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Child Labor

February 15, 2004

Dad always had a mischievous habit of asking visiting children (of all ages) a question: “Hey little man, what do you do for a living?”

Most times the child would look nervous and glance at a parent, hoping for some hint to what the question was really about. But occasionally, the little tyke would look big old Mike Pearl in the face and give some original answer, like:

“I eat.”

“I drive trucks.”

“I work with Daddy.”

“I talk.”

“I can read.”

“I’m only five. I don’t have to work for a living.”

The Amish folks in our community say that a child is a liability to his parents for the first seven years of his life. For the next seven years, that child should be able to hold his own; and for the last seven, he should be productive enough to repay his parents for the first seven years of their labor for him. Everywhere you go in the community, you see children at work along side their parents in the fields, the house, at the sorghum pan, and in the barn. No one is exempt from the duties of life, and no one complains about it.

The last time we went back to visit Big Papa and Mama Pearl, I went to a neighbor’s house to buy fresh cow milk. It was in the upper twenties outside, and the ground was icy. As I drove up to the house, I noticed two tiny boys standing by a fence outside, watching their daddy do the evening chores. One of them looked about two years old and the other about eleven months. The little one could not keep his balance very well and was propped up against the fence. Soon he slipped and fell down on the ice. He was so thoroughly bundled up that neither his feet nor his head touched the ground, and he teetered back and forth on the huge round of coat and belly until his daddy turned him right-side-up against the fence once again. Granted, the two boys were not accomplishing much in the way of actual work; but they were clearly being trained to go out and do chores with Daddy, while Mama put dinner on the table.

A few days later we returned home to New Mexico, and I looked at my almost-three year-old-son with a freshly speculative eye. He already had a few chores around the house, but most of his time was filled with following me and asking questions. “How much work can a little kid do, if a little kid has to work?” I thought to myself. So, I looked around the house for all the short-attention-span jobs I could find, and even made up a few.

Joe Courage gathers all the trash cans from around the house to empty into the large kitchen trash can; and then he returns the empty ones to the various bedrooms and bathrooms. He sets the table for me by taking one piece at a time from the low counter where I have purposely set the dishes for him. Every now and then, I peek around the corner and give a word of advice; however, it is amazing how well he does. After meals he also clears the table, bringing the dirty dishes to the sink where I wash them. Joe spot-cleans the kitchen floor with a wet cloth and puts away odds and ends all day long. He makes his bed and picks up his toys in the morning before he even comes out of his room. Joe cleans up the living room a dozen times a day by putting away his books and toys. And now, Joe Courage is learning to sweep the kitchen and the porch.

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