Parenting for the Perplexed: Singing the praises of child labor (You read that right)

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via

I know … what a strange title! I am writing in honor of last week’s Labor Day and departing from my usual format of answering readers’ questions, instead basing the column on my own childhood experiences.

You see, I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, and like anyone who is raised up on a farm, I began working early in life. Starting in kindergarten, we worked in our own small vegetable garden and, alongside our caretakers, cleaned up after ourselves — be it our showers, play rooms or dining tables.

In third grade, I got assigned a rotation working with the dairy cows. What an honor! It was the most coveted position, doing the “real work” of adults. You had to prove yourself first in the Children’s Farm, where we had sheep, goats, chickens and peacocks along with the vegetable garden. But no cows. Cows were the Big Time!

My first day on the job, I got brief instructions on how to lead the cows from the grazing pasture back to the dairy for the evening milking. Imagine me at the time: not yet 4 feet tall, skinny (alas … those days are over) and scab-kneed, leading 80 Holsteins home. There were gates to open and close while guiding the cows, and I had a stick to goad them, but I do wonder how the adults in charge came to believe I could manage this on my own (not to mention what the cows made of me).

It was a formative moment in my life, as you can tell from the fact that I still want to write (and crow) about it more than 50 years later. The stint with the cows was followed by many jobs around the kibbutz, the level of responsibility growing as I matured.

For our bar and bat mitzvahs (the whole class celebrated together and each child completed 12 individual tasks), all of us had to work a full, eight-hour day in a branch of the kibbutz. I got unlucky here, assigned to work in the cheder ochel, the communal dining room. I would certainly have preferred the sugar beet fields or the date palm groves. But like the adults, I went where the sadran avodah, who managed the daily work assignments, needed me. I cleaned all 40 or 50 windows on each side and did they — and I — shine at the end of the day!

So what does all of that have to do with parents in the Bay Area in 2012? This is my unabashed recommendation: Make your children work!

From an early age, say, 4 or 5, your kids should learn about the responsibility, physical effort, boredom and great sense of achievement that comes with manual labor. I know you don’t have a dairy farm, but you have garbage to clear and recycling to sort, a house to clean (even if you have a housecleaner, get your children involved in cleaning up after themselves), garden or patio plants to tend, rugs to vacuum (kids love vacuuming — such power!), floors to sweep, dishes to wash.

In truth, most work today — likely what you do yourself — involves little physical exertion, so our kids are deprived (I mean it!) of the pleasures of manual labor. Try to create opportunities for it in your home. Or find an urban farm where you can volunteer (e.g., Urban Adamah in Berkeley, Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco, City Limits Urban Farm in Palo Alto), a community garden to join, a park or beach to clean up, or an elderly neighbor who could use help in the yard. Check with your child’s school or afterschool program: Does it provide opportunities for manual skills, like carpentry or leatherwork? Can it integrate the children into the cleanup work needed in the school? Can the students plant a garden?

Once your child really understands the concept of money (see my Aug. 24 column), working for pay is a valuable experience, as well. But truly, it does not compare with the gains of work for its own rewards, or to help someone in need.

Try it. You might find that your child’s enthusiasm for work spills over to you.

Rachel Biale