Love of Work

My five year old was helping me disassemble some steel shelving. I held the nut with pliers while he worked on the bolt with a screwdriver. Eight nuts and bolts to a shelf. Four shelves. He worked hard, his tongue stuck out in concentration. He had to keep shifting his chair to get the best leverage, remembering which way to turn the screwdriver, and moving the container that held the loose nuts and bolts to keep it at hand. He was totally absorbed. It was clear that he had claimed this work as his own.

As I held the pliers, and shifted the ever-loosening shelves to ease the strain on the bolts, I thought about work. It was not easy to stand there, pliers in hand, and watch him struggle so laboriously with each nut. I could have done the job in far less time by myself. I kept trying to find ways to speed the process along, without taking it over. But all the while, I was aware of what a privilege it was to be with someone who showed such respect and love for work.

I've seen it in a lot of children. I associate it more often with toddlers. The have discovered that they have enough skill, coordination and mobility to do things. The can hold a broom. They can carry clothes. They can dip a plate in and out of soap suds. What an accomplishment! What a joy to be able to participate so fully and responsibly in the life of the family!

My guess is that this love of work is part of every child's birthright. We want to gain skills. We want to play a role in shaping our world. We want to be of use. Yet by the time many children are six or seven, or eleven or twelve, things have changed. Work is a burden, an externally imposed drudgery, something to be gotten over with quickly, or avoided if possible. Some of us, as adults, have found work that we love. But for many of us, work is just a job to be gotten through, a necessary evil, a means to other ends.

I wonder what we can do, as parents to help our children hold on to that early love of work. I remember the mixed feelings I had when my children were little. A toddler with a broom or at the sink on a chair is certainly an endearing sight. But I knew that I would be left with even more work, cleaning up after all their help. I was glad when I could figure out to accept that help, to share their pleasure in the work, to remember that giving them an opportunity to be of use was worth a little of my time.

Once they are older, and we count on them to help out, it's even trickier. It's then that we start sending them clear messages that work is a drag. "You have to clean up. I don't care if you don't like it. Somebody has to do the work and there's no way I'm going to let you wriggle out of it." Maybe the solution is two-pronged: to make the repetitive work that nobody seems to like s much fun and soon over as possible, and to remember to talk about and include them as much as we can in the work that we love.

Watching my son as I worked with him on the shelving was a gift in my life. Making the effort to help keep than love of work alive in him is an investment whose returns could be of great value to both of us.