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Division of Labor: How It Affects Relationships

teen doing homework

Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash

“When parents let their teen believe they are too special to do ordinary work, they raise “handicapped royalty” — young people who study brilliantly and are full of conviction but don’t know how clothes get clean or how to read a credit card bill.”  — Dr. Wendy Mogel, The Blessing of a B Minus

I could smugly say my kids are not “handicapped royalty” because they know how to use the washing machine, but the truth is, they don’t do much else around the house unless their fun activities or car use is threatened.

I will admit, we have fallen prey to the almighty importance of good grades and college acceptances. Here in the suburbs of Minneapolis, ACT prep classes are ubiquitous and extracurricular activities better elevate your college application or they are not worth doing.

Hours of homework and after-school activities trump helping mom take out the trash or putting away laundry. Those kinds of tasks are for chumps, i.e. mom and dad or a cleaning person.

Studying and extracurriculars are exalted and household maintenance is menial. The problem is a good portion of life is maintenance. For example, once we’ve earned a nice home by means of our exalted work, we have to maintain it.

I am often hesitant to ask for household help because I see how loaded my kids’ schedules are. I want them to have some downtime. I know the importance of downtime.

Success first

It is also an unspoken rule that parents need to devote their lives to supporting and fostering the highest potential in their children. This means don’t bother them with pesky chores, but do bust your butt to get them to any and all sporting events and music lessons. It seems like what a responsive parent would do but is it teaching a one-sided, non-collaborative lifestyle?

The real purpose of homework

Learning to juggle a schedule that includes menial as well as exalted work, teaches kids self-discipline. Sticking with a task even when it is boring or uncomfortable gives a child a fortitude that will take her far in the real world. Dr. Wendy Mogel, child psychologist, says homework is a menial task that teaches delayed gratification and persistence more than it teaches the subject of the homework. My kids think homework is worthless.

Kids are capable

The more we help with homework, the more the message gets sent that our kids need us to do it with them. We are subconsciously telling them they are incapable of finishing it and doing it well themselves.

I believe it is OK to help with homework, but not take it over or correct it. That said, I have a hard time leaving errors in my kids’ essays. I try to circle the problem and let them figure out what is wrong, but often I just tell them what to change. I know! I’m weak, but learning.

You’re loved based on what you contribute

I have concluded that often we end up feeling love is conditional. Kids have to succeed at school or some other talent to receive love. Parents put their work and adult relationships aside to earn society’s star of approval and their childrens’ love.

When parents finally get the nerve to ask for their kids’ help, because they feel resentful and burned out, do kids feel the withdrawal of our support as a withdrawal of our love?

Romantic relationships

Romantic relationships feel the imbalance of exalted and menial work too. We are not living in the 1960s Feminine Mystique times, but there is still often a division of labor which has the smaller breadwinner taking on the menial jobs around the house.

I think this is why the children are so hell-bent on being a big bread-winner — no menial tasks in their future then either.

The imbalance of honor for the different types of work, can create a chasm between partners. The one doing the menial, less lucrative jobs, is at risk of feeling less respected or appreciated. When differences are exploited more than appreciated, distance between lovers grows.

My ex- husband used to always say, “She’s the boss.” to his friends and family while referring to me. It never felt genuine. I stayed home and handled most of the day-to-day household maintenance, including childcare. I knew my jobs were important but when dinner time rolled around and all eyes and ears were on my husband at the head of the table, my work didn’t feel like it was important.

It was easy to resent my husband and get disconnected.

I’m curious if this kind of imbalance of power and labor is as common in lower socioeconomic levels.

washing dishes

Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash

Why we should do menial jobs

The truth is the small menial tasks and maintenance create order and serve society. Dr. Mogel says they elevate society by lightening the load of individuals and letting everyone feel the satisfaction of contributing and belonging.


What is considered exalted work in your home? Does everyone help with menial tasks? Do you ever feel you do more than a fair share of menial work?


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  1. J Katz July 14, 2018 at 7:58 am - Reply

    This is such a great post, Brenda. 🙂

    I work as a secretary and I can always tell the difference between supervisors who appreciate the role support staff have in the functioning of an organization and those look down with disdain and snobbery on their assistants- or worse, make jokes about ‘cheating on ones wife with ones secretary’ (ugh).

    To be honest, I like performing a support role as long as I am respected and paid well enough. To some extent, I find performing menial tasks more relaxing than exulted tasks because the focus is on getting the thing done for the sake of having it done rather than on showing off and competing.

    However, sometimes this kind of work can become quite burdensome and stressful if you’re the only person performing it and if others treat your work as invisible. In family relationships especially, I agree that it is frustrating when menial work is not appreciated. And I like to spend some of my free time on academic and artistic passions- which I can’t do if I’m constantly expected to do chores all day long.

    • Brenda Knowles July 18, 2018 at 2:49 pm - Reply

      Hi J! Thanks for your comment. I loved your point about performing menial tasks because they are more relaxing and not focused on competing or showing off. I agree, sometimes I think exulted work has a lot of ego behind it.

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