Child Labor

In Hall County, Nebraska children are harvesting sugar beets, October 1940.

In Hall County, Nebraska children are harvesting sugar beets, October 1940.

There was a time in our history when big families were the norm, when children were contributors to their parents’ coffers and not the yogurt-tube-slurping freeloaders they are today. Parents pumped out a new kid every year not out of any express religious obligation or even because they preferred the pitter patter of tiny feet to the sound of their own peaceful solitude. They did it because they needed an extra set of hands. Highly orchestrated playdates complete with Bento-boxed treats and intentional self-actualization time were still just a glimmer in the eye of the great, great grandmother of the most pinterested Type A mom of today. Kids were pint-sized contributors to the family economy, and they were given life for one purpose.

To work.

There were fields to be plowed, hems to be mended, and new babies to be raised, and the best workforce to carry out these chores was none other than the family’s underaged minions. Piano lessons, miano schmessons: that outhouse isn’t going to clean itself, kiddo.

We are a fairly pragmatic crew over here, or at least that’s how I feel when I see kids around C’s age that have been given their own miniature cars to drive around their driveways. My two-year-old does not own a car, nor will she until she can pony up and foot the bill for it. Call me old fashioned.

But every once in awhile it occurs to me I have absolutely no business looking down on parents who give their kids what I deem extravagant toys. While my child does not have a mini Mini Cooper, she is teetering on the edge of her second birthday with the knowledge of how to operate an iPad. An iPad, you guys. The same iPad that B and I marveled over like yokels who had never seen a big-city skyline when we first got it. She has mastered gestures for it that we can only dream of somehow performing with our giant sausage fingers.

This kid needs to be taken down a few pegs, methinks. You can only get so far in life with the skills acquired while playing the Elmo’s ABCs Lite.

I decided to take a page from my ancestors last week and start putting this child to work so she doesn’t get too soft on me. As I sat on the toilet with my usual audience, I looked over and saw that the toilet roll was empty and someone (ahemcoughMYHUSBAND) had not replaced it with a new roll. The cabinet across the bathroom where we keep the extra rolls was child locked, so unless I wanted to risk getting up and having my own pee dribble down my leg, I was going to have to recruit my assistant to go get me more TP from the other bathroom closest to her room. This would be fun.

“OK, C, I need you to go to the bathroom in your room and get me more toilet paper off the roll. You will have to walk in there, get the paper, and bring it back to me while I stay here. Do you think you can do it?”

The answer to that last question was as loaded to me as it was to her. Toddlers aren’t really known for their follow-through.

The wheels in her brain were turning as she set off on her mission, her expression reflective of the gravity she approached her task with. She marched out of the bathroom buck naked (she was about to take a bath), and I could hear her clear the apartment and open the door to the other bathroom.

But she was back ten seconds later with no toilet paper.

“Did you forget to get me some TP?”

“No, no.”

Disappointed, I dripped dry and resigned myself to the fact that I am raising a thoroughly modern, useless child.

But then, as we brushed her teeth in her bathroom later that evening, I noticed that the roll was empty. She had tried to get me some TP but there was none to be gotten. My child had not failed me, and there is hope for her generation yet.

Maybe I should plant a garden so she can till it.

child labor

Make way for the road crew.


  1. I just found you on BlogHer and decided I had to follow you. My first emailed post confirmed that I was right to sign up for your posts. Thanks for the chuckle!!

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you, Kelly! I really appreciate it and I hope I continue to deliver!

  2. Ha. Lovely stuff. She certainly didn’t fail you. But you may need to have a word with your husband about the failure to restock when finished.

    And as a side note, it is very worrying when you think about what kids have come to expect these days… I don’t have any children myself but many little relatives. I don’t envy their parents. Or you for that matter! But you appear to be doing a sterling job.

    1. Funny you should mention that, Sean. I actually had many, MANY words with him the following day about that very subject ;D

      Although I can only speak to what it’s like to raise kids in this day and age, it does to seem more difficult. The idea of childhood as a time when children should focus solely on their academic education instead of their roles within the home is relatively new within a historical context, and it’s hard to find the right balance. Thank you for your vote of confidence, though!

