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Tuesday
Oct092012

A Child's Work

'Play is a child's work' - Jean Piget

'Play is the work of the child' - Maria Montessori

These two well-known quotes emphasize the importance of play in a child's development. Play is so important to the quality of life and learning of our children that I even dedicated a whole blog carnival to it (see PLAY! Definitive Resource on Play and Parenting to read the posts). But what happens when a child doesn't get the chance to play?

Bangladesh's Child Domestic Workers


Before I left for Bangladesh, I wrote about child marriage, noting that it would probably be the most difficult thing to see. Seeing so many young mothers was certainly hard, but I was completely unprepared for the way I would be affected by the child domestic workers.

In poor rural areas, families often struggle to be able to feed all family members. I shared pictures a few weeks ago of what the daily food might look like for children in some of these families. When they simply do not have enough to make ends meet, some families send their children away to the city to work in another family. These children, starting at around six years old, live full-time with strangers far away from their own families.

The child domestic workers clean, cook, and basically do whatever they are told to do by the family they are living with. Many of them are illiterate (don't have a chance to go to school). They are often verbally, physically and sexually abused by the families they are working for. They are often the first ones awake in the morning and the last ones to bed at night, some of them working from 6:00am to midnight. Some families even have several child domestic workers, hiring one for each of their own children, for example. The child domestic workers are isolated from the community and don't have a chance to play with other children.

In Bangladesh, there are around 400,000 child domestic workers between the ages of six and seventeen (132,000 of them are in Dhaka). Most of them are girls and because they are unskilled, uneducated children in the informal economy, they are paid very little.  When they are around 13 or 14 years old, they get called back to their rural villages where a marriage is arranged for them. Since they have no education, their earning potential is extremely limited, and their children are likely to end up in exactly the same situation.

Breaking the Cycle




One of the programs we visited in Dhaka, Bangladesh was Save the Children's Education and Youth Employment Child Domestic Worker Project. The Child Domestic Worker Project sets up small education centres in areas where a lot of children are working. They then approach families that employ child domestic workers and ask them to consider allowing the child to go to school for a couple of hours each day. They appeal to the family to "do the right thing" (and be seen to be doing the right thing) by allowing the child to get an education, but they also talk to the family about the benefits (i.e. how the child's education and training will help them to be a more productive and skilled worker).

The children pictured above are participating in art class at the education centre. The boy in the middle of the picture gave me a drawing to take home to my children.

Once a child is enrolled in the program, they get:


  • A basic education (reading, writing, math, English, etc.)

  • An opportunity to interact with other children their own age who have a similar socioeconomic background

  • An opportunity to express themselves through artistic programs

  • Training on specific skills that will help them in their job (while we were there, some of the girls were learning how to make samosas)

  • A place where they can report any abuse or other problems they are experiencing with their employer


Ultimately, this program gives these children a life line to the outside world and to a better future through education. Instead of getting married young, girls who have an education may be able to start a career or a business and have more control over their own lives.

At the moment, the Child Domestic Worker Project is working with around 8000 children in Dhaka (out of a total of 132,000 in that city alone). Donations to Save the Children Canada help fund programs like these and will help them to reach more children and give them the opportunity to see hope for a brighter future and break the cycle.

Contributing to the Family: The Positives and Negatives

In Bangladesh, almost seven million children between the ages of five and fourteen have to work to help their families survive. While some of them do work in dangerous jobs (and the government and NGOs like Save the Children are working to try to reduce that), a lot of them work in their family businesses. We visited a Grade 4 classroom and spoke to the kids who all worked in their families' embroidery, car repair, or other small local businesses. They went to school several hours per day and had dreams of being entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and teachers -- just like in any North American classroom. But they also went home after school and contributed actively to earning a living for their family.

My son will be in Grade 4 next year and seeing those kids got me thinking. We don't need him to work in order to pay the bills, but should he start working at some point?

