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Do you have a family cow? It’s quite likely that you don’t, and it’s likely that none of your neighbors do either. But if you lived in the 18th or 19th centuries, chances are you’d have a cow, a horse, or maybe an ox. You’d probably have some chickens. You’d certainly have a garden for vegetables, and a few acres of land on which to scratch out a living. In the late 1700s, there were roughly two million people living in the American colonies. The most populous colony was Virginia, with about 500,000 of those people. In 1775, only about two percent of them lived in small towns and cities, while most of the rest lived and worked on small farms of less than 200 acres (HistoryIsFun.org, “Colonial Life”).
That family cow provided milk, butter and cheese, and perhaps a calf for meat. The chickens provided eggs and meat, and the garden produced the vegetables for the table. But none of that happened by itself. The typical family on a farm in the 1700s, 1800s and even early 1900s worked as a team, with family members of all ages contributing to the survival and well-being of the home. The tasks that each family member did were an important contribution to the success of the family. In the thousands of pioneer families that streamed west and settled across the vast American interior, children played a vital role. Younger children helped by getting water from a well or nearby stream. They kept the fire burning and fed and tended chickens and cows. They helped churn butter and plant and pick vegetables. Older boys helped with heavier tasks, like plowing and chopping wood. Older daughters helped to care for younger siblings and process and preserve food for winter. With their mother, they made and mended clothing for the family. This pattern of children working with parents in a multitude of tasks around the home and farm was part of the fabric of life in America.
In the year 1800, 94 percent of the American population lived in rural areas. In 1900, one hundred years later, 60 percent lived in rural America—still a majority. But the rapid mechanization and modernization of agriculture and industry led to thousands abandoning the countryside to flock to the cities for work (ElderWeb.com, “1800–1990: Changes in Urban/Rural U.S. Population”). For many families, children simply exchanged work on the farm for work in the factory, until child labor laws began to move children out of factories and into schools. Today, only about two percent of the American population live and work on farms and ranches (FB.org/newsroom, “Fast Facts About Agriculture”).
Life has changed dramatically over the past 250 years. I doubt any of us would really want to give up our modern conveniences to scratch out a life on a farm in the Virginia Colony, or on a ranch in Oklahoma without running water. However, a major component of life has been lost. For much of our American history, and much of the history of peoples in every corner of the world, the contribution of children and teenagers to the success and survival of the family was critical. It was important, meaningful, and necessary. For many of us today, living in suburbia, meaningful work for children has been replaced by school, activities, and Snap-chat. But does it have to be that way? Can the benefits of working together as a family still be realized? Is it good for children to do chores that count?
Often, when parents discuss this topic, they generally agree that chores are good for children. But when confronted with the hands-on challenge of actually having them engaged in work in the home, many throw up their hands in frustration. Why? Many tasks simply take less time for parents to do themselves than to explain to their children, and the follow-up to see that the task gets done takes even more time. But what the parent is missing is the opportunity to teach his child about the value of work. The Book of Proverbs is full of admonitions about working: “The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich” (Proverbs 13:4); “He who gathers in summer is a wise son; he who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame” (Proverbs 10:5); “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before unknown men” (Proverbs 22:29). When children see a good example, and are coached to emulate that example, they are learning a life lesson about work.
Some parents feel that their child’s time is better spent on homework, sports practice and music lessons. They might even tell their child that school is their work. School is important, and activities are important. But the work of keeping a home clean and fulfilling all the family duties remains. When parents shoulder all of this work and do not include their children, they are missing an opportunity to teach them the value of what they are receiving. They enjoy food, shelter, and a warm bed through the efforts of their parents. Learning about the effort that goes into the preparation of all the food, and the cleaning and maintenance of that shelter is invaluable preparation for them to make their own way in life as adults. Not only do they learn to appreciate what they have, but they learn competence and skill in caring for themselves and their family in the future. This happens when they are included as team members in the effort to maintain and build a household. When we include them, we are obeying Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
When we work with our children, and require work of them, we are teaching them to be industrious, responsible, and to take pleasure in work done well. We’re teaching them the imperative of work, just as Paul taught the church at Thessalonica. He wrote, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
What can children do? That depends on your household. But ask yourself, “Is this a task that I could teach my son or daughter to do? Or am I unwilling to let go of it because it’s easier to just do it myself?” Cleaning, cooking and food preparation, yard work, house projects, laundry, cleaning our vehicles, running errands, gardening… the list is endless.
As parents, we have the responsibility to teach our children the importance and value of work. What better place to teach this value than in our home? You may not have a family cow, but you’re sure to have lots of chores, lots of tasks that need to be done to help your family succeed. Share them with your children.