This paper examines childrens' participation in housework as a form of child labour. This is a particular concern in South Africa because of the possibility that children are being burdened with additional work due to HIV/AIDS. The analysis contextualises children's work in the home within broader socioeconomic trends and cultural norms around child-rearing, thus exposing the need to question the classification of different types of ‘work’ and ‘risk’ used in surveys. Ethnographic research revealed that the participation of children in everyday household chores is viewed as a function of their roles as members of a household and family, as part of their duty to their seniors and as an opportunity to learn skills required in adulthood. In this context, risk factors to child well-being are related not to their working roles, but to aspects of the broader socio-economic and physical environment that restrict or compromise children's development opportunities. A key lesson to be drawn from this paper is that the ability to question and re-frame international measurement criteria relies on the availability of longitudinal surveys and qualitative research on childhood, schooling and household dynamics in a variety of contexts in South Africa.