  3. Teresa P. · · Reply

    C. is smart, cute, sweet, AND industrious……just like her mommy.
    Love, Mom

    1. I had an excellent teacher ;D

  4. We call my husband Captain Toilet Paper because it is (supposed to be) his job to make sure the bathrooms have TP. Maybe C could be the Captain at your house! My kids both did Montessori, so I know they know how to do house work, but none of that knowledge is evidenced in our house. Yes! A Garden! My first job in horticulture was teaching organic gardening to kids. It was a blast.

    1. I cannot wait to move this year to a place that has room for a full garden. Right now we have seeds we found around our apartment sprouting in a ziplock bag in our windows, and I’m ready to take it to the next level.

  5. I love this post. I dont think having an iPad or a toy jeep makes a kid “soft”, in fact in many ways they learn and grow from using the tools….but it’s how we teach them to use them.

    1. Exactly! Items and toys are not inherently evil.

  6. When I was a kid, I was the runner. “Get me a beer.” “Get me a pop.” “Go get the mail.” And yes, “help me plant the garden.”

    I reveled in the opportunity to help. So when the first child (my godson) was born, he became everyone’s minion. And to this day (he just turned 9), he’ll still get Auntie Chrissy an iced tea or Coke Zero. Or a beer. We’re not above child labor here.

    1. Hey Chrissy! Working a little around the home is good for a kid’s soul, I think. It teaches them that they have a place within their family’s home and what they contribute is valueable. Plus, it lightens their parents’ load. I’m all for that. Thanks for reading!

  7. Your little one sounds like a real sweetheart. I remember my daughter saying, “I helping.” I think a garden is a great idea!

    1. She is a sweet girl. I think she’s beginning to understand that when she helps me out, it not only makes her feel good but that is also makes me really happy. She’s a people-pleaser. ;D

  8. Always the geezer here, I have to say that this generation’s tendency to indulge children materially can result in a different type of deprivation sometimes. I see young people now who lack the dignity, self-respect, and healthy self-esteem that spring from personal accomplishment. Dare I say that denying our kids the opportunity to work hard for something instead of just handing them things can almost be as sad as denying them love. Great post, Emily. You have a knack for tucking in an important point in the middle of stuff that makes us laugh. Kind of like how I put my elderly dog’s glucosamine tablet inside a piece of cheese.

    1. Well, as long as my husband continues to teach and I continue to try to make money writing, she will likely never be rolling in the creature comforts that are often given to the modern child. And I too think that is a blessing, not because things are inherently evil, but because we’re humans and we have the bad habit of treasuring what we *have* more than what we *are.* Thank you, Willow! ;D

  9. Great stuff.
    The TP reminds me of a neighbour’s then 2 year old. They had just come back from shopping and she asked her toddler to put the toilet rolls in the toilet. Fifteen minutes later she hadn’t returned and upon investigation, the little girl was unravelling the roll and literally feeding it into the pan. Bless.

    1. You’ve gotta watch those kids when they’re quiet for too long. ;D

  10. I think she used the ipad to read about parents who make their kids work and decided to nip that in the bud as soon as possible.

    Way to go, C!

    1. That’s gotta be it!

  11. Great post. We are a pretty practical fam and my kids (2 and 4) dress themselves completely, clear the table after meals and help with dishes. This isn’t even close to what it was like in the old days but I can see the value foe them as individuals and for our entire family. On the other hand, they play with the iPad and computer games regularly and I struggle with limiting screen time. Parenting is challenging but I bust my ass every day to shape those little people into quality big people.

    1. I totally agree that it’s hard to straddle that line when parenting. We live in a time where parenting is such a full-contact activity, in a way that it wasn’t even a couple generations ago. I agonize over the screen time issue too and sometimes it’s hard for me to fight back pangs of guilt when I plop her in front of the TV for half and hour so I can get some work done.

  12. Raise up a child in the way that she will go, and when she is old, she will be the only one in her household to know how to change a roll of toilet paper.

    The first time Squish saw me do it, he was a-MAZED with that magic and asked me to show him how to do it.

    1. It is kind of amazing. I mean, the little rod collapses into itself! Magical witchcraft.

  13. NotAPunkRocker · · Reply

    Make sure you teach her the proper way to put the TP on the roll (hint: OVER).

