"I've got a little project for you, girls," my father cheerfully announced over lunch.
I can't speak for my sisters, but the simple phrase struck dread in my very core -- dread that another Saturday (or Sunday or Monday afternoon or holiday) would be lost to that annoying farm concept: work. Whether the project was cutting corn out of beans, picking up rocks in the field, cleaning the hog barn or painting -- worse yet, scraping -- the barn, Dad listened good-naturedly to our whines and complaints before reminding us to shut the screen door on the way out. We sulked before decrying, once again, that so much work would Scar Us For Life!!
I'll never own swine again, but what I'd give for that farm now! Although work isn't strictly a rural phenomenon, those fields, woods and barns would sure come in handy as I struggle to raise children who know how to work. And in my vast, albeit not comprehensive parenting research, How To Work Hard doesn't even make the topic list for manuals, websites, books or PTA discussions. So we all go at it alone. There is no work whisperer. And there is no manure to scoop.
We chuckle at generational lore when grandparents and parents milked dairy cattle before school or carried buckets of water from the pump... or simply rose from the couch to change the television station which, only a few years back, was a chore. Minus the "maintenance" value of this work, what did youth learn in tackling it? It's hard to quantify, but parents (including yours truly) love the anecdote when trying to teach or instill values. So we warn about a time when children worked the farm or factories as a mandatory contribution to the family. But it's just a warning, nothing more. Arguably, at any economic level in the Western world, we do not depend on child labor for sustenance unless it's pancakes on Sunday morning. There are laws that prohibit underage labor, and rightly so. [Or unrightly so ...but you didn't read this here.] To this end, teaching the value of work becomes less imperative and more programmatic, as in Phase X of childrearing, somewhere between green living and global thinking.
Convenience has further made child labor obsolete by simultaneously decreasing manual tasks in the home and infiltrating kids' brains, replacing responsibility with remote control. Witness the dishwasher and Playstation, often humming in perfect unison in the large kitchen/great room. I vividly remember my older sister bemoaning how difficult it was to teach my nieces and nephew to work. Newly married and annoyingly confident about my future in parenting, I listened, commented sympathetically and thought, Not Me. Of course, now I realize how idealistic those pre-kid thoughts were. It is darn hard to instill a work ethic!
So why is work -- those onerous chores and tasks of my youth -- now so appealing, so charming, so necessary? It isn't necessary, some would argue. In fact, it no longer matters that we don't tackle this difficult challenge. If kids put forth effort in school and extra-curricular activities, why bother learning how to work outside of these intrinsically and ego-centrically motivated actions? A recent spate of books and articles about the Me generation perhaps points to an unfortunate consequence of this thinking. Simply working towards my goals -- not those of the larger whole -- doesn't support family, community, the planet or any other big ideas that bind us humans together. Failing to teach our children about the value of hard work not directly related to their academic, sport or extracurricular record seems, well, so very unfarmly.
Should we assume there's something meaningful in a work ethic that extends beyond personal gain?
Really... what meaning does a 10 year-old find in scraping a white barn in July other than the sun's glare on peeling paint is extraordinarily blinding? For my siblings and me, there was no opting out of work after school, on weekends and school vacations. The list of chores was a mile long with only seasonal tasks completed before being replaced with the change in temperature. It was exactly this futility of thinking the end was in sight that led us to discover the true meaning of a work ethic: cultivate a good habit because your efforts are never finished. The means are more important than an end that is not in sight. (This is so depressing that I need to counterbalance by writing about the play ethic.)
So, although it seems silly, I've come to treat work as an extracurricular activity, scheduling whine-inducing 'projects' right there with baseball, circus and Irish dance. (And lessons in Irish dance, I've discovered, make buffing the floor much easier.) I'll confess, I'm a little embarrassed to tell my parents I have to schedule work -- to admit, in fact, that my kids have it so much easier than we did and that I'm a little uneasy about this rather than feeling like the next generation has triumphed. An advanced texter does not always trump an advanced window washer.
Hard labor, back-breaking chores (or just really time-consuming, tedious, mundane ones) are no longer part of kids' daily lives, which could arguably make kids borderline... shhh... lazy. Yes, I defy the psychologists by putting lazy and kids in the same sentence. Simply put: can we afford to raise a nation of L children? No! We need to instill that Can-Do, Will-Do, Must-Do attitude for future generations. These seem to be valuable lessons, and I get my garden weeded at the same time. Anytime we can multitask our parenting duties, bully for us.
Perhaps there is no more hard work for my children to do, but to work hard will never fail them.
"Girls! I have a little project..."