Work: A Family Affair

Written by Lydia Benedict.

These days it's a challenge to teach kids to work. With after school sports, rehearsals, fundraisers, and homework, there's little time left for kids to help cook family meals, clean the house, bring in the firewood, care for the family pets, or other household chores.

Almost four years ago, my family and I moved from a beach community in southeastern Connecticut to the Shenandoah Valley. We now live on 20 acres with five cats and a dog, two horses, 30 chickens, and 36 guinea fowl, not to mention a handful of chicks and keets (baby guinea hens). Additionally, there are vegetable and flower gardens, berries patches, and fruit trees.

Needless to say, there is more than enough work to go around. Out of necessity, we had to begin really working together. I'm not talking about Mom and Dad doing all the work while the kids play. Instead, each child is given tasks suitable for her age and size. For example, one daughter is given the job of watching her little sister while they pick peas and squash or clean the kitchen. My younger son waters the gardens and washes the chicken eggs. My oldest son almost single-handedly cares for all the animals and mows acres of grass. Meanwhile, my husband often helps me prepare new garden beds for planting, stakes tomato plants, or cooks dinner when I'm still up to my elbows in dirt. Clearly, it's a family affair.

When the food starts coming in from the garden, my kids help me make everything from strawberry jam to canned beets. For hours, they shell peas to freeze and snap green beans to can. They help turn tomatoes into salsa; apples and pears into sauce; and crab apples into jelly. My kids are learning that real work isn't always fun—but it can be. Although staying up to midnight to finish the last batch of pickles is tiring (talk about sore feet), it also provides time to talk, joke, listen to music, or even recite poetry. They are learning that results require perseverance. To hatch out keets means rotating the eggs at least three times a day for about a month. It is a tedious job, but watching a baby keet break through its shell is reward enough.

Speaking of rewards, it is helpful for children to reap the natural benefits of a job. Raising keets and chicks is just one example. Another is eating good food that they have grown, harvested, and preserved with their own hands. It's surprising how a little sweat will give a child pride in what they eat.

In other words, a child shouldn't need a "carrot" (and I'm not talking about the orange root vegetable growing in my garden) to make him work. After all, that's not the way it works in the real world. Work hard for your employer and you receive job experience and a paycheck. Work hard at college and you receive knowledge (and hopefully some good grades). Bribery is the wrong message to teach our children. However, family play time is another natural consequence for working together. For example, after gardening and caring for the animals in the hot sun, our family enjoys swimming, watching movies, or playing with friends or cousins.

Of course, many families don't live in a setting with farm animals and gardens that require daily attention. But there are still plenty of opportunities for kids to learn the value of work. For starters, children can help prepare meals. Older children can even cook simple meals by themselves. Require children to clean toilets, tubs, and sinks. Have them sweep and vacuum regularly. It's amazing how a child's tidiness improves when they appreciate the work required to keep a home clean and orderly. And certainly, children can help clean up after mealtime. We aren't doing our children any favors by continuously picking up after them.

A good work ethic isn't learned from books or computers. Learning to work hard begins in the home. Perhaps we could spend less time busing kids from baseball, to soccer, to ballet and more time working together as a family. If we expect little from our children, they will do little. While instilling a work ethic in our children is challenging, it is much harder to instill that work ethic in an adult. It pays to start early.