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5 Work and Chores Do I HaveTo? WORRIES ABOUT CHILDREN’S WORK are not unique to the 20th century, but only in the most general sense. Lazy kids are not a modern invention. Traditional folklore is replete with stories about children who were not diligent, who napped when they should be working. Shepherd boys, for example, inherently unsupervised, were often regarded as deficient. “Little Boy Blue,” in the nursery rhyme, let his sheep and cows ruin crops, while he was “under the haystack, fast asleep.” Apprentices often goofed off or did shoddy work. While traditionally the focus may have been on boys where slacking off was concerned , girls came in for attention, too, as songs and poems about “lazy Mary” suggest. In Western Europe and, to a degree, in colonial America, many parents shipped some of their adolescents off to other households during the early to mid-teen years to work as agricultural or domestic servants and apprentices. Up to a third of all children may have been transferred in this way before the advent of industrialization. The most obvious reason for the transfer involved household economics: families with too many children could balance resources with families that, because of infertility or aging, did not have enough children around. But scholars have speculated that farming out also made sense because it relieved parents of a disciplinary burden as their children reached a difficult age—better to have someone else do the job. And this could particularly apply to work. Some adults may have felt less compunction shaping up someone else’s child than managing their own. Of course, hard knocks were still often necessary within the family. Ben Franklin’s older 125 brother showed little compunction about trying to whip Ben into submission as a reluctant printer’s apprentice, until he ultimately fled to Philadelphia. But, amid all these early concerns, the anxiety that became prominent in the 20th century was clearly missing, for no one questioned that children should be working. Even lazy children contested not what they should be doing but only how they proposed to do it. But, in the 20th century, given the new image of the vulnerable child (including the child’s need for precious sleep) and the growing pressure for children to devote themselves to schooling, the question of whether work was appropriate moved to center stage. This first applied (carrying over issues that had been raised initially in the 19th century) to work outside the home but then began to attach to household chores, as well. Indeed, the idea of the lazy child began to take on a somewhat anachronistic tone. Of course, there were children who were better at self-directed school work than others, and parents might also comment on kids who were unusually reliable around the house. But laziness, as a label, declined. Partly this reflected the growing concern about self-esteem : children should be given a more supportive context. But partly it reflected a growing confusion about whether work performance outside the school context was a particularly relevant category for contemporary childhood. Growing numbers of parents began to contribute to the larger social effort to withdraw children from the larger workforce, and many increasingly took over children’s chores around the house. For their part, children, ever alert to new signals, began to question systematic work obligations, often turning work requests into a sequence of minor but troubling conflicts. The result may have been good: children were relieved, during the course of the century, of some traditional tasks that many observers now find inappropriate, from infant care to newspaper delivery. But, whatever the judgments here, there is little doubt that the result was also confusing . At the most general level, children were less than ever seen as economic assets, and even middle-class parents who had already, by 1900, begun to think of children primarily in terms of emotional satisfaction could be troubled by this confirmation of their status as liabilities . At the more personal, daily level, there was little clear definition of what work obligations might remain reasonable, which is where both conflict and a dull, often inarticulate resentment could breed. 126 ANXIOUS PARENTS Questions about children’s work took the first few decades of the 20th century to jell, despite the new image of the vulnerable child. Campaigns against formal child labor received consistent attention. Inherited from the 19th century, these campaigns gained new vigor among the flood of immigrants, with their assumptions that children should work...


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MARC Record
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