May 19, 2024

How to Raise a Happy Child – Some Startling Truths

The Life Long Benefits Of Early Industry

With so many parents wondering what they can do to give their children the best future possible, it is easy to become confused by conflicting advice.  A timeless piece from a 1986 Readers Digest article provides solid evidence for the virtues of work in raising happy and successful children.

Harvard University researchers followed 456 children over a 40 year period. Those children assigned chores from an early age turned into adults who earned more, had more job satisfaction, better marriages, lived longer healthier lives and, most importantly, lived much happier lives.

I could not find this pre Internet article on line, so it is reproduced below and is now available to the world.

A 40-year Harvard study has turned up some startling truths about….How to Raise a Happy Child, by Edwin Kiester, Jr., and Sally Valente Kiester

When John and Peter C were growing up, other kids felt sorry for them.  Their parents always had them doing chores: weeding the garden, running errands, carrying out the trash.  When they grew older, they delivered newspapers or mowed lawns.  Sometimes other parents shook their heads and remarked that all work and no play made a dull boy.

But when the boys reached adulthood they were better off than their childhood playmates who had been less industrious.  They earned more and had more job satisfaction.  They had better marriages and closer relationships with their children.   They were healthier and lived longer.  Most of all, they were happier.  Far happier.

These are the remarkable findings of a 40-year study than began in the 1940’s – a study than may help you raise happier children today.  Started in an effort to understand juvenile delinquency, the study followed the lives of 456 teen-age boys from inner-city Boston, many from impoverished or broken homes.  When they were compared at middle age, one fact stood out: regardless of intelligence, family income, ethnic background or amount of education, those who had worked as boys, even at simple household chores, enjoyed happier and more productive lives than those who did not.

“It’s not difficult to explain,” declares George E. Vaillant, the Dartmouth psychiatrist who made the discovery when he was at the Harvard Medical School.  “Boys who worked in the home or community gained competence and came to feel they were worthwhile members of society.  And because they felt good about themselves, others felt good about them.”

Dr. John E. Obedzinski, of the Center for Families and Children, in Corte Madera Calif., agrees.  He has found that even five-year-olds benefit from performing small household duties.  “It makes them feel they’re contributing and are important to the family,” he says.

Most interesting, however, is Vaillant’s study, for it is one of the first to follow a group of males in such detail over so long a period of time.  Interviews were repeated at ages 25,  31 and 47.   Under Vaillant, a group of researchers, who knew nothing of the men’s lives, compared the men’s mental health scores with a boyhood-activity score.  Points were awarded for part-time jobs, household chores, extracurricular activities or sports, school grades relative to IQ (a measure of effort in school), and ability to cope with problems.

The link between what the men had done as boys and how they turned out as adults was startlingly sharp.  Those highest on the boy-hood -activity scale were twice as likely to have warm relationships with a wide variety of people, five times as likely to be well paid and 16 times less likely to have been significantly unemployed.   On the other hand, the group who had worked the least in childhood were far more likely to have been arrested, ten times more likely to have been mentally ill-and six times as many of them had died.   The researchers also found that IQ, amount of schooling, and family social and economic class made no real difference in how the boys turned out.

But can the lives of boys who were born during the Depression – when childhood work was often a necessity – really tell us anything about bringing up happy children in the prosperous 1980’s? “I believe the same principles apply today,” say Vaillant.  He is supported by psychologist H. Stephen Glenn, who presents child-rearing workshops throughout the country.  Glenn declares that parent who “do everything” for their children may actually perform a disservice.  “Many kids themselves realize the value of this ethic,” says Glenn.  “One eleven year old stated it beautifully.  He told his mother, “You only need to know three things about kids.  Don’t hit them too much, don’t yell at them too much and don’t do too much for them”.