As a child, I worked in my father's retail business. I started in elementary school, helping with inventory, dusting shelves, and cutting out competitors' advertisements from the weekend newspaper so he could do price comparisons. By the time I was eleven or so, I was being trained on the cash register to replace a cashier who was taking some time off. I later learned to balance the cash registers, close off the day, and make bank deposits. I created a new catalog system for use by cashiers and other staff. I also babysat, taught private swimming and skating lessons, took over friends' paper routes when they went on vacation, and more. When I asked people on facebook when they started working, most of them started sometime between the ages of 10 and 14. It was normal for people in my cohort to earn money and be given responsibility in late childhood or early teens.

By the time I was 16, I was skilled at juggling multiple jobs. That summer, I was lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons at a day camp from Monday to Friday, working two evenings and one weekend day at my father's store (15 to 20 hours per week), and teaching private swimming lessons in people's homes three or four times per week. Did I find time to have fun, see my friends, and go to the gym? Absolutely. I made it a priority, but recognized that I had to work it around my work responsibilities.  The type of juggling I did that summer helped prepare me for the time when I was doing my MBA while working several part-time jobs, having a leadership role in school clubs, and participating in intramural sports teams. It also helped me figure out how to balance an attached family, a full-time and more consulting job, a blog, and my own health and sanity.

There is something to be said for letting kids be kids, but as they get older, I think they need to be given increased responsibility for finding a way to balance fun with learning and work. I know some parents feel as though school is their child's work, but what happens when we graduate children from university who have never had a job and send them out into the workforce? As much as children have the right to be protected from harmful work environments (poor pay, dangerous conditions, preventing them from going to school), I think they should also have the right and responsibility to get a job and help pay their own way (once they reach a certain age -- what age, I'm not sure) .

My parents certainly helped me along the way, a lot. But I also learned to make my way in the world by working, budgeting, and saving.

Did you work as a child or teenager? Will your children be given the opportunity or responsibility to work? If so, at what age?

Last month I went to Bangladesh with Save the Children Canada. You can read more about my trip here on my blog. You can also help make more Save the Children programs like this a reality by asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to sign a global pledge to end preventable child death by signing the No Child Born to Die petition or by making a donation to Save the Children.

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Reader Comments (30)

Yes I worked since I was young, vacuuming my dad's shop, hawking at the flea market, then a paper route, then McDonald's (where I met my wife eventually). Had my first real earned dollar stolen from me. Had partners steal from me. I think it's all good and wrote a bit about it http://www.perfectingparenthood.com/content/all-how-i-made-800000-lifetime-and-15000-last-week

My children, four aged 8 and under, already have responsibilities at home and they have minor jobs already including a bottle return business. Play is quite a bit misadvertised I think. Children aren't born to play, EVERYONE IS. Children should play, and adults should play. But both should also survive, and children ought to know how to survive and how the world really works. Children can play "build a house with lego" or they can play "build a shed with daddy". We play games with our kids like trying to figure out how to buy the best groceries with a pot of money, or how to we get out of the mall to the car kids?

Protection from work because kids need to play is missing the mark a bit -- and I know you aren't advocating that. Play and work can be about the same and if children see everything as a gradient within the concept of living, then I think that's the best. Catch fun when they can and make sure they survive!

Ultimately, we all need balance in life (kids included). That means finding time and opportunity for work, learning and play. Sometimes they can be combined, but sometimes work is just work and sometimes play for the sake of play and learning for the sake of learning can be amazing.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I think I started working outside the home when I was about 14. My first job was washing medicine bottles at a pharmacy. After that I was a shampoo assistant at a hair salon. In my final year of high school I worked at a fast foot outlet. During various holidays I worked at my Mum's place of employment doing various menial office things. My family was short of money so I needed to make my own spending money. I wasn't busy with sports etc so I had the time. I think it would have been harder if I had intensive hobbies.

I will definitely encourage my children to work outside the home when they seem to be ready for it, even though we don't need it for the money.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara in NZ

I started babysitting at 11 and teaching piano lessons at 13. I participated in many extra-curriculars and socialized despite working a fair bit. I would say a lot of this depends on how hard you have to work to be successful at school. I didn't have to work that hard at school (lucky me) but my brother had to spend more time on homework/tutoring and hence didn't work as much So when the time comes for my wee one (currently 14 months) how much he works will depend on maintaining his efforts at school. I agree wholeheartedly that work teaches valuable lessons and if he wants something beyond what we are willing to provide, he'll have to work for it, but not at the expense of his academics.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPsychsarah

I definitely think it's important for kids to work in some capacity as they get into their teens (possibly earlier, depends on the situation and the job and the child), even if they don't "need" the money. It is still important to learn to manage money, and it's a good idea to have something on a resume for later when they do "need" to find permanent work. If it starts to affect grades, then it might need to be only on weekends or even only in the summers, but then some kids won't have the luxury of being able to choose.

