Thursday, May 07, 2020

A Valuable Thing Children Can Learn From Their Parents Who are Working at Home

My father is a civil engineer. For most of my childhood he would leave home in the morning and return in the evening. What he did, why he did it, and who he did it with were largely mysteries to us kids who were left at home with mom. Today, it's not just dad, but mom as well who heads off to work. As we got older, we were packed off to our schools. That's the way it's supposed to work, right? Everyone in their place, surrounded by colleagues, clients, and classmates, doing our work, whatever that is. The evenings are usually too short for much social time, either within the family or with neighbors. That's what weekends are for, yet another compartment in our increasingly compartmentalized lives.

Of course, this isn't the way it's always been and, from at least one perspective, there is nothing natural about it. For most of the experience of Homo sapiens, work, family, and play were inseparable, an aspect of the human survival strategy that allowed our species to thrive. For ninety-five percent of our existence we've been evolving brains that function best in the context of communities that include the whole family, many families, young and old, work and play. And one of the results of living in these communities is what we could have called, had we the word for it, education. But we didn't need a word because what we today call education was, as John Dewey wrote, "life itself."

I hope there are a lot of kids right now who are helping their parents with their work. I hope that those working from home these days aren't just shutting themselves up in a basement office, recreating a walled off life, but are instead spending at least a part of their days working from the kitchen table. I hope that there are a lot of families who are taking the opportunity to open up their work life to their children instead of walling it off from family life. I hope that parents are finding ways to not just tolerate their children as they work, but to include them. Most kids would be thrilled: stapling, organizing, brainstorming (there are few things more eye-opening than to include children in brainstorming), tidying, preparing snacks, refilling coffee cups . . . And if there is really no way the kids can help, they can at least have their own workplace where they can, through their pretend play, process what they are learning from their parents about work.

I suppose in the big picture it's not so important for children to learn the what, why, and who of a parent's work, although there is little question that they will find it fascinating and perhaps even inspiring, but that they will all benefit from seeing, first hand, how their parents go about their work. How do they handle the ups and downs, the headaches, the failures, the stress, the angst, and the times when we feel like giving up? This stuff is too important to hide in a separate compartment. Far more valuable than anything we learn in school, is to learn these lessons in how to go about doing our work that is gratifying, but also very, very difficult. In our compartmentalized lives, we leave the development of this attitude (or not) more or less to chance. I expect in some regard this is why so many young adults find themselves casting about for what they want to do in life: they are still trying to figure out the how, having missed out on the lessons parents can teach through role modeling, both the good and the bad, were we not all spending our days apart.

Mister Rogers says it well: "As work grows out of play, an attitude toward work grows with it -- an attitude that may persist all through our workday life. That attitude can have a lot to do with how we accept challenges, how we can cope with failures, and whether we can find the inner fulfillment that makes working, in and of itself, worthwhile."


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

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