    I refer to my kid as child labor all the time when my friends need help with things around the house. I think he should get business cards made up with that as his company name. ;-)

    1. That is the ONLY way that it should go! The balance of the universe hangs in that little tube and all will be lost if it goes the wrong way! You should totally get those cards made for him ;D

  14. I grew up in one of the households you are describing! I asked my dad one time about an allowance and his reply was something like, “ok but then you have to pay room and board.” I never got an allowance. We worked from sun-ip to sun-down. I used to pray that my dad would take a mid-day nap–I’d get time to play. Bravo for want to teach your child well!

    1. I love that mentality! By that same logic, you can get away with being scanty of Christmas and birthdays by telling your kid that they eat their “presents” at every meal and enjoy their gift of light every time they turn on the switch and the light actually comes on ;D

  15. So it was the PARENTS that failed here. Not the kid. That is a microcosm of my entire life. Both as a kid and as a parent!

    1. That is an extremely good point. I guess she’s got us whipped ;D

  16. The twins are 14 and almost as useless. You get used to it…

    1. But there’s hope yet with Baby C!

      1. Not with the twins leading the way.

  17. Sidney Austin · · Reply


    This blog is the best !! I laughed & cried !!

    God bless that little girl CeCe !!

    Sidney Austin Lead Advocate Heroes in Recovery   ” believe in magic & always stay connected “

    1. She is pretty freakin’ cute, eh? I think I’ll keep her. xoxox

  18. Em-
    this may be a long one. Pour yourself a cup of chai tea.

    My kid is 10. He has to set the table, clear it after dinner, and sweep under the table after we eat (who do you think MADE those crumbs?) This is not a restaurant; he doesn’t get to languish on the couch watching Sponge Bob while I bust my ass cleaning up after a meal I prepared.

    Don’t even think about having a friend over unless your room is spotless. And once a week, he gets to clean the toilet, cause that sure as heck isn’t MY pee that’s splashed all over the place. He has to get me THIS from the garage, and THAT from the basement, because this is a team effort.

    Kids will bitch and complain and yes, it is HARD WORK to get them to cooperate. Yes, it is much easier to just do it yourself and not make them have chores. That’s why parents don’t bother. But I’m trying to raise an independent person here. Assume STRENGTH. Not FRAGILITY.

    Wait till after he finishes 5th grade. Starting in middle school, Little Dude is going to have to make his own lunch, cause really – how hard is it to make a sandwich and put it in a bag?

    Off my soap box now. Thank you.

    I emailed you an important question about BlogHer; if you can,check your inbox. xo, S.

    1. Amen my sistah! Preach it!

      Seriously, though, I feel like I may have mentioned to you this book I’m reading right now called “All Joy and No Fun” by Jennifer Senior. If I have, this is going to be a repeat mention. Janice from Crazy Good Parent recommended it to me and lawdy am I glad she did! It is truly rocking my world in a major way. It’s about the myth that people tend to perpetuate that parenthood is just happy happy joy joy all the time, and why we are hurting ourselves AND our kids by buying into it. I think you’d like it too ;D

  19. Oh man your little lady — she is a keeper ;)

    1. I tend to agree! She’s a fun lil’ friend ;D

  20. This is funny and very true. My parents had five children for the reason you mentioned …child labor (hahaha, that’s what they told us). But I agree that we should teach our kids at a young age how to contribute to the household and society by learning useful skills. I get some slack too for not buying my kids an iPad or video games. Of course I want them to have the finer things in life, but they need to know how to earn it. Good post.

    1. I agree! Not only does instilling a good work ethic in your kids help prepare them for life, but it also teaches them that some work can be pretty pleasurable. I personally like ironing clothes – it’s very soothing and somewhat cathartic for me. Thanks for reading!

  21. That’s great Emily! You provided Cee with her first taste of an inept manager who erroneously assumed that it was the worker bee that was incompetent. Welcome to the real world, Cee!

    1. SERIOUSLY! This kid is going to exit my home some day with some real world skills. ;D

      Sorry I haven’t been around your blog lately, V. I am barely keeping my head above water over here. Hopefully I will have an SSS (Solo Starbucks Sunday) soon so I can catch up on your Beatles story.

      1. If you’re not reading LA, how are you even aware of my Beatles story?!? Or is that another skill that comes with being a mom, Emily? I always knew mine had eyes in the back of her head! Or maybe my post just showed up in your WP reader? How anticlimactic.

