TTUAC: Child Labor (or, Who Needs Academics?)

To Train Up A Child, chapter 12

We are now to Michael’s chapter titled “Child Labor.” I’ve decided to cover this chapter in one post even though there are two main topics covered here—first, the importance of hyper-gendering children’s chores, and second, the relative importance of manual labor and academic instruction (By now, you can probably guess which one is highly valued and which one is devalued). Trust me, you don’t want to miss either section!

So let’s get started!

Gendering Children’s Chores


“It’s easier for me to do it,” is a common reply. Another mother says, “But I feel guilty making them work, that’s my job.” One area in which our family was weak was the work detail. The children were given jobs here and there, but little trained in a routine. If I were doing it over again, this area would get much more attention. In the early years, the mother will be primarily responsible for this training. When a child is old enough to take a toy out of a box, he is old enough to put it back.

Mother, let your time of interaction always be training. It is natural and fun. Instead of just playing, “I’m going to get-chue,” play, “Here’s how we put our toys up.” “See, I put one up, now you put one up. That’s good. You’re a smart boy, and you help Mama so much.” Keep the chores within the scope of their concentration. Too much will weary them, too little will prevent it from being meaningful.

When they are under five, it takes more time to be their “employer” than to be their servant. But, the best time to establish lifelong habits is before five. By the time they are four or five they should feel not just wanted but needed. My Amish neighbors say that before seven the children are a drain on the family. Between seven and fourteen, they pay their way. After fourteen, they become an asset bringing in profit. By the time a child reaches seven, he should be making your life easier. A house full of seven-year-olds ought to be self-sustaining.

It is essential to the self-image of a child to feel the value of his contribution. Though he may drag in his work, he is happier when his participation is significant. Mother, if you take a little time to train when they are young, you will be able to rest when they are older.

Teach them to clean up all their own messes, and they will make fewer messes. Divide the household chores between them according to their size and ability. A child working below his ability will be bored and discontent. A child challenged will be cheerful. Don’t pay or bribe a child into working. Now, an exception should be made where the work is not routine household chores. When an outside job is taken on as income, they can share in the profits in realistic proportion to their work.

I’m not analyzing line by line here, but in general (with the exception of the bit I made bold, which I’ll get to in a second) this passage is pretty sound. It is absolutely true that small children can be involved in helping clean up their toys and messes, and that this cleaning should be made into a game of sorts, so that it’s fun for the child. It’s also true that it takes more work to help a small child do a task than to just do it yourself, and that small children love to feel needed and a part of the household.

But I want to touch for a moment on the bold part, because this is something my parents taught me too, and it’s wrong. It may work for the Amish, and it would have worked two hundred years ago, but it does not work for the average American today. Today, children in their high school years do not bring in a profit for their families. Instead, they attend school (or study at home). And there is good reason for this! In American society today, childhood and adolescence are resource intensive. They involve investing in children in order to help that child child to be successful later later on. It’s a long term investment, and it involves investing in the child for the child’s future benefit, not to bring financial profit in to the immediate family. What Michael is describing just isn’t how our society works today, and that’s not something he can change.

The mother should always keep in mind that she is molding a future wife and mother. Challenge them with sewing, cooking, cleaning, learning about everything. Let them get their hands in the dough (unless the child training teacher is coming for dinner). From the time they are big enough to tell a tale, they should be talking about what “Mama and I did today.”

Notice that the immediate assumption is that the mother puts her daughters to work, but not her sons. Michael is extremely gender essentialist, and by now this shouldn’t be surprising.

Also, I have no idea about what is meant by “the child training teacher.” I’ve been puzzling it and puzzling it, but I don’t get it.

Fathers, by the time the boys can follow you around, they should be “helping” you work. My boys were climbing through sawdust and stumbling over briars before they could see over the tops of my boots. They were bringing firewood in when they had to team up and roll it through the door. If you leave your sons for the women to rear, don’t be surprised if at sixteen they act more like daughters.

I know, right? God forbid boys act like girls!

