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The Importance of Real Work for Children

It all started on a summer’s day. I was outside weeding my salad bed, it was hard but necessary work; the weeds were over running the bed and I really needed to get it done or we’d lose our precious crops. While I was working I could hear my two boys bickering with each other over at the play structure. I sighed to myself feeling cross; here I was working under the hot summer sun, but instead of listening to the peace of the nature surrounding us I was listening to my two children arguing over nothing.

I was tempted to call over to them and tell them to stop arguing, but instead I called them over and calmly set them to work. “You obviously have some energy to use up.” I said as I set them tasks working alongside me. They protested for a moment but then they started to help pretty cheerfully. Within an hour or so we’d done the whole bed, it looked beautiful and we’d achieved more than I had thought I would do on my own. The work they had done had actually helped me. Plus there had been no arguing. Released to their liberty they went off and played happily until lunch time, enjoying their free time after working hard.

Not long after that, on another hot summer’s day, my children piled in with the youngest crying. Somehow he’d ended up physically hurt and my eldest was responsible. This is, I’d like to stress, unusual. The boys are together every day and incidents are rare, but on this day things hadn’t gone well. Casting around for something to do I saw the wet washing I was about the hang on the airer. “Put that on the airer!” I said to my eldest as I sorted out my youngest lad. In short order, low and behold, he’d done it! Still cross I noticed the vacuum cleaner, I’d been about to clean up. “Okay, well you can hoover up then!” And so he did. I’ll admit having less chores to do certainly made me more patient when it came to resolving the conflict between my children.

It was then that I realized I didn’t need to wait until the children were arguing to harness their youthful energy. They are both capable of more than I realize at times and by engaging them in useful work I’ve found that our home is a calmer place. Now some of this is due to the fact that I’m not doing all the work alone, but it also gives them a sense of achievement and pride, they know they have made a difference and that what they have done matters. They also appreciate their free time much more after being engaged in work for a while, it helps settle their physical bodies and makes them more appreciative of the chance to do what they want! I’m not advocating an 8 hour day for our children but a day of only leisure can be equally trying on the patience.

We live on a small farm so there is always work to be done, some of their work is the usual house chores (very important) and some of it revolves around the farm. They are involved with collecting eggs, caring for animals, collecting wood, and working in the garden. Not all children have the chance to do this kind of work but I believe within every household there is enough work to keep everyone occupied! Weeding out a small garden bed is just as valuable as helping maintain a large garden, if it contributes to the well being of the household.

But how is ‘work’ different to ‘chores’? It is a fine line but I see that there is a distinction. To me chores tend to revolve around tasks that the children have created themselves, for example managing the tidiness of their own room or picking up their own toys. These are a useful tasks, they lessen the impact on the home, yet it is also important to support the overall needs of the household. It is crucial that we all learn to be responsible for our own belongings and environment, but I see work as having a broader scope.

For one thing work is often not scheduled, it is a necessary task but won’t always be done every day. If the fire is running low, wood needs to be collected; if the pantry is empty, bread needs to be made. Work is happening all the time and is a response to circumstances, an essential part of the fabric of life. It might interrupt our leisure time, but it is necessary and so takes precedence.

Work is also something that pushes us beyond our boundaries, it can demand more of us than we think we can do. A bucket of produce that is heavier than you thought you could manage, a floor that requires mopping that might take a bit more time than you’d like to give. Persevering through this kind of discomfort, pushing past it to that feeling of achievement, is an experience a lot of children are denied. It can seem easier to just step in, take the work away and do it yourself rather than deal with some complaining or resistance. But by allowing children the opportunity to attempt and achieve something more difficult, you are raising their self esteem in the most concrete way. You are teaching them, through action, what they are capable of and helping them learn that obstacles can often be surmounted if we just don’t give up.

And finally work is something that does not necessarily benefit us in the moment. I think this is a really important point. If we teach children to only do chores or work that is directly linked to them, we deny them the opportunity to work outside of their own ego, their own self. By providing them with work that will benefit someone else, or the family as a whole, we are laying a foundation that will last a lifetime. We are helping them to understand duty to others and the joy of doing something because it is the right thing to do, not because there is a reward at the end of it.

The kind of work you’d like to offer your child will vary from family to family, but here are a few thoughts on how I like to approach the process:

  • Work side by side, especially if there is a new task on offer. Guide them through it, show them how it’s done and then gradually step back. It won’t take long before they can do it themselves, but even then they’ll appreciate your input.
  • Try to vary things; no one likes drudgery (though it is a fact of life sometimes!) so even if a task is hard work, simple novelty can help take the edge off.
  • Don’t be put off by complaining! None of us like to tax ourselves, it’s something we learn to do. Encourage, tell them you know they can do it, stay firm.
  • Let them know what their work means to you, be sincere. “Good job!” is all very well but I prefer to speak very specifically to my boys. I’ll say “Wow, it means a lot to me that I don’t have to do that alone” or “I’m so grateful you did that, I’ll have more energy for other things now”. Be honest and show them that you see them as part of your family team.
  • And finally celebrate with them! When they’ve achieved something difficult, acknowledge it. Yesterday my eldest son lifted a heavy bucket of tomatoes from the garden to the house, it was a difficult task and he didn’t think he could do it. I simply asked him to try his best and let him know he’d really be helping me by doing it. Within minutes he was waving from the house and full of happiness at his achievement. He knew his work had helped our family, not just me but all of us. The tomatoes become our food and we will all benefit.

Work will mean different things at different life stages, it might mean simple tidying and cleaning at 5, cooking and gardening at 10 and a paid job at 15. But please know that work is not a four letter word in childhood, it is the foundation upon which lives are built. By giving our children the chance to engage in meaningful work, not simply made up tasks or challenges, we are showing them how capable, strong and productive they can be. We show them that they are a force for good in the lives of their family, and the wider world.


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Playful Learning Field Guides

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