UPDATE: Given the recent attention drawn to this post, permit me to clarify that I do NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor, nor do I support sending our children back into the coal mines or other high-risk jobs, nor do I support getting rid of mandatory education at elementary and middle-school ages. Due to the confusion it brought, I have removed “bring back child labor” from the title, as many falsely took it to mean a call to “bring back” earlier laws, conditions, or jobs, which is not my argument. My recommendation here is simply that we challenge our cultural assumptions about labor at all levels, from parenting to education to policymaking, and ensure we take a more holistic approach to education that recognizes the dignity of each human person.
The abundant prosperity of the modern age has brought many blessings when it comes to child-rearing and child development, offering kids new opportunities for education, play, and personal development. Yet even as we celebrate our civilizational departure from excessive child labor, we ought to be wary of falling into a different sort of lopsided lifestyle.
Alas, as a day-to-day reality, work has largely vanished from modern childhood, with parents constantly stressing over the values of study and practice and “social interaction” even as they insulate their children from any activity that might involve risk, pain, or boredom. As a result, many of our kids are coming far too late to the arena of creative service and all it brings: dignity, meaning, freedom, virtue, creativity, character, and neighbor love.
Operating out of a justified fear of the harsh excesses of “harder times,” we have allowed our cultural attitudes to swing too far in the opposite direction, distorting work as a “necessary obligation of adulthood,” a gift too dangerous for kids. Working from these same distorted attitudes, the Washington Post recently published what it described as a “haunting” photo montage of child laborers from America’s rougher past. (more…)