Changing Diapers and Spreading Manure and Learning

I changed my brothers’ diapers before I started school, made supper before I was ten, and baked cinnamon rolls by twelve. As a kid I hoed the garden, mowed the lawn, babysat in the neighborhood, and supervised my siblings in weekly Saturday house cleanings. And all this was good for me—turning me into an efficient, competent adult.

So as a teacher, I was surprised to find that work can be an enemy. Mostly it isn’t, of course. In one of the longest longitudinal studies ever, Harvard researchers found that people who did chores as kids had greater job satisfaction and closer relationships as adults. They were healthier, lived longer, and were happier, much happier—and all this regardless of intelligence, family income, ethnic background, or level of education.

Despite this praise of work, I’ve known high school teachers to drop in at fast food and convenience stores at 11:05 P.M. with an eye for students behind the counters, the ones who fall asleep in their classes. They’re not out to get the kids, but they’re fully prepared to report employers who violate child labor laws.

And I’ve taught numbers of middle school students who were parentified. That’s what we in education call the too-early taking on of adult roles—children stepping up for struggling parents and thus thwarting their own growth.  

“Could I have a seat in the back?” Carmen asked me one day after class. “That way I can stand when I’m about to sleep.”

While her single mom worked second shift, Carmen ran herd on a pack of younger siblings—feeding them, breaking up fights, and supervising homework, baths, and bed time. And all this before staying up late to do her own homework.

This is not a new problem. More than a hundred years ago and long before work permits, Joseph Oppenheim, teacher in a one-room school, was concerned. Parents were keeping kids home from school to spread manure. Unloaders at that time dropped manure directly behind the wagon. And the manure had to be spread to prevent burning the soil. But this was back-breaking work, and parents needed help.

Not having child-labor laws to back him up, Oppenheim turned to invention. One day at recess, Oppenheim watched students play ball with a paddle-shaped bat that deflected the ball to one side or the other. And from this idea, he created the first manure spreader with a wide-span reach. Now students could learn again.

So, yes, have kids change diapers and spread manure. But also send them to school well-rested.

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