Children are ignorant, but not stupid; small, but not insignificant. And while the role they are able to play in the world is necessarily limited, it need not and should not be zero.
Children need to work and to contribute to their families; not so much for the sake of the family, but for their personal development. Children need to learn responsibility at a very early age; they must know that they can contribute, and since their natural tendency is to evade work in favor of play, they must be made to work.
The level of their work should be matched to their abilities, of course, but the phrase, “You’re part of this family and you have to work too,” is something they should hear at a young age. Work must become part of family life for them. More than that, it probably should not involve monetary payment: this is about self-responsibility and being a contributing member of the family. Money can come later, as their work expands. Family is more important than money, and should stand above money.
Rehabilitating Child Labor
Over the first third of the 20th century, “child labor,” as it was called, became a cause among certain political movements. And, truth be told, there had been a significant amount of ugly and abusive child labor: kids working shifts in factories and so on. But as movements do, this one cast its condemnations far beyond the original abuses, and soon enough “child working,” even in a family context, fell into disrepute. As a result of this, “making your kid work,” took on, in many circles, the stench of parental abuse.
The truth, however, is more or less the opposite. If you look into the history of successful people, you’ll find that a huge percentage of them worked as children. They picked weeds in the corn fields, or at least in the garden; they had to sweep shop floors, mop the office, clean the barn, or be a second mom to the smaller children. This is necessary for children: If they don’t start learning responsibility during childhood, they may flee from it all their lives, diminishing themselves in the process, and making themselves easy prey to every politician with a promise of free stuff.
Children need to learn that they can do hard things. They need to learn that difficulty is part of life, and that they won’t be spared from it by complaining well enough. They need to know that they can and do produce.
The level and amount of work the child is made to do will depend upon the child and the situation, of course, but it must be significant in some way, and doing it must become a regular part of their lives. There will be less work when younger and more when older, obviously (and no one is better placed than a parent to determine such things), but the child must be made to contribute in one fashion or another.
Children are not to be isolated from life and the difficulties and costs of living. Indeed, if they are, they’ll be unprepared to face them as adults, and will feel incompetent to the world. Furthermore, as noted above, they’ll become easy victims for the liars and manipulators of the world… of whom, sadly, there are many.
Child labor, in a word, is necessary… for the child.
Backing Up These Assertions
There is a great deal of experience, and even science, backing up what I’ve written above. And so, here’s a collection of quotations to make the point:
It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings. – Ann Landers
The easiest way to turn your kids into geniuses, by the time they’re seven, is just to front-load huge amounts of experience, including dangerous experience. – John Taylor Gatto
Sensible children do not wish to be incomplete human beings… The whole world, for all of history, knew that childhood was over at about the age of seven, and that if it persists beyond the age of twelve, you have a hopeless human being on your hands. Don’t be your kid’s enemy, because that’s not a kid, that’s your fellow human being. – John Taylor Gatto
The task of the educator of young children lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity. – Maria Montessori
Children get a great deal of satisfaction in helping someone younger or weaker than themselves accomplish something. – Abraham Maslow (The Further Reaches of Human Nature)
Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy. — Robert Heinlein
Every child has an enormous drive to demonstrate competence. – Buckminster Fuller
High expectations can be a powerful tool. – Rutger Bregman (Humankind: A Hopeful History)
Science has now supplied a mountain of evidence that unstructured, risky play is good for children’s physical and mental wellbeing. – Rutger Bregman (Humankind: A Hopeful History)
That’s a rather wide-ranging set of quotations, but I think they all carry useful substance. And again, if you examine the lives of productive and confident people, you’ll find, over and over, that they worked as children. Our children need this if they’re to become confident, functional and productive adults.
And please pay attention to the Gatto and Bregman quotes on danger. We parents are naturally hesitant to allow our children near any danger; still, they need to face it… to know they can face it on their own. Our universe is filled with risk, and our children must learn to face it confidently. Choosing which risks we allow our children to face is terrifying – how can we possibly know which ones may go badly? And yet, we must make such impossible choices, managing our legitimate fears for the sake of the child’s development.
Parenting is not for cowards.