I am excited to have children, largely because I have a lot to do, and after a certain increase in muscle mass and spiritual faculty, a child can help me to do it. I tested this humdrum thought in my social circle, under the assumption that its busy occupants would agree. I was particularly interested in whether any of them planned on teaching their children to take dictation, translate foreign texts, lay bricks, or learn to repair socks, as these would be useful to my future plans — and perhaps we could go halfsies on the necessary schooling.
To my dismay, they were dismayed. Most seemed to think of this as some form of cold, calculated child abuse. I can sympathize with the response. We’ve been conditioned to hear the phrase in capitals, as “Child Labor.” We think of William Blake’s chimney sweeps, of tender, frigid hands at the mechanized loom, of Dickens, Les Miserables and the whole horror of industrialism. But the fact that we once abused children with labor does not justify hurling abuse at the idea of laboring children. “Child labor” should describe nothing more than children working — a very good thing indeed.
Mechanized labor treats adult workers like children — they are given a series of exhausting and repetitive motions that any child could do. The destruction of craft and hand labor and the glorification of the machine allowed for child labor precisely because it disallowed adult labor — that is, the labor fitting to free men, using all their capacities, producing goods which bear their imprint and from which they profit. Anyone possessing a hippocampus should reject Child Labor in this sense — for the dignity of the father and mother as much as for the health of the child.
Non-mechanized work tends to require skill, not just want of a paycheck. And skillful labor tends to be gradated — a ladder of easy and difficult tasks that one climbs to rise from apprentice to master. It is gradated for the simple reason that it has not been reduced to one, repetitive task — push the button, pack the box, answer the phone. The work is made up of many works. And if many hands make light work, it is also the case that many works make room for light hands. Once a man has bid adieu to the mechanized economy, and taken up some skilled labor, he may welcome little hands to help him, for his work has become one of shepherding and husbanding many tasks, small and large, into the creation of goods. His child may not be able to plow a field or place a cornice on a wall — but she can collect the eggs and spread the mortar. A six-year old may not know how to prune and tend a flower garden, but a ten-year-old might. He may also be quite able to arrange the bouquets and at twelve, learn to sell them. And my hypothetical child (God save her) may not be able to translate Latin into English quite yet, but I can certainly start her on sharpening the pencils.
When a man is the master of his labor, from start to finish, there is much in it that can be given to the strength, size, and genius of his children. When another man owns his labor, and he clicks and toils away at that man’s machines, then his work has been reduced to a singular part. To give that singular part to a child is to simply to replace big hands with small ones, strong hands with weak ones, developed faculties with developing ones. This is, for the most part, what happened in the Industrial Revolution, in which, as historian Jane Humphries argued, “reorganization of production around a more detailed division of labour created jobs, which children could fill.”
The restoration of skill and ownership to work tends make it a marvelous, mosaic of works. Here, children can labor without there being any Child Labor. But the critique of child labor has lost its radical roots in the critique of mechanized labor, and is now applied, willy-nilly, to any act of making a child work.
The result has been that we have no idea what to do with a child. Since a child is not to be useful to our own ends, it follows that we are to be useful to the ends of the child. This is perverse, for the ends of childhood are, quite obviously, to become an adult. Nevertheless, it is a believable perversity, and so one may find, scattered across the living room floors of suburbia, the tokens of this attempt — toys.
Children don’t seem to care about most of the toys their parents buy them. Electronic drums and shiny doo-hickeys that sing upon being squeezed are all met with an initial thrill, then cast outside of the gate. Watching children discard them is like watching a displeased deity reject the offerings of its worshippers. Homes that belong to otherwise sensible people gradually take on the look of one of those disaster areas in the ocean — a swamp of plastic pieces and toy boxes surrounding a child who, inevitably, just wants to be like his Dad and touch an iPhone.
Bad toys all seem to share this obvious characteristic, that they were made by people who have never been children. For, when one forgets his childhood, he is in danger of falling prey to the romantic idea that “childhood” is a distinct category of being, populated by strange creatures who like things that are gooey, shiny, bright green, loud, and silly — most importantly, silly.
These are adult constructs. A child doesn’t want to be silly. A child wants to be serious. Give him all the bright, goofy things and they will bore him. Give him a shovel and he will dig a hole. Give her a sparkly, rainbow unicorn and she will throw it — unless, on the off-chance, she sees in it a chance to imitate her parents, to dress, and comb, and care and otherwise expend her labor on the thing. He might think he can dig a hole to China and she might think that her unicorn loves her, but this enthusiasm is not the enthusiasm of creatures qualitatively distinct from us — it is an enthusiasm for useful work.
A good toy is a smaller, simpler version of a tool or some feature of the adult world that a child can use to imitate adults about their work. The games that children choose for themselves are simulations of farming, nursing, constructing, dressing, fighting, building, demolishing, governing, or other serious work. A bad toy is built for a non-existent “childhood world” — it tends to scream and flash without observable function. These toys force children to play games that adults have thought up for them.
The rejection of cold profiteering on the back of child laborers has ended in the view of the child as a consumer who parents love — but ultimately don’t need. It’s no great victory to have saved children from abuse by making them useless. I wager the rulers of this earth profit as much from our purchase of their products to entertain our children as they once profited employing our children to make their products. So, despite the social risk, I’ll double down. I am excited to have children because I have a lot of work to do, and they can help me do it.