Considering the Benefits of Child Labor

by John Hartnett - Date: 2007-01-19 - Word Count: 806 Share This!

Even though it was quite cold this weekend, I noticed a lot more people braving the chilly winds to work outside in their yards. Maybe it's cabin fever that compels people to all step outside on the same day to retrieve dead branches and old leaves that have been lying there in the open for months or maybe it's the same sort of genetic trigger that forces Greenland seals to wake up one morning and swim en masse to Spitsberg like a sea bearing version of the Stepford Wives.

I was out in the yard Sunday but I left the branches and the leaves exactly where they were. This was more of a scouting assignment then a cleanup operation, for my children, particularly my son Jack, will be tackling the yard work with me this Spring.

I believe my responsibilities as a parent include instilling a strong work ethic in my children. As a member of a family, I believe everyone must make an ongoing contribution to maintain the household and that work precedes reward. My son agrees with me but since he believes his real father is Prince Charles, he doesn't really consider himself part of our family and refuses to do anything until the DNA results come back.

Kids. When I was young, I loved working around the house with my father. We had a lot of laughs. Along with my brothers, we put in fences, painted the house, re-shingled the garage, and tore up the yard and reseeded it each and every year because nothing ever grew. People who believe the Moon landing was a hoax also believe the hoax was staged in our backyard.

Yes, we were a little clueless in the handyman department but we all knew that there was no way my father was going to pay someone to do the work when he had four able-bodied boys with tapeworms haunting his refrigerator. If we could do it ourselves, we did it ourselves. Once my brother came home convinced that he had appendicitis but it cleared up when he saw my father leave the room and come back with a copy of Gray's Anatomy and a plumber's helper.

And that's the tradition I want to pass on to my children. Do it yourself surgery. No, I want my children to understand that working together and doing what needs to be done around the house is what being a family is all about.

Last summer I felt Jack was old enough to start taking on more responsibility around the house and I wanted him to experience the things I experienced working with my father when I was his age. There was one incident in particular that sums up the progress we made.

What follows is a true story. And I don't mean that in a Jayson Blair sort of way.

One Friday night, Jack, my daughter Annabelle and I were sitting on the deck listening to music. They asked me why I liked music so much and I explained that sometimes my memory wasn't very good but when I heard a certain song, it would trigger very vivid recollections of people, places and experiences.

The next morning, I woke Jack up and told him that he and I were going to weed the garden and cut back a row of azalea bushes that apparently had gone native while my back was turned. My son lunged for the door but when I informed him that all the windows and exits were sealed and that the TV remote was encased in a block of ice, he gave up. Ten minutes later we were side by side in the yard, flailing and hacking away at anything that photosynthesized.

We worked for close to six hours in the hot sun and it was back breaking work. Finally everything that had been pulled, sawed or clipped lay in a huge pile in the middle of the yard and we set to the task of hauling it all off to the conservation center.

By the fourth trip to the dump, we were exhausted. I was singing along to a song on the radio and Jack turned to me and said, "Hey Dad. Remember when you told me that music makes you remember places and things that you did a long time ago?"


"I hope that whenever you hear the song you were just singing, you remember the day we worked in the yard together pulling up all those weeds and bushes."

I looked at my son as he stared straight ahead out the window, his face coated with grime and sweat, and my eyes filled with tears. He gets it, I thought to myself. He enjoyed working with his dad today.

And then a split second later he muttered, "Because I am never, ever doing this kind of work again."

This summer I'm painting the house. I'll call you when he's finished.

Related Tags: children, music, landscaping, family, discipline, activities, bonding, yard work, chores

John Hartnett is the owner of Early Bird Publishing, a manufacturer of all occasion humorous greeting cards ( He is also the author of Now What?, an online blog at

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