Child Labor

December 2009

Last week, on Thanksgiving Day, I went outside to take my six-year-old grandson on a scavenger hunt. His dad had him raking a modest pile of leaves that needed to be deposited into a compost pile about twenty feet away.

“Why do I have to do this?” Nate asked his dad.

“Because I need your help,” said his dad.

He picked up a handful of leaves and placed them in a nearby child’s wagon used for hauling leaves to the compost.

“All done,” said Nate.

“Not quite,” said his dad. “You have to pick up all the leaves in the pile.”

“All of them?” asked Nate as if the pile were a mountain.


“I have a great idea!” exclaimed Nate as he tried to distract his dad. “Let’s rake up a big pile of leaves for me to jump into!”


Nate had spent several hours jumping into leaves a few weeks earlier.

Although I found the exchange between my son and my grandson to be humorous, I thought it best to disappear until the chore was completed. As I walked around the block with my two-year-old granddaughter, I pondered similar experiences with my sons.

One Thanksgiving Day many years ago, when my boys were in middle school and high school, I assigned one the chore of peeling potatoes, and the other the job of fixing green beans. As we worked together in the kitchen we listened to a local radio show entitled “Music for Turkeys to Cook By.” During the show the DJ played the full version of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. We talked, listened, and sang. My husband, who avoids food prep as much as possible, but pitches in mightily when it’s time to clean up, joined us. We had such fun that it turned into a tradition of cooking Thanksgiving dinner together.

I’m a strong believer in child labor — not the kind where children were made to work long grueling hours for meager wages — but their participation in helping to keep a house in order. When children help with household chores they experience the feeling of giving back, of participating in the success of their community, of being needed, and an appreciation for work that is done by others.

After Nate had picked up all the leaves, he and I went on the scavenger hunt — finding Thanksgiving related items in the neighborhood. For two hours we walked, observed, played football with other families we found at a nearby playground, and met, for the first time, neighbors who were thrilled to help us find some of the items on our list. It was one of the best parts of Thanksgiving, and I hope it becomes another holiday tradition.