We are also increasing responsibilities around the home and trusting them with more things as they get older, but that is not for money. It's for life skills.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

That's a fair point. School was fairly easy for me too.

I still think that summers or even a gap year before college/university present opportunities for teens to fit some work in.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I think learning to balance work and studies is an important life skill too, but how much is too much may depend on the kid.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

My husband and I have this discussion a LOT. He insists our kids need to work enough in high school to pay for most of their university, like he did. Which I'm not on board with.

To me, it's not necessarily about work for pay, but learning about responsibility and working towards goals. For instance, my room mate in University did not work during the school year. She worked harder than her classmates at her studies and earned enough scholarships to pay all of her university expenses - then went on to graduate Ontario Veterinary College with the single highest grade in her class.

I have other friends who dedicated themselves to sports, took responsibility for getting themselves to practices etc. and then got scholarships for that too.

So as long as my kids are taking on an age-appropriate level of responsibility, and are learning to work towards long-term goals, I'm happy.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKrissyFair

There is a big difference between a teen working for extra cash and a kid having to work to help support the family. The first is a good opportunity to learn some life skills while picking up some extra cash. The second is making a child take on some of the tasks of parenting, which is IMO unfair.

Of course if you're dirt poor you don't have much of a choice. My uncles all left school at 13 to work because my grandparents couldn't support their 12 children with just their farm. But somehow or other we managed to change Canadian society - it's no longer normal to pull your kids out of grade school to work in a logging camp. Why can't that happen for Bangladesh?

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristinMH

I do think there something you learn from having a boss and/or customers that you don't learn from applying yourself to your studies though. That isn't to say that studying and sports are not valuable experiences, I just think having part-time jobs as a teenager prepares people for the types of challenges they'll face in the working world and gives them an opportunity to screw up (I know I did several times!) without it jeopardizing their career. I learned a lot about dealing with difficult bosses and colleagues and about managing staff at jobs that I had as a teenager. They really helped me to refine my approach and made me a much more valuable employee once I did start working full time.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

KristinMH:

It can happen in Bangladesh, but it has to happen gradually like it did here. If NGOs or the government were to go in and pull those children out of their jobs right now, they would either starve to death, end up begging on the street, or end up being a human trafficking/sex trade victim.

By giving these children an education, they will have a better future and their children will have a better future. Perhaps instead of sending their kids away to work for strangers (as their parents did with them), they'll be able to open their own embroidery business and have their kids help out in the family business. In turn those kids may not need to work as much and may be able to go on to higher education. And so on.

The change happens gradually over generations by improving conditions for children.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I agree that it would be beneficial for teens to work more, even if (and perhaps especially if) they don't need to. This goes hand in hand with money management skills which my parents didn't really ever give me the chance to develop as a teenager. I wish they had. I had a job one summer and occasionally babysat, but that was about it. Instead they gave me money as I needed it, but I never really got to manage it, learn what it takes to earn even a little money, to save for something I wanted, or to learn that I couldn't go to the movies because I had spent my money on something else that week. I don't think working a lot is necessary, but doing even 5-10 hours a week would benefit a lot of teens I think.

One problem I see is that, at least here in New York, there aren't so many options for high school kids to get a real job. I have thought about this and aside from babysitting I just don't really know what types of jobs they would be able to get. We have started an allowance for my 3.5 year old. Most of it goes into savings, but she has some that she can use toward a snack or a book or stickers. She's still a bit young to understand how it works, but I hope this will be the start of a much more healthy understanding of money than I had.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I should mention as well that another aspect of this, in Bangladesh and previously in Canada, is family planning. Having 12 children is unaffordable for most families in most parts of the world, but with better access to birth control (which we have in Canada and which is being rolled out as part of the http://www.phdinparenting.com/2012/09/26/getting-results-for-maternal-and-child-health-in-bangladesh-through-community-empowerment/" rel="nofollow">maternal and child health programs that I visited in Bangladesh), women can have more control over how many mouths they have to feed.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Why aren't there options for teenagers to get a job in New York? Are there laws that restrict it? Or is it because of the economy (i.e. they have no trouble finding adults to work for minimum wage)?

