The value of work

Published by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 01:17 PM

A visiting teacher is standing in our preschool classroom, surrounded by three-, four-, and five-year-olds who are busily working and playing.

There are children in every part of the room doing every type of activity — reading, writing, drawing, painting, building, singing, dancing, playing house, putting on a puppet show.

Her: How much time are the children required to spend working on their project?

Me: None.

Her: So, they are required to do anything?!

Me: No.

Her: They why do they do it?!

Now, I understand what she was saying, but I still find it a little depressing. So, two ideas:

Work is enjoyable.

Healthy, happy people seek meaningful work.

Do you agree with these statements? Do you believe them for adults? Do you believe them for children?

Do you believe them for yourself?

In my experience, young children eagerly seek out meaningful work, and once they have the opportunity, they apply themselves to it joyfully.

The word “work” can have negative connotations — for grown-ups and children who associate it with “something I don’t want to do”. Play and leisure become identified with “things I want to do”. A child can be taught that “work” is something that he has to do, whether he wants to do it or not. And he can remember that lesson forever.

Many teachers — and administrators, and parents — beileve that children must be coerced to do work. They can’t believe that children would choose to work when other choices are available.

The other day we asked the question, Can you teach an autodidact without being an autodidact? Can we foster values in our children that we don’t actively live ourselves?

That teacher recognized something happening in our classroom that she wanted for her own students. But she was held back by her beliefs — her belief that work is a negative thing, and her further belief that children would never purposefully choose to work when they didn’t have to.

Can we help our children find the joy in meaningful work if we haven’t found it ourselves?

I believe children have the right to meaningful work as well as play, that there is joy to be derived from each, and that they are not mutually exclusive. I know that children don’t have to be coerced to work, but a school or family culture that celebrates work is more likely to introduce them to its pleasures. And once they have experienced it, they will seek it out on their own.

Once a child is on a path in which work brings as much joy as play, and the two mingle freely, I believe they are on the path toward a happy adult life. Not a life without problems, without mistakes, without strife, but a life rich with possibility. To give them that life, we may need to change our beliefs — we need to believe in what is possible in order to show it to them.


See also: The Work/Fun Conundrum


Comment by Deirdre on December 11, 2008 at 03:05 PM

I'm sure you already have this one, but this is what came to mind:
"Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play." Heraclitus

How do you define the difference between work and play? I suppose there is a more vested interest (perhaps) in the outcome with work vs play. But then I think of my sons playing Uno and I don't think so.

I think Heraclitus was really referring to flow...have you read any of what's his unpronouncable's name? I believe one book is titled "Flow" and about creativity, and how we hit a zone, in both work and play, when we are fully engaged and time seems to cease to exist.

Now I've just depressed myself because I know for my son time most certainly does NOT cease when he goes to school...

Comment by Amy on December 11, 2008 at 03:08 PM

I do agree with those bolded statements. They're part of the reason I have such a hard time working for other people. I seek the meaningful in my work and have absolutely no patience for busy work or for those who value hours logged versus accomplishment--and I don't mean personal accomplishment (or accomplishment for personal gain) but accomplishment within the work. Now that my work is here at home--children, house, etc--I do try to be mindful of how I approach it. Am I treating cooking dinner like drudgery? (Sometimes, I admit, I do.) Or am I enjoying creating a healthy meal for my family--which is often the case, not so much with a new baby, but that will pass! I also treat my interests with the same respect. Some may call knitting a hobby, and it is, I suppose, but if I approach it with interest in learning, respect for my materials and books, and dedication to carving out time to do it (again, not so much with a new baby), that sets an example, I think. I can't remember if I got a chance to comment yesterday, but I taught myself how to knit (and how to sew) because I wanted to learn, and as a mom with young kids, classes aren't really an option. I am self-taught on lots of things. I figure if I want to do something badly enough, I will figure it out.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on December 11, 2008 at 03:40 PM

