In Praise of Child Labor

In Praise of Child Labor

I know… what a strange title! I am writing in honor of Labor Day and departing from my usual format of answering readers’ questions basing the column on my own childhood experiences. You see, I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and, like anyone in this country who was raised up on a farm, started working early in life. Starting in kindergarten, we worked in our own small vegetable garden as well as cleaning up after ourselves alongside our caretakers; be it our showers, play rooms, or dinning tables.

In third grade I got assigned a rotation working with the dairy cows. What an honor! It was the most coveted position- doing the “real work” of adults. You had to prove yourself first in the Children’s Farm, where we had sheep, goats, chickens and peacocks and along with a vegetable garden, but no cows. Cows were the Big Time!

My first day on the job I got brief instructions on how to lead the cows from the grazing pasture back to the dairy for the evening milking. Imagine me at the time: not yet four feet tall, skinny (alas… those days are over) and scab-kneed, leading 80 Holsteins home. There were gates to open and close guiding the cows and I had a stick to goad them, but I do wonder how the adults in charge came to believe I could manage this on my own (not to mention what the cows made of me).

It was formative moment, as you can tell from the fact that I still want to write (and crow…) about it, over 50 years later. The stint with the cows was followed by many jobs around the kibbutz, the level of responsibility growing as we matured. For our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (the whole class celebrated together and each child complete 12 individual tasks) all of us had to work a full, 8-hour day in a branch of the kibbutz. I got unlucky here – assigned to work in the Chadar Ochel – the communal Dining Room. I would certainly have preferred the sugar beet fields or the date palm groves. But, like the adult members, I went where the Sadran Avodah who managed the daily work assignments, needed me. I cleaned all forty or fifty windows on each side and did they- and I- shine at the end of the day!

So what does all of that have to do with parents in the Bay Area in 2012? This is my unabashed recommendation: make your children work! From an early age (say 4 or 5) your kids should learn about the responsibility, physical effort, some boredom, and great sense of achievement that comes with manual labor. I know you don’t have a dairy farm on hand, but you have garbage to clear and recycling to sort, a house to clean (even if you have a house cleaner, get your child involved in cleaning after themselves), garden or patio plants to tend, rugs to vacuum (kids LOVE vacuuming- such power!), floors to sweep, dishes to wash.

In truth, most work today – likely what you do yourself- involves very little physical exertion, so our kids are deprived (I mean it – they are deprived) of the pleasures of manual labor. Try to create opportunities for it in your home. Or find an urban farm where you can volunteer (e.g. Urban Adamah, Berkeley; Hayes Valley Farm, San Francisco; City Limits Urban Farm, Palo Alto), a community garden to join, a park or beach to clean up, or an elderly neighbor who can use help in the yard. Check with your child’s school or afterschool program: do they provide opportunities for manual skills like carpentry or leatherwork? Can they integrate the children into the cleanup work needed in the school? Can the students plant a garden?
Once your child really understands the concept of money (see my the last column), working for pay is a valuable experience as well. But truly, it does not compare to the gains of work for its own rewards or to help someone in need.

Try it. You might find that your child’s enthusiasm for work spills over to you.

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