  22. Too cute :) (And too bad we can’t still use kids as farmhands. All that free labor going to waste! haha.)

    1. It really is a shame. Plus, I really want someone to make ME dinner for a change.

  23. What? You didn’t have your children just so that they could serve you and change your diapers in your old age? Better start teaching that baby to wash dishes now or you’ll be doing them yourself forever. And as for the husband, I am certain that you Emily emptied the roll and forgot to restock it – shame on you for blaming the perfect man of the house!

    1. He paid you to say that, didn’t he? ;D

  24. Good for you, putting her to work. Hopefully she doesn’t figure out how to unionize.
    I’m trying to gear myself up for a similar mindset. I keep repeating, “I will not be a slave to my child. I WILL NOT be a slave to my child…”

    1. Stay the course and do not let the baby whip you. I repeat, DO NOT LET THE BABY WHIP YOU. It is going to be so hard. to resist those cuddles, and dear lord, when the baby learns to hug back, you will melt into a puddle of your own undying love. But my own kid is starting to use that against me. Today when I put her in time out for throwing a quesadilla into my bra, she hopped up and said “HUG MAMA!” It’s baaaaad.

      1. Whoaa. Crafty little ones.

  25. I’ve been thinking of popping a kid out of my own to fetch TP when I need it (which is almost always). I had little menial chores around the house when I was a kid, and there was definitely no Barbie Jeep. I really think it’s a benefit to the child to give him or her little chores every now and then. …Especially when it’s the ones you least like doing.

    1. I’m going to take that to mean that it’s OK for me to get her to clean the oven. I’m going with it ;D

  26. I like the way you gave your child a practical task – fetching more toilet paper, so that when she returned she would get a brand new high quality toy- the empty cardboard roll!

    1. She usually just eats them. Such a gourmet.

  27. this is awesome. Love this line especially: You can only get so far in life with the skills acquired while playing the Elmo’s ABCs Lite. I’m glad to know I’m not the only parent that will only purchase the lite version of everything. :)

    1. We almost bought the full version once when we were going on a daytrip, but she never noticed the difference ;D She really likes Elmo’s 123 Lite too!

  28. Oneinamillion · · Reply

    The image of your little one nakedly walking with purpose on her little mission just made my day. Very cute.

    1. Awwww, thanks! Glad I could make you smile ;D

  29. Thanks for my giggle for the day. My kids love doing jobs around the house. The only catch it they love doing the most useless and utterly made-up jobs around the house. Like reorganizing my already-organized jewelry drawer and writing a how-to guide with step by step instructions for cleaning a closet loosely based on an article from American Girl magazine…but then never actually following the guide. So basically, I think I’m grooming them to work in the government.

    1. HAHAHAHAHA! Your comments are my favorite, Kel. They are mini-posts themselves ;D

      1. Aw, thanks!!! The comment section is kind of like the kick-ass after party to prom. ;)

      2. Also, it’s easy to write great comments for great posts.

  30. Aww…see…I had total faith that she knew what you were asking. There had to be a completely good reason for her to have not returned with the much needed roll :)

    1. There was! I need faith like yours. Sandee. (Incidentally, I have a post going up tomorrow about finding faith while in the midst of the same toddler tantrum you witnessed on Facebook.)

  31. This is a riot Emily! This week I’ve been crazy busy with an Oscar party to prep for and a huge fundraiser I’m helping with… buried! Wish I’d read this sooner, I might have grabbed a few tykes off the street, and put them to work! ;-) I love that you bring us into your bathroom, and let us sit and wait with you… cracked me up!!

    1. That sounds like so much fun!!! I am going to be living vicariously through you and your parties ;D Fairly certain I’ll be passed out early on Sunday night ;D Thanks, Dawn!

      1. This is our 18th year having an Oscar party… costumes, themed foods, prizes… I’m exhausted already, and WAY behind this year!!

  32. Couple of great laughs out of this one! My husband asked me three separate times what was so funny. :)

  33. I was a little sad that she didn’t complete the mission. All my hopes were dashed. And then it was ok! There was no toilet paper anyway! Although, if she could have worked out a way to overcome the child lock on the cuoboard, that would’ve been cool.

Now you can hold the magic talking stick.

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