussions or ask questions. Taking care of the kids appears to be primarily a mom's responsibility. A course at school that teaches the basic housework skills to both boys and girls can get the idea across that such skills are important and both genders need to contribute to household chores.
Many women today are looking for such qualities in their future spouse that the guy needs to respect women and be willing to shoulder part of the housework. In fact, modern technology has drastically relieved the burden of housework; now we have dishwashers, washing machines, sweeping robots and electric cookers. Many more gadgets are on the horizon as engineers are trying to develop them. A husband operating the sweeping robot or putting the dirty plates into the dishwasher is a much more satisfying partner than someone who sits on the sofa watching a ballgame after dinner.
While the new policy is welcome among Chinese parents, schools need to think of creative ways to teach the course. How can they get the kids interested in housework? Perhaps they can learn from Tom Sawyer. Tom tricked his friends into painting the fence for him by convincing them that it was fun and a rare opportunity to do the chore. Hopefully, schools can arrange for fun workshops to teach the skills. The last thing parents want to see is that time for the sessions at school is wasted away and then their kids are assigned the mundane homework of cooking dishes or making dumplings, and the teacher also requires the work to be submitted in a short video before a deadline.
(The author is an editor of the Features Department of Shenzhen Daily.)