Children Must Be Made To Work

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.


Paul Rosenberg

7 thoughts on “Children Must Be Made To Work”

  1. I wanted a job at12. They told me I couldn’t have one till I was 16. Odd how that coincided with the hard time I was experiencing with school, the New Math and the like. I should have been working with some old man repairing mowers or bicycles.

  2. When I was a kid back in the early 70’s my mom would pay us to pull dandelions from the yard. A few cents for every five and a bonus if you got at least a few inches of the root. By the time I was fifteen I was mowing lawns all over town.

    I got an allowance that was enough for a few candy bars or a soda weekly. If I wanted more I had to work for it.

    I raised my kids the same way.

  3. I started working at 12, helping a man we knew cut and peel popple trees. Then at 13, I had a job as a janitor at the local YMCA. I’ve been steadily employed ever since. It teaches responsibility and developed the ability to work in concert with others as well as developing interpersonal skills. It was a good thing and should never have been abandoned.

  4. “… they had to sweep shop floors, mop the office,” (Sings) “And I polished up the handle of the big front door.”

    Many good points here. I had a little gardening business as a teenager, mainly because I wanted one of those newfangled pocket calculators, and those cost real money back then (especially the model I wanted). Definitely a good thing. In hindsight, more responsibilities back then (and earlier) would have been better for me.

    I guess, historically speaking, childhood as we now know it ended sometime before puberty, rather than long after? So by the time kids reached the stage of physical development where kids of their own were a possibility, they were expected to be little proto-adults with some sense of responsibility and some experience in earning money and in managing their affairs?

  5. What force is required? When I was 6 to 15, I worked at home and in the neighborhood, push mowing the lawn (only rich people had riding mowers, but at least we didn’t weedeat), bringing in coal and wood, hoeing in the garden and the tobacco field, bringing the cows in for milking. It was just what was expected, I didn’t have to be forced. The day I turned 16, I walked in to Shoney’s and applied for a job, the next weekend, I worked by first 3 shifts. At that point I had more MY money than I had ever had! I discovered very quickly that I liked it. Also liked having wheels and gas money and freedom. Kids will happily work if given a chance. And if taught that if you want something, you have to work for it.

  6. I raised my children with the motto, “If you don’t let them help when thy can’t, they won’t help when they can.”

  7. While I never had a formal job until high school, I trimmed via a pair of hand trimmers the yard, shoveled the snow (and Dad subcontracted me to a neighbor for the winter!), lugged the family trash out to the “burn barrel”! During high school, worked over lunch washing dishes in the school. Payment: free UNLIMITED lunch. Summers worked in the kitchen of a Boy Scout camp for a couple of years. Best job ever!!!

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