Here are six pointers to keep in mind when you have your children do chores:

1. Understand the real goals.  The purpose of chores isn’t simply to get onerous tasks done – or even to teach youngsters “how to work”.  Sparkling dishes or a tidy bedroom are less important than developing responsibility, independence, self-esteem, confidence and competence – the underpinnings of emotional health.  Doing chores also helps a child understand that people must cooperate and work toward common goals.  The most competent adults are those who know how to do this.

2. Start early.  The urge to “help Mommy” comes almost as soon as a child can walk.  A child of two can fetch and carry, or even sort laundry (which also teaches about colors and shapes).  And you can make cleaning up a game: “Let’s put the truck in the garage for the night.”  The child of four or five can understand simple instructions, run small errands and be expected (sometimes) to put away toys, pick up clothes or carry off his own dinner dishes.   The seven year old can graduate to family responsibilities.  A good first assignment is to set the dinner table, but any simple task that brings satisfying results will do.

One psychologist got an early start with his children by introducing them to household chores on family camping trips. “In a campground there are plenty of simple tasks to be performed,” he says.  “You need to collect firewood and carry away the garbage and sweep out the tent.  Even our three year old could wash dishes, because it didn’t make any difference if she dropped a metal plate.  By the time she was old enough to wash dishes at home, she already knew how.”

Don’t rush children into jobs beyond their skills, however.  A new task should challenge, but it must also afford the child a feeling of accomplishment.  If children become discouraged, they may be unwilling to try again.

3. Set realistic standards.  Obviously, an adult can do most jobs better than a child can.  Resist the temptation to do it yourself or “do it over”.  This only undercuts the child’s feelings of competence and self worth.

The best way to teach kids how to do a job is simple repetition.  Show them how to do it, do it with them, then let them do it alone.  Be ready to offer advice, but don’t be quick to step in.  And don’t interfere if they want to do it their own way.  “I always dust before I vacuum” only teaches them that their own efforts aren’t worthwhile.

That doesn’t mean tolerating sloppiness.  If the task isn’t done up to the child’s capability, insist that it be done again properly.  Set a reasonable deadline, but don’t nag.  If the dinner table isn’t set by mealtime, for example,  point out – firmly – that others are waiting.

4. Don’t bribe.  The best payment for a job is a smile, a hug or a thank you.  Telling others how proud you are, within the child’s earshot, is another form of compensation.  Indeed, as children learn for themselves, planning and completing a task is a reward in itself.

Children should receive an allowance, of course, but don’t make it a paycheck.  Paying a child for duties he should perform anyway not only smacks of bribe, but implies the task has no value in itself.  A child who is paid to make his bed may begin to think he should be paid every time he picks up his socks.

It’s all right, however, to pay for a specific project.  One child development expert wanted his fence painted, and asked his daughter to set a price.  She estimated the number of hours the job would take and the two agreed on the payment.  Among other lessons, he said, the girl learned to calculate the value of her efforts and to handle a negotiation.

5.  Support “outside” work.  Weeding the garden, baby-sitting and delivering newspapers will help your kids learn how to work to different people’s standards, as well as teaching independence and providing further lessons in responsibility.

6. Don’t overdo it.  Work is valuable; drudgery isn’t.  Too many duties can intrude on the child’s education, social activities or other aspects of growing up.  Obedzinski of the Center for Families and Children cites the case of a 14 year old girl whose parents both worked while she shouldered household duties and supervised an 11 year old brother.  “She seemed fine at first”, Obedzinski says, “but when you talked to her for a time, you realized she had low self esteem and was very depressed.”  The severely burdened child may come to think of himself as a “slave”, rather than as a family member.

Working – at any age – is important.  But it isn’t everything.  As Vaillant points out, we should be careful to put work into proper human perspective.  “More than a century ago,” Vaillant says, “Tolstoy summed up the role of work in a sentence: “One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love, to work for the person one loves and to love one’s work.”


  1. I read this article in1988 but l misplaced the the readers digest. Am now fourty years. What l have read now from the website is true if l can recall. Thanks. Now l have children. I will try to follow the advise.

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