I think this post raises some really interesting questions - especially about the "typical" classroom environment and the cycle of work/fun that is instilled - that work is not fun and fun is not work. And if a teacher tries out the idea of leaving the classroom environment open for self directed work, he/she would quickly be shut down by the administration before the idea had a chance to take hold and grow. It takes time to move out of a "work isn't fun" mindset and into one that sees the value and the joy in the task at hand. The breaking in period - where kids aren't working on their own volition yet - would be too long for the school to stick with it and make it happen. And yet many teachers would love an environment that fostered an independent work ethic. So how is the cycle broken? How do schools and parents stop training kids to believe that work is something you're told to do and have to do? How do we train ourselves?

I found that after I was no longer working at a job, that I went through a period when I didn't want to do much, but then I got into a rhythm of being productive because I wanted to be. I started taking pictures again that people would pay me for. I make things. Sometimes I even do the laundry and the dishes or *gasp* mop the floors. And as I think about that, I realize that too often my message to the kids is that nobody likes to do things like housework - we do them because we have to. And that's not the right message at all. We do them because we want to live in a pleasant and clean environment, and we should honor the tasks that bring us the environment we want.

I could go on and on and on (and already did) but I'll sit here and ponder this one for a while. It's so pertinent to what is happening right now in our home. Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 03:57 PM

deirdre, re: the difference between work and play, i would say that in work we are trying to achieve a particular result, and in play we are doing an activity for pure enjoyment. obviously, there is an overlap between the two -- what csíkszentmihályi is talking about in his work on flow. (and i have written about it before! ;^)

“It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.” -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 04:01 PM

amy, the angle on hobbies is very interesting .. because that is an area in life in which we are really making our own choices and in which we are probably doing a lot of teaching ourselves. even if we do take a class, it is something we are choosing, that we don’t *have* to do, and we will progress only as much as we apply ourselves.

for a lot of people, hobbies are probably where play and work intersect for them.

Comment by Annika on December 11, 2008 at 04:03 PM

I think a large part of the trouble is that as adults our jobs are the only thing we call work. Everything else is a hobby - in other words, play. What nonsense! Knitting (for example) isn't my hobby. It is work that I enjoy! I vote that we stop referring to our jobs as work unless we are referring to the work we do at those jobs (and then preferably only if we enjoy it or at least feel satisfied by doing it). So no more "going to work." It makes so much more sense to say "going to my job." I have spoken.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 04:14 PM

sarah, re: breaking the cycle, i *do* believe it can be done with older children, but then .. it would be so much easier if children started school that way. when students at my school progressed from preschool to kindergarten to elementary, it was a seamless transition. the same values, the same goals, a unified message. no retraining necessary.

even in Reggio Emilia, students leave the incredible world-renowned preprimary programs and go to “regular” schools.

children *can* be retaught; teachers and administrators *can* be reprogrammed; as a society, we *can* change our priorities.

but it’s not so much a matter of *teaching* kids that work can be fun. you can’t *teach* these things. it is more a matter of getting schools to acknowledge universally known truths — then get out of the way and allow children to have access to them.

who hasn’t had the experience of hearing, at school or at work, about a new project and thinking — hey! hey!! that actually sounds .. fun! — and then .. being terribly disappointed when it turns out that, rather than getting to do that fun-sounding thing in the way you had imagined, it was going to be done in such a (school- or work-) type way as to suck all the fun out of it.

How do we train ourselves? That’s what I wonder. Again, it is simply a truth. But if we are convinced that work, to be work, must be dull drudgery forced on us by someone else, measured and quantified and judged by others, then .. how do we push that away and accept a different truth? So we can share it with our children?

you are so right about the housework. i am so tired of hearing people say, “kids need to learn to do ‘real’ work — things they don’t enjoy — because that’s real life.” mopping the floor may not be super-fun but it is a single task that is part of a larger whole — making the home you want. should children learn that work can be tedious and they should just buckle down and do it anyway? or should they learn that *meaningful, enjoyable work* is comprised of many smaller steps, some of which are tedious? we need to examine our beliefs and figure out where we are making things unnecessarily negative. even tedious tasks can give a warm glow of accomplishment. *especially when they are freely chosen.*

thank you all for your great comments!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 04:21 PM

annika, i told this story the other day in a different set of comments, but i think you’ll appreciate it:

when my first son was around five, my mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. he said he wasn’t going to have a job. my mother pointed out that he would need to work to make money to live. he said, incredulously, “i’m going to *work*! i’m just not going to have a *job*!”

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 04:46 PM

after thinking about this in the shower, i have to come back and put in a good word for the j-o-b.

some people have jobs they love, jobs in which they can do their real work. so “job” really shouldn’t, and can’t, become the receptable for all our negative feelings about employment.

all of our children who are on that achievement conveyor belt, the one that goes from the montessori preschool all the way to the ivy league .. what message are we giving them? as parents and as a society, when we prioritize achievement, when we have them compete in sports and science fairs, when we cheer them on and want them to *win*, what message are we sending?

are we saying, i want you to live your most authentic, meaningful life. i want you to find your life work, the work that will give you joy?

and if we aren’t saying that, why not? and what are we saying instead?

Comment by Sarah Jackson on December 11, 2008 at 05:04 PM

I agree that a job can be someone's real work - my husband has one of those jobs. I've had one before. When you are passionate about the job you do, then the tedious parts have a point.

And I'm right with you on the idea that we *can* change on how we approach work. My frustration is that the desire to achieve and to have measurable accomplishments for children (the same measurable accomplishments for every child) in the classroom puts a huge roadblock in front of change. Having any period of time where achievement isn't measurable is unacceptable to most school administrations, and unfortunately, to parents. It takes will to make change, and I don't think the will is there in most school environments, including the one my children are in.

Comment by Roy Scribner on December 11, 2008 at 05:25 PM

My girls are so different, when it comes to homework. We have to stop our 7-year old, or she will knock-out the entire week's homework on Monday. Our 8-year old, though, has to be prodded (and prodded, and prodded!) to get the day's assignment done.

Comment by Annika on December 11, 2008 at 05:51 PM

I totally agree with you - and I did not mean that "job" should necessarily be a negative word, only that it should be used to describe the place we go during the day rather than "work." Positive OR negative associations. (Though I do think it's negative for more people. Maybe we should also be examining why people spend so much of their lives at jobs they hate. I once wrote about this, actually. I will try to find the posts.)

Comment by Annika on December 11, 2008 at 05:55 PM

I had to go back to 2003. Heh. Not everything I said is relevant to this discussion or to my life now, but I cover the whole work vs. job thing.

Comment by Deirdre on December 11, 2008 at 06:09 PM

I love this whole discussion. It is the dialogue going on within me the past couple of years, as I re-evaluate what I want to do when I "grow up." I loved teaching high school English, and have to say it felt a great deal like play, and older students often talked about the "painful joy" of re-writing, of editing---but they found it joyful only when it was given meaning, when it was actually meant for publication (why else would anyone rewrite anything?). Despite good intentions, schools often take away the very meaning of a task and therefore make it into a chore.

I love "Flow", despite never being able to remember Csikszentmihalyi's name, and I suppose that is precisely what I want for my children, whether it be in work or play---that vital sense of being alive, fully engaged.

On a side note, my youngest brother is about to graduate from UI Champaign, and is extremely depressed about leaving what he has perceived as four years of play (not because of partying but because he loves learning) to begin what he perceives as a life of drudgery...of Willy Loman style work. I'm going to link him to this post because we've been having several conversations about how to crave out a life in which work and play overlap.

I'm rambling but one more note. A perpetual procrastinator, I read a great book last year called The Now Habit, and it talked about how we take work/play that we love and turn it into a chore--so that it becomes something we avoid even though, in truth, we really do want to do it. I see that happen so often in adults---whether it be exercise, knitting, writing, etc., we can get into a mind pattern that sucks the fun out of the things we love.

