Put Your Kids to Work, Go Ahead, They’ll Thank You for It

Put Your Kids to Work, Go Ahead, They’ll Thank You for It October 27, 2016
Boys working in the coal mines of Fairmont, West Virginia. Date unknown. Photo a reproduction of a photo owned by The day Spring Camp, Fairmont, WV.
Boys working in the coal mines of Fairmont, West Virginia. Date unknown. Photo a reproduction of a photo owned by The Day Spring Camp, Fairmont, WV.

Some people apparently believe that children are better off when they’re useless.

I got a little push back about my last post (see it here). A couple of people seemed to think that putting children to work constitutes exploitation. Today, “Help me plant some tomatoes”, tomorrow, “Make bricks without straw!”

Not really sure where that comes from, but I have my guesses. I’ll keep my guesses to myself, a favor I hope others will extend to me.

But here’s a little thought experiment to reframe all this. Image telling your child this, “Ashley, my goal is to make your childhood absolutely useless. It’s going to be nothing but wasted time for you! And don’t try to help around the house, I’m not going to take advantage of your cheap labor. No, just waste all the time you want. This is childhood, after all, and its supposed to be all about you.”

No parent would ever say that (even if everything a parent actually did sent that very message nonverbally). In truth, most parents push, push, push. But all the pushing is intended to get kids prepared for the future, when they will do useful things for other people. (Naturally, that is dressed up in the language of freedom and self-actualization. We mustn’t let the children know the truth about our corporate overlords.)

I have a theory as to why this is so (several actually). Here’s one of them: the reason we don’t think of children as serving a useful purpose in our houses is because we don’t believe our houses actually do anything productive. Households are for recreation: for sleeping, watching television, and maybe eating diner. But if we actually set up our households as productive enterprises everything would be different.

This is one of the big reasons people these days reject the New Testament household codes. But it isn’t the only reason.

We might be tempted to blame Immanuel Kant for this. He was the one who said categorically that people should be ends and not means. But that’s not fair to the old German philosopher. He never said that people are only ends and never means; he merely said that people should not merely be means to another’s ends.

One of the worst things about the corporate welfare state is it hides the ways people serve as a means toward good ends. And it does this by burying this fact beneath layers of bureaucracy. The unintended consequence of this is it seems to give people a license to live irresponsibly. I know that of which I speak. I was once a ward of the State.

My father abandoned our family in an unheated apartment on a cold January morning when I was only eleven. My mother was in and out of mental institutions after that. She died young. I spent time in foster care, enjoying the tender ministrations of professional helpers who didn’t love me and didn’t pretend to. I didn’t like those people. But I am grateful for two things. First, I’m grateful that the system was there, it kept me from living on the street. And second, I’m grateful those people didn’t pretend that they could give me what a father is supposed to provide. I will say this though. If they were all that I had had, I don’t know where I’d be today, maybe in prison.

I seldom pull that trump card out. But sometimes I feel the need.

But the other thing the advocates of a useless childhood get wrong is this: when a household economy is working correctly, everyone benefits.

I bought this two family when it was in foreclosure. My sons helped me fix it up. (That's Number Two Son in the foreground.) The building is helping to pay their way through college (Number One Son graduated with a degree in philosophy. Number Two Son is now in trade school for welding.)
The house the boys help me renovate. It now produces income. As you can see, I’m exploiting one of them in this photo.

I think that the ideal most people work from has more in common with Leibniz than Kant: we’re all windowless monads, hermetically sealed (there’s a little Kant for you), and only combined by either tyrannical force or voluntary contract. And since the kiddos can’t think for themselves yet, they can’t sign for themselves. And since that’s the case, we should let them play.

But that’s not really the way the world works. And its not how the writers of the Bible thought about households. The lines between people in households were fuzzy to their way of thinking. Household members participated in each other’s lives. (I’ve been reading Joseph Atkinson’s book, The Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family, and he discusses this very thing. He’s done a marvelous job of documenting what he refers to as, “Semitic Anthropology.” I’ll write more about it some time, but not today.

It’s not hard though to show how this can work very practically. Here’s how its worked in one instance in my case. A few years back I bought a two family home in foreclosure. (I’ve owned a lot of investment real estate over the years.)

The place needed a complete gutting: new boilers, roof, windows, electric, plumbing, etc. I had my two teenage sons help. I’m sure they’d have rather been some place else, but they helped haul stuff, install sheetrock and new trim (which I milled myself), and many other things besides. I guess to an ignorant observer it might have looked like exploitation.

But here’s the truth: the income from that two family helped to put my first son through college, and it is currently helping my second son pay his way through school. And someday those boys will each inherit at least one investment property. (I have other properties.) In other words, they were working for themselves, even as they worked for me. That’s what I mean by fuzzy lines. Not only that, but they’ve learned some skills, and they even got to spend time with me doing something important.

So keep these things in mind, not only when you read what I say, but when you read the household codes of the New Testament. If you don’t keep them in mind, you’ll be guilty of the sort of anachronistic thinking I’ve had to refute since writing my last post on the subject.

I had intended to write about something else today–something related to how the submission of children to parents in first century households gives us insight into the nature of salvation. I’ll get to that next time.

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