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Many of the jobs that might be taken by teens in suburban areas like working in a grocery store or restaurant are done by undocumented workers, probably for well below minimum wage, or adults without a college education who are doing those types of jobs long term. There are also so many college students, artists, and actors that the coffee shop type jobs or tutoring gigs are taken by them. You just don't see middle class teens working. My husband teaches at a community college and I always feel horrible when I hear about the stories about what his students do to get by. There may also be laws that make it tricky, I don't know though.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I'm with you, if I CAN pay for my children's education, I will. I look at it as supporting my children until they are able to support themselves (which these days, they are going to need some sort of post-secondary education to be able to do). That doesn't mean they won't be expected to work in some capacity. But I'm not even sure it's possible to pay for post-secondary just with high school job savings anymore (without scholarships or loans too), so if parents can contribute, I don't get why they wouldn't. I'd prefer if my kids were debt-free going into their first career jobs, so they will be able to use all their income to get established and become independent and maybe even save some money.

But I'm a bit biased because my parents did pay my tuition/housing for my first degree. I value my education and what they did, I worked hard on my studies, I worked in the summers/sometimes during school, worked after graduation, eventually took out loans for a post-grad program and my first car (and paid those off myself), got a career job, moved out...and they haven't supported me financially for a very, very long time. So I don't buy the usual stereotype of kids not appreciating education if their parents pay, or that if your parents are still financially supporting you at the ripe old age of 17 you are doomed to be a slacker forever.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I babysat regularly from age eleven and began formal part-time work at 14. I've never been without work since. I think the idea that work responsibility is expected is helpful and I agree that many skills are learned, especially about balancing priorities and managing money. My kids both began babysitting by age twelve. Our daughter worked part-time through the school year from 15 and full time in the summer as well. Our son did not work during the school year because he was young, played competitive soccer, and had exceptional learning needs. He did, however, work during the summers and also did some volunteer and placement work. Just the other day, at a placement at a gym he was asked to launder towels and the manager stopped and said, "wait, have you ever done laundry?" He's been doing his own laundry since grade seven. But apparently lots of young trainers come in at twenty and have never even done the wash...

But my heart breaks for the kids in Bangladesh who HAVE to work to support their families. That's another whole thing all together.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTweepwife

I babysat starting at 12, sharing and inheriting jobs from my older sisters, then worked at a pizza place once I was 16.

I don't know when my oldest will get to babysit - not because I won't let her, but because all the parents in my area say they want adults for the job. They say they don't trust teens to do the job. While she's still a little young for babysitting jobs now, that time is coming. I'd like her to be earning some of her own money by age 12, but we'll have to see what we come up with.

As for college, I'd love to be able to help, but I also want my kids paying attention to scholarship opportunities. They'll probably have to work for some of their money too. We'll just see how finances and college costs are going then.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I have often wondered/worried about this issue. My husband and I both grew up in single parent families in which our mums struggled to make ends meet. I went to work with mum on a saturday and helped out at a pharmacy when I was in primary school then later did baby sitting and worked at a donut shop in high school. The value of hard work really contributes to defining who I am - Mum was an amazing role model, I really admire her for raising us and keeping a roof over our heads on her own (while also being a politically active feminist, involved in our school life ...).
Our daughter will probably not be in our situation of having to work to contribute to the household and her own expenses as a child. But nonetheless I think I want her to get a job so she grows up sharing our values and with a sense of independence, self-reliance and responsibility rather than entitlement . (Oh dear I sound reactionary, I'll be saying "back in my day" any minute now :) And very privileged - what a middle class problem to have!)
On the other hand, i also think the ideals of independence and self-reliance are problematic because of the gendered way paid work is valued over unpaid caring or voluