Last Saturday was hot and humid in our corner of the world, and thus, my wife and I quickly decreed a pool day on the front lawn. The kids were ecstatic, particularly our four-year-old boy, who watched and waited anxiously as I got things prepared.
All was eventually set — pool inflated, water filled, toys deployed — but before he could play, I told him he needed to help our neighbor pick up the fallen apples strewn across his lawn.
With energy and anticipation, he ran to grab his “favorite bucket,” and the work quickly commenced. Less than three minutes later, however, his patience wore off.
“This is boring, Daddy,” he complained. “Can I be done now?”
More than anything else, the response was comical. Within mere minutes, this simple, ten-minute task had become a heavy burden he simply could not bear.
But it also signaled something profound about our basic attitudes about work, and how early they begin to form. Our kids are only beginning to edge upon the golden ages of chorehood, but as these situations continue to arise, I’ve become increasingly aware of a peculiar set of challenges faced by parents raising children in a prosperous age.
In a society wherein hard and rough work, or any work for that matter, has become less and less necessary, particularly among youngsters, how might its relative absence alter the long-term character of a nation? What is the role of work and toil in the development and formation of our children, and what might we miss if we fail to embrace, promote, and contextualize it accordingly? In a culture such as ours, increasingly propelled by hedonism, materialism, and a blind allegiance to efficiency and convenience, what risks do we face by ignoring, avoiding, or subverting the “boring” and the “mundane” across all areas of life, and particularly as it relates to work?
Alas, for the bulk of human history and in many parts of the modern world, parents have been largely exempt from these questions. Children toiled as soon as they could for as long as they could, whether in home, field, or factory, leaving little time for much else. Such constraints meant missing out on a host of valuable experiences, but up until recently, those fundamental lessons about work, service, and duty were built-in features of human existence.
In the years since, and particularly for those of us in the industrialized West, we’ve been blessed with many a frill and fancy as it relates to child-rearing (front-yard pool parties not excluded). But as time, leisure, and wealth continue to increase, we ought not fall prey to similarly lopsided approaches that value hard play or even hard study to the detriment of good old-fashioned physical labor. Now more than ever before, teaching these matters demands heightened levels of attention, intentionality, discipline, and practice, and I fear that many parents, myself included, aren’t thinking about it nearly as much as they should.
We do, of course, routinely hear about work’s many benefits for adults: how providing for oneself and achieving earned success can yield personal happiness and fulfillment, how delivering needed services can bring meaning and dignity to one’s life, as well as the lives of others (and so on). Indeed, before and beyond mere material gain, there is something profound and life-altering in the ways we occupy and employ our God-given gifts and talents in the mundane, day-to-day bustle of life. When we render ourselves useful to the family of humanity, our very souls and spirits are shaped.
Why, then, in those earliest and most formative moments of a child’s life, would we not seek to elevate the value work earlier and more effectively? We see parent upon parent obsessing over their children’s athletic abilities or musical proficiency, or spelling knowledge, but less and less do we find the time or place to simply give our kids a shovel and say “dig.” If mundane work provides such a powerful form of meaning and purpose for an adult, how much more of an impact and foundation might it provide for a child whose character, imagination, and very soul is crying out for cultivation?
As a parent just beginning to ask these questions, I don’t have many “solutions” and am eager to learn from you. But having encountered my own small sample of situations, I can imagine more than a few possibilities.
For example, what if we were to rethink our approach to “allowances,” or paid labor in the household in general? If work is often a thankless task with little guaranteed reward, and further, if the most important reward of our work stretches beyond material gain, we should probably avoid assigning a dollar amount to every single household chore. Work is in and of itself dignifying, meaningful, and God-glorifying, and thus, we do our children no favors by pretending the flavor of its fruit is green and green alone.
Or take our schools and educational systems, in which we have grown to prize and prioritize “intellectual” work to the detriment of practical knowledge and physical labor. What are some ways we might we impact our educational institutions in this regard? If we have resources and options available, what educational alternatives might we consider for our children? If we are limited in such resources or opportunities, how might we compensate for such skewed emphases in the areas we can control?
Finally, consider our approach to policy. While we should celebrate the drastic declines in child labor and the working conditions many Americans were once subjected to, we have become so risk-averse, insulated, and privileged in our mindset that it’s become difficult for even a 15-year-old to find a legitimate paying job. In my home state of Minnesota, a local labor union has decided to take up the task of watch-dogging and ridiculing a construction company for (potentially) hiring young teenagers. As parents, the policy world surely sees hard to change or control, but there are a host of misaligned incentives, legal restrictions, wage fixings, and regulations that lead our children to work less and work later.
We could dive into any number of other areas and avenues, and each situation will certainly vary. But while we should be careful, prudent, and prayerful as we disciple and shepherd our children in ways that cultivates their character, this does not mean running blindly from the world of work, or the boredom, sweat, and pain that it will demand.
Thus, amid the numerous other activities and opportunities we’ve been blessed to pursue — sports, music lessons, language camps, etc. — and in active response to the confines of the modern educational system and the consumeristic allure of various competing forces, how might we teach our children the glories of labor and service in new and profound ways?
The answers will be varied and complex, but as I’m beginning to learn, “This is boring, Daddy,” isn’t a bad place to start.
Where do we find the core of life's meaning? Right on the job! At whatever work we do -- with head or hand, from kitchen to executive suite, from your house to the White House. New Foreword by Stephen J. Grabill and Afterword by Greg Forster