About this time last year, the farm community learned of the Labor Department's intention to regulate child labor on the farm. In response, we figuratively smacked ourselves on the forehead and said a cumulative, "What are they thinking?" And then we set about commenting formally and grousing informally. By spring, the effort received so much backlash that the Department backed down, vowing to go back to the drawing board.
Certainly, the regulations had, at one point in time, a useful purpose. Instead of regulating Midwestern farm kids off the tractor and out of the barn, the regulations were designed to keep children of migrant workers out of the field and in some kind of education program - a worthy effort. Clearly, somewhere, regulators strayed from the original path.
And ever since, I've watched my kids work and thought.
What if they weren't allowed to do this? What if Jenna couldn't work with her calf? She learned responsibility, hard work and persistence this past summer. What if that hadn't been able to happen?
Nathan, my 7-year-old is all boy and really could care less about certain things in this world, including but not limited to coloring and neat handwriting. But give him a job - preferably something involving some sort of tool - and the child is transformed. Tell him you "really need his help today" and give him a job - again, preferably that involves a tool - and the boy is all over it. Mr. Motivation. Kendra Smiley has written about how children who have a purpose and feel needed and useful in a family are happier and more motivated. Nathan is Exhibit A of this phenomenon.
What if we couldn't do that for him?
Because here's the thing: this past summer, we poured a little concrete in the barn, in an effort to fight mud in the coming calving season. And as Grandpa, Dad, cousin Matt and farm employee Chuck dug in with their rakes and shovels and boot, there was Nathan. With his own big shovel, his own little boots and his own splatters of concrete. And he was a man on a mission. He was (at least in his mind) working and needed and part of the farm. It was glorious to watch. "Watch out, Mom, I need to work right here," he told me. Absolutely.
At one point, Matt (idolized by Nathan) began showing him how to trowel out the concrete at the edge. Nathan was anxious to give it a try. It wasn't long before Matt realized Nathan was "troweling" where he had already smoothed it out. So they worked on it a little more. Matt very patiently showed Nathan how to do it. Nathan gave it a try. Matt corrected, Nathan tried again. It was perfect.
This is what it should be. Children learning skills from those who've come before them. Just the way Matt learned, and just the way my husband learned. I worked my tail off, growing up on the farm. So did my husband. We learned the value of a good work ethic, what it is to be needed, and what it is to finish a job and do it well.
Children need to be protected on the farm, and we do everything we can to ensure their safety. And children of migrant laborers need to be protected and educated as well. But let's not confuse the two and mess up a good thing.
Little farm boys and little farm girls need to do and they need to learn.
The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm
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