“Jennifer, I would like you to clean your room and vacuum the living room this afternoon.”
“Oh, Mother, I would love to help. I know that your life is busy, and I would like to ease your burden. In fact, when I’m done with those jobs, I’d be more than willing to do another one.”
Does that sound like the response of your child? Or is the following whine more typical?
“Mom, are you trying to ruin my life? I never have time to do anything! It’s always work, work, work around here. None of my friends have to slave like I do.”
A 19th-century man, recalling his youth on the prairie, proclaimed, “I loved work—it has always been my favorite form of recreation—and my spirit rose to the opportunities of it which smiled on us from every side.” Though this attitude was certainly not held by every 19th-century child, it might not be held by any child today!
This farm boy’s labor was a necessity because parents could not carry the entire load. But few of these relished tasks exist in homes today because the industrial revolution relocated most work to the factory and the office. Furthermore, as work was displaced from the home, child experts warned that only defective parents depended on the labor of their children. Loved children belonged in the world of music lessons, games, and allowances. Their work was to be in the form of “some little household task,” not too strenuous “for their tender bodies.” Chores were designed to mold kids’ character, not to ease parents’ burden.
Researcher Dorothy Blitsten summed up this new view of childhood: “‘Children will be children’ and ‘They are only young once’ are typical statements of modern American parents. American children are encouraged to grow in a juvenile world. Their immediate needs and wants are indulged. They frequently decide what they eat, what they wear, what they play, and with whom.”
But in this non-work, or minimal-work, environment, what have children lost? How important are their work habits and attitudes?
Why Should Children Work?
Our children should work because work is a fundamental part of God’s design: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). As pastor and theologian John Stott has explained, “We live in a world in which we depend on God but also (we say it reverently) He depends on us. He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; He appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil.”
What a high calling! The eternal God and I are partners. Whether in agriculture, human services, ministry, the arts, or business, I can join with God in accomplishing His work. Sadly, our T.G.I.F. culture has increasingly made work a curse or, at best, a grim necessity.
A number of years ago our family established a small lawn-care service. Our initial experience was exasperating. Our lazy lawn mowers refused to work dependably; I was busy with a new part-time job; and a warm, wet spring was causing the grass to grow faster than Jack’s beanstalk! I didn’t realize how rotten my attitude was until I saw it mirrored in my boys’ grumbling, “Oh, Dad, do we have to mow again? It seems like we just did it.” In their mumbling, “You dumb mower! Why won’t you start?!” I saw my own reflection.
Parents, what is your frame of mind when you do housework? Do you have to be prodded to complete household repairs? What do you express about your jobs: complaints, anger, frustration? If work is something we perform grudgingly, our children will never view work as one of God’s great gifts.
Our children should work because achievement is foundational to their self-worth. As adult work was stripped from the home, children were left with less to affirm their value and many parents turned to expressions of love to validate their child’s worth. However, such words may be insufficient. Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim explains, “Convic-tion about one’s worth comes only from feeling that one has important tasks and has met them well.”
Scripture has a similar view: “Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load” (Gal. 6:4–5). A child will take pride in himself when he carries his own load.
When children cook meals, care for younger siblings, paint their rooms, refinish old furniture, or change the oil in the car, they have concrete evidence of their value.
Achievement through work is particularly critical for children who are cut off from other avenues of successful achievement. The child who isn’t a budding Michael Jordan or a potential Albert Einstein may be left with less healthy ways to cultivate an identity.
Children Should Work Responsibly
Children today are often treated like privileged guests. We communicate to them that their early lives are simply to be enjoyed and spent on themselves. As a result, we allow them to exist in a kind of irresponsible fantasyland.
Responsibility, though, is nurtured by giving our children ownership of a task. Under communism, the denial of private ownership helped destroy human motivation, and no power, persuasion, propaganda, or planning could revive it. Similarly, if we encourage our children to plant seeds, and then we parents weed, water, and prune their plants, our children may quickly become bored.
It can be irksome to let children own a project. The first time one of my boys trimmed an overgrown bush, the plant looked like it had been blitzed. Children will dump grass clippings on newly sprouted lettuce, use half a bottle of Windex while washing windows, substitute baking soda for baking powder in the cupcakes, spill a quart of oil on a clean garage floor. Certainly they can be reminded to be careful or taught more efficient techniques. But initially, we may need to accept lower standards.
As my wife Cathy and I planned our summer vacation one year, we concluded that our boys had too much free time in previous summers. Though we wanted them to enjoy time for friendships, golf, and relaxing, we thought they were developing the attitude that summer was spelled P-L-A-Y. So with their help, we established a weekly schedule of responsibilities that included daily household work, music practice, work at Grandpa’s farm, and reading books.
How did we gain their cooperation? It wasn’t easy. At times they complained,
“But, Dad, how come I have to stay home to mow the lawn? All my friends are at the pool.” We repeatedly reminded them that it wasn’t fair to overburden some members (i.e., Mom and Dad) while others partied. These changes created a (mostly) terrific summer for all of us.
Giving responsibility doesn’t mean we can’t help children. When cleaning up the basement seems overwhelming to a child, our assistance will help him complete the job. When a child is mowing a large lawn on a warm summer afternoon, we can relieve him while he enjoys a cold drink.
Children Should Work Individually
Our middle son Andrew prefers to work before he plays; he doesn’t want an obligation hanging over his head and ruining his fun. True to character, during a recent Christmas break, he read two required textbooks for the coming term. On the other hand, his brother Nathan prefers to spread out his work. His preferred style is work/play/work/play. Though both temperaments have strengths and weaknesses, the solution is not to demand conformity. When we assign work projects, we negotiate a deadline and let them manage their own schedules.
Children Should Work Faithfully
Eventually our children must shift their accountability from us to their heavenly Father. We frequently remind them that our evaluation of their work is trivial in comparison to God’s evaluation: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23–24).
Often our counsel can assist this transfer. Andrew, like the Seven Dwarfs, normally whistles while he works. But on occasion, when he grumbles, he may need a gentle rebuke: “Andrew, do you think God is pleased with your attitude?” At other times he should be commended: “Andrew, God is certainly pleased that you enjoy your work.”
Child psychologist David Elkind has warned, “Childhood is the time when children establish either a firm sense of industry—that they can do a job and do it well—or an abiding sense of inferiority, a sense that whatever they undertake will end badly.” Are your children developing the skills and the confidence to tackle life’s challenges? The work skills and attitudes they develop at home are fundamental in determining how they perform adult, God-given tasks.