But really, how does this work out in practice for the father who works an office job, or the family that lives in the city? This just doesn’t seem very widely applicable.

Recently, passing a neighbor’s house, we observed an interesting scene. The father was patiently standing over his two boys (one and two years old) instructing them as they folded a tarp. The little one-year-old’s wobbly fat legs were held apart by a sagging diaper that obviously needed changing. But he was on his way to being Daddy’s man.

Nope, sorry, there’s no way. Ever since Michael described his daughter crawling at four months, I’ve been skeptical of his assessment of children’s ages. I have a one-year-old, and one that is approaching two at that. There’s no way he could fold a tarp. Have you ever tried folding tarps? I deal most with tarps while on camping trips, and I can say from intimate experience that they are large, bulky, and a challenge even for me to fold.

Of course, Michael’s absolutely right that children find pride in “helping” their parents.

When families were part of a larger family unit, or even when the boys were in public school, the absence of a father role-model was less significant. Where a working father leaves his boys with a flock of girls to be homeschooled by their mother, they often lack masculinity.

Oh. Boy.

And the takeaway for parents reading this is what, exactly? That boys shouldn’t be homeschooled? That fathers should work from home?

Gender role distinction is demeaned in modern education. Don’t let a coven of Sodomites and socialists, hiding behind the badge of professional psychologists, reprogram your natural feelings on male and female distinctiveness. A boy needs a man’s example if he is expected to grow up to be a man.


Coven . . . sodomites . . . socialists . . . it’s all in there, isn’t it?

Okay, so here’s a question. If males and females are so naturally distinctive, why the need to so heavily program them, and then shame them if they don’t conform? Why not just let them alone about gender expectations and let nature take its course? To be honest, this section seems to be less about giving children chores and more about ensuring that those chores are hyper-gendered. I mean, why shouldn’t a boy learn to cook, or a girl learn to hammer a nail? Is there something wrong with a boy learning how to sew, or a girl knowing how to carry firewood? Is there a reason children shouldn’t gain a variety of skills or try their hands at a full range of different tasks?

Manual Labor v. Academics


One of the most important aspects of child training is letting a child take on real responsibilities. Children need to see that their contribution to the running of the household is vital. Training along these lines eliminates the fighting and fussing over chores when the children get older. Spend a few minutes with each child every day going over different chores step by step. Our younger, seven-year-old daughter needed a job that would require diligence. She was delegated the responsibility of keeping up the main bathroom. She not only keeps it clean, she is also responsible for seeing that it is supplied with all the necessary toiletries.

When the time came for our oldest daughter to go off to Bible College, she called her 9- and 11-year-old sisters in and passed on to them their responsibilities. As I watched her train them in the various chores, which included laundry, cooking and kitchen clean up, I knew I had done something right. It was a change of command, a very sober and thrilling occasion for the younger girls. To the older, departing sister, it was a day of great pride to be able to entrust the younger girls with her responsibilities. Over the next year, I watched as the two younger sisters, with great dignity, assumed all of their household duties.

Although I am still the Mom, they are my next in command. I have often come home tired from a stressful counseling session to find dinner cooked, the house clean, the clothes washed, and two grinning girls doing a silly bow as I walk through the door. Many a time, after spending a long morning encouraging an overworked, overextended, exhausted mother, when lunch time came, we would hear a cheerful call. The table would be lined with small children already eating, and a good lunch would be set for us moms. An occasion like that does more to persuade a mother than all the teaching I could ever give. For every minute you spend in training your child, you are rewarded a hundred-fold.

I honestly don’t feel qualified to say what is the appropriate level of chores and responsibilities to give a child, and what is too much. I myself spent years doing laundry, cooking for a large family, and caring for infants and small children, all before I turned 18. I didn’t mind this, but then, this was my normal, and it was accompanied with time, resources, and encouragement for academic pursuits (I was homeschooled).

