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When child labor is a good thing

Tanika Davis.
Tanika Davis. (Jeffrey F. Bill / Baltimore Sun)

I was checking out places to visit for a quick weekend trip with the kids, when I came across a pamphlet about Colonial Williamsburg. I got stuck on these paragraphs:

Children as young as three had chores to [do] in Colonial Times. They would weed the garden, wash dishes, and feed the chickens. When they were about four years old, boys and girls would learn to knit so they could help to make clothes.

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At age six, they were given their first real pair of shoes, and expected to work both inside and out of their home.

Children played an important role in making candles and soap. Their small fingers were a big help to picking the berries that produced the wax.

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And then, the concluding lines:

Boys and girls were taught that work was good for them. Most thought it was wrong to be lazy. Boys and girls worked before and after school and at night.

I must have read those four paragraphs 11 times, so fascinating were the details. Children as young as 3 washed the dishes! By 6, they were expected to get paying jobs!

Here's what my children did last weekend. Saturday, after swim lessons, they picked up the playroom and their bedrooms before heading to my sister's house to play with their cousins and eat candy. Sunday, we celebrated the boys' 6th birthday at Chuck E. Cheese, where they played games and ate cake, ice cream and pizza. At home, they opened presents and left wrapping paper and bits of cardboard on the playroom floor to go out and play with their new toys.

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Aside from cleaning up their own areas of the house one time, they did not help at all. Their entire weekend was fun followed by fun, capped off with cake! They did not feed one chicken, knit any sweaters or even attempt to make me some soap.

In fairness, during the week, they make their beds each morning (even the 4-year-old tries), and on Monday nights, they pitch in to collect and empty the wastebaskets from all the rooms in the house. Occasionally, we'll outfit them with Windex and paper towels, or a broom and a dustpan. A handful of times, one son has attempted to wash the dishes (much to the detriment of my kitchen floor). And once, this spring, we forced all of them to help de-winter our backyard by picking up fallen branches and pulling weeds.

Normally, however, the Davis children have no regular responsibility for the upkeep of our house. Are we teaching them to be lazy? Or have times changed that much since dolls were made of cornhusks? If all work and no play is an undesirable combination, how much virtue can there be in its inverse?

Truthfully, I had many chores as a tween and teen, but I don't recall having them when I was 6, and certainly not when I was 4. When is the right time to start?

These days, during prime chore time, my children have "activities" instead. Birthday parties, lessons, enrichment events, play dates. Frankly, they don't have time to do chores.

But, oh, how I want them to. I might not need their little berry-stained fingers to make wax, but I could absolutely use their capable hands to help us put their clean and folded clothes away, vacuum the area rugs or sweep after dinner. I just have to get over the fact that each of those tasks would then take twice (Ha! Try five times) as long, and cleaning up whatever mess they made while cleaning would actually increase our workload.

But the masterful completion of the chore is almost secondary, isn't it? It's much more important to us to build in them an understanding that they can and should contribute to the home in which they live.

As the pamphlet said, children need to be taught that work is good for them.

And the more they practice, the better they'll get. Eventually, they'll be so good at housework, I'll be able to use my Saturday to have a play date with my friends!

Now that's what I call making it work.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as director at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 6-year-old sons, a 4-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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