How Can I Raise My Son to Share the Mental Load?'s 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says it's all about how we model behavior in our domestic partnerships and what we demand from both our sons and daughters.

illustration of boy carrying basket of laundry
Photo: Illustration by Ana Celaya

Overburdened Mama

Most of the men I know don't do well at carrying the 'mental load'. My own dad doesn't know how to properly grocery shop or cook. The men I know have the mindset that it's just not their problem. I want to set my own son up for success on this front and want to know how to do it. 

—Overburdened Mama

Dear Overburdened,

The fact that the concept of "mental load" has become a mainstream part of our dialogue about gender roles and partnerships gives me hope for the future. Now that we as a society have defined what the "mental load" is and how it affects women's stress, the biggest way to make lasting change is to teach our children that a different way can exist.

Despite aspirations of releasing our children from gender stereotypes, I hear from most couples (well, moms) about how the domestic workload feels tipped (well, hugely slanted) toward the mom. Moms I know also talk about how their sons seem to be falling in their fathers' unhelpful footsteps, but weaved in between these storylines are tales of parents demanding less from their sons than from their daughters around the house.

In fact, research has shown that girls not only do more chores around the house compared to boys, but they get paid less for doing them! It's amazing how what happens in our homes can mirror larger society, and this is why it really does matter to focus on how your sons can do their part in the house now—for your sake and theirs.

Model Behavior You Want to Teach

The first step is to look at how you and your partner divide chores and other household management tasks at home. Ask yourself, what are your sons seeing their father do to keep up the house and contribute to daily living as a family? Could he do more? This strategy might be a tough sell for Dad, I know, but what's more motivating than seeing his kids help more around the house?

Our daughters are also developing their own standards and expectations for a future partnership. I would argue it's just as important for daughters to see male role models actively participating in household tasks and management, and to see female role models not doing all of it. This is where you and your male partner may have work to do; for example, dividing who goes to which doctors' and dentists' appointments, or school events if both cannot attend, instead of defaulting to Mom.

If there's no father figure in the picture, parents can still model gender equality at home by showing kids how to do the household chores. Encourage your son to help clear the table after dinner and wash the dishes. Ask him for help both carrying groceries in from the car and unpacking them into the pantry and refrigerator (this is a great opportunity to show him where things go in the kitchen if he was not previously aware). There's no better way to teach how to make a household run than having your child play a part in making it happen.

Set Expectations and Consequences

The second step is to make sure you have clear and consistent expectations that your sons contribute and help as requested. Introduce a chore chart where your kids are assigned age-appropriate tasks around the house that aren't dependent on their gender expectations. Then include consequences if they don't do them. Maybe for your son that means no video games until his backpack's put away, stinky socks are in the hamper, and dirty dishes are no longer strewn about the house. It's important to outline exactly what you expect your kids to do as part of "helping around the house," and what will happen if they don't do it, so there's less confusion and arguing about it.

Create Equality at Home

Our world may have eons to go before truly achieving gender equality, but why not do your part by starting in your own home? I know in mine I am explaining almost hourly how "life is not equal" to my children demanding exact equal treatment that is not humanly possible. These kids keep score, for real, so the more equitable domestic tasks are regardless of gender, the better, and they will notice.

No matter the gender combo in your house, develop a system that ensures equal contributions. Maybe that looks like a revolving chore chart where the same chores rotate across people or an assigned morning of the week where everyone in the family is cleaning at the same time. With my kids, we use the phrase "we are a team" every time the whining sirens start about cleaning or other boring tasks to keep our house in order.

The Bottom Line

A true and total vanishing of "mental load" will only happen when both people in the domestic partnership have an understanding of all that needs to happen to keep the household running, and then they need to do it. And this requires guidance for both our sons and our daughters. As our ideas about gender are shifting and expanding to be more inclusive, we can teach all of our children how to be good partners, rather than what their roles are as "wives/mothers" or "husbands/fathers."

This may sound like a utopia as likely as the fairy tale endings of children's stories, but taking these steps in our own home can at least get us a few steps closer. One chore at a time.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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