Living in an Amish community, you see this over and over. Our sons learned several trades before they were fourteen. They could farm, work in construction, log, hunt herbs, and cut hickory. They love working. The discipline in work translates into discipline in studies. And, the real-world experience points out the practicality of a complete education. There is a certain confidence that cannot be obtained other than through seeing the finished product of your own hands.

I’m kind of curious just how thoroughly the Pearl sons learned each of these trades. It takes a significant time investment to learn a trade, and I don’t see any way a fourteen-year-old boy could have mastered four trades without neglecting his academic pursuits. It’s not that I’m against kids learning practical skills—absolutely not! I’m also not against teens taking jobs, or kids learning to help their parents. But this comes in the context of a chapter titled, apparently without irony, “child labor,” and there is nary a word spoken of the importance of letting children have free time or the time, resources, and encouragement needed to complete a basic academic education.

Michael boasts of putting his sons to work at manual labor. He doesn’t say how many hours he worked his young sons, but given his claim that they “learned several trades before they were fourteen,” it sounds like the number is significant. I’ve heard the stories, stories of homeschooled boys put out to manual labor at eleven or fourteen, boys who never gain the academic foundation they need to have real options in life. Boys who grow up to find themselves stuck in dead-end jobs. I have no idea how common this is, but Michael seems to be overtly encouraging, praising, and even participating in this trend.

Recently, there was a death among one of the Amish families in our community. Several of the grown brothers and sisters came back to bury their beloved brother. All of these siblings were raised with the same hard work, careful discipline, and only an eighth-grade Amish education. In the pine wood box, under the apple tree, outside the old church house, lay a farmer who probably never made more than two- or three-thousand-dollars a year.

The five brothers looking on seemed out of place in this primitive setting. One is a neurosurgeon, another is a lawyer, one a city planner, and another, a computer scientist. The fifth one has gone on to be successful in life; he is a happily married Mennonite farmer. If you consider the first four successful, know that it was not early educational opportunities that advantaged them. It was the confidence and ambition that comes from hard work and careful discipline in a family setting.

I am extremely skeptical of this story. When Amish young people leave the Amish way of life, they generally face an uphill battle. It helps if they have a relative or friend on the outside, but even so, they must overcome the limits of having only an eighth grade education and the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. That four brothers would leave the Amish way of life and become a neurosurgeon, a lawyer, a city planner, and a computer scientist sounds contrived, and would likely only be possible if there was a wealthy well-connected relative on the outside to support them in their transition and help them obtain an education.

(Also, this is a bit of a nitpick, but it’s worth noting that Amish farmers make far more than two to three thousand dollars a year. Michael really ought to know this.)

More to the point, Michael suggests that these four young men succeeded because of their Amish upbringing. It was hard work and careful discipline that helped them succeed, he says, rendering their academic background irrelevant. In actual fact, these four young men likely succeeded in spite of their Amish upbringing. Michael might want to give a bit more thought to the disadvantages that result from having only an eighth grade education, or about the strong sense of alienation that can accompany a switch from one culture to another. These are not advantages but rather things that have to be overcome. 

The readers’ digest of this section is that Michael devalues the importance of academics and puts an increased value on manual labor, for both children and adults. As for children, what matters to Michael is whether children have a sense of discipline and experience with hard work, preferably manual labor, not whether they have studied algebra or written a paper with footnotes. As for adults, note that Michael speaks of the Mennonite farmer as the one who is “successful in life,” holding him up as a marked contrast to the neurosurgeon, lawyer, city planner, and computer scientist. Michael isn’t shy about his preference for farming, construction, and manual labor in general. Indeed, he makes this preference into a universal truth rather than recognizing it as a simple preference.

There’s nothing wrong with farming, construction, or related careers. My concern is that it is limiting to push children toward one sort of career paths while constraining their ability to embark on alternative career paths. Children should reach age 18 with an open future—the ability to freely choose for themselves what and who they want to be. They should be able to be farmers or construction workers—or plumbers or truck drivers—or lawyers, nurses, or teachers. Michael’s devaluing of academics has the potential to close some of these doors—or at the very least makes them difficult to crack open.

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