I am never going to love cleaning my bathroom floor...not with three sons, but I did appreciate the application of these ideas to work of home-making.

Comment by Sarah Bray on December 11, 2008 at 06:11 PM

Excellent post - just twittered it @sarahjbray. This is something I struggle with ALL the time. I have no problem with work that I love. It's the work that I don't love that I need to discover the joy in. For myself AND my kids.

Comment by Stacey on December 11, 2008 at 08:15 PM

I really liked this post. I always look at what you write with the lens of the young child. With this one I see how just letting A pick up and do things rather than having canned activities has much more relevance and is more engaging for him. As it is the holiday season right now there is lots of making going on in the house, in turn A has started his own making either mirroring what we are doing or creating his own projects with the supplies at hand. He looks at what is around him and wants to join in, not just to be with us but to have as much purpose as us.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 08:45 PM

sarah, i think you hit on it exactly when you said “the *same* measurable accomplishments for every child” -- how can one definition of success possibly fit every child, every person?

you are so right that allowing children to do authentic work means getting away from measuring .. and unfortunately, i agree with you that parents don’t find that any more acceptable than school administrators. everyone has something to prove -- administrators to the government, the government to society, parents to their community. true success is very *personal* and doesn’t necessarily look like much to someone else. sometimes it seems we would rather impress the neighbors than seek genuine fulfillment.

i think, though, that if children were brought up *knowing* what it was to do meaningful work, they would continue to seek it out as they grew into adults. the problem is how to convince society to give them that kind of education.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 08:53 PM

annika, ah, i understand now .. and i agree with what you were saying originally -- that we need to make sure we apply the “work” label to those other non-job pursuits, like cooking, knitting, art, stamp collecting, woodworking, whatever it is we do for pleasure that is also our _work_. and that is an excellent point -- it seems to me it would help change the meaning of the work for our children.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 08:59 PM

deirdre, i can never remember how to spell csikszentmihalyi either. ;^) i always think it starts cz...

re: your brother .. he sounds like my husband. it’s not that he doesn’t like work, but he is addicted to learning. any j-o-b, once you master it, doesn’t fulfill that intense desire to keep learning something new. my husband has managed to find jobs that allowed him to tackle a large number of new and different challenges, but eventually he found self-employment was necessary -- he is the only boss he’s ever had who understand just how much he needs to always be learning something new. :^)

“the now habit” sounds really interesting -- i’m going to check it out at the library!

Comment by Kat on December 11, 2008 at 09:11 PM

This reminds me of W.S. Coperthwaite: "Compulsion and education are antithetical". He calls teaching at it is usually defined nothing short of "violence". And then he immediately ties that in with family life and meaningful work and bread labor. (A Handmade Life). All the elements need to fit the individual child, but within a community (a school, a family) that is tuned in to meaningful work and usefulness, fitting is easier.
So much to think about, to do, the *change*...

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 09:33 PM

thank you, sarah!

stacey -- “not just to be with us but to have as much purpose as us” -- beautiful!

i always look at everything through the lens of the young child as well .. then i turn it around and look at the adult. and i wonder if ideas work for children if they don’t work for adults, and whether we can ever improve things for ourselves if we don’t get busy improving them for kids.

Comment by Kat on December 11, 2008 at 09:39 PM

I say to Amie: "I'm going to work (here, at home), Baba's going to work (at the university) and you're going to work (at preschool)". No negative connotations at all. It's all learning, and meaningful, and enjoyed, and useful. We're "working at it," at life, at becoming a better person in many different ways.

So far.

I realize that the problem you are addressing applies to children at many schools. Once Amie moves from her "open" Montessori to the public Kindergarten, or maybe First Grade, will "work" take on that aspect of drudgery or coercion, or violence? But I hope that by our own example - we love our work - she may, from her side at least, fight that simply by her opene attitude. I know many who have gone to public school and loved every aspect of it, even the classes taught by the "drudges". Then of course there's me...

It's a tough one...

PS do always say "don't make that dirty because you know Mama doesn't like cleaning!" But I never call cleaning "work"... Ha! (?)

Comment by brynn on December 11, 2008 at 09:51 PM

I don't have time to read all the comments, but I will. This is interesting! Mary Poppins comes to mind. I love Mary Poppins! "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun! You find the fun and snap! The jobs a game." If it were only that simple. But it is. Really I think what we humans love is a good challenge. If we can find a challenge while sweeping, for instance, then it becomes more than work. This is the art of living, really. I think equally important is that we model the satisfaction of doing things that we may not want to do. Again, these are simple but very spiritually rich ideas.

Meaningful work is in short supply for our children, especially in school. In our forest school we are constructing a wall to serve as a wind barrier. The kids are so fired up about doing hard, hard labor. We cant' sit for a minute without being called back, "Let's get to work!", by the children! It is lovely that they get to create something that meets an authentic need, not only a wall, but a community of people that work together.

On another note, I think I found something to run with. I have been so intent on thinking about topics that I failed to give attention to what my son is doing all the time: building. He builds everywhere we go. I haven't said a word, but I did get two books at the library: How to Build a House and another on types of houses across the world. I put them on his bed during quiet time and he came out to tell me how interesting the books are. Big smile for mommy!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 09:52 PM

kat, wonderful quote! thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 10:05 PM

kat, i think that’s awesome, but yes, perhaps it will change when she goes to real school. (we’ll hope not!)

lol re: not calling cleaning work. ;^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 10:10 PM

brynn, that’s wonderful! there is another camp creek reader who has started a project on buildings -- i wanted to share a provocation we did for children who were building in the block area at my school. i’ll put it up tomorrow!

very soon i am going to do a round-up of the different people who have started projects; we need to support each other!

also -- i’m afraid that i agree with you that meaningful work is in short supply in our schools .. but it *is* possible. your children have it. the children at my private school had it. knowing it is *possible* makes it much harder to dismiss.

Comment by Ahavah on December 11, 2008 at 10:23 PM

I love your points in this. I try not to differentiate between work and play, which is part of why I chose unschooling with my kids. I also think word choice is especially important with young ones. FlyLady taught me that cleaning shouldn't be used as punishment, and instead of 'cleaning our house' we 'bless our house'. I only give my girls 'homework' because it makes them feel like bigger girls to have actual school work. Basically, nothing about life should be a *chore*. For kids, it can all be a happy adventure.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 12, 2008 at 12:12 AM

thank you, ahavah. :^) the flylady example of redefining terms to help change your mindset is a good one.

i would reiterate, though .. i do differentiate between work and play. the two can overlap, they can coexist, but i think it is important to teach children the value of meaningful work in addition to play.

i agree that regular schooling and many types of homeschooling separate work and play unnecessarily .. work is done at your desk, and play happens .. at recess? (for children that still get recess...) in P.E.? (for the athletic...)

Comment by amy k. on December 12, 2008 at 08:57 PM

great topic. I love this blog very much. thank you.

Comment by Dawn on December 13, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Wow! So much food for thought!
I am going to forward this whole discussion on to my husband. With our move to a new country not only did he change his job but becuase they do things so different here it changed the nature of his work - which he loved so much before and is now having a hard time with...

I need more time to process it all... and how it all applies to our kids.
Thanks so much for such a wonderful discussion!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 13, 2008 at 02:39 PM

thank you, amy!!

dawn, i’m glad it gave you some good food for thought! enjoy digesting! ;^)

Comment by silvermine on December 24, 2008 at 12:43 AM

That is so sad. To believe that children will not make a puppet show or sing or write without being coerced? Ugh! Even my son who really doesn't like writing, will find a reason to write every once in a while. Even if it is just to name the ships he draws or the characters he creates on his favorite video game.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 25, 2008 at 03:46 AM

i think writing because it is useful is quite enough, don’t you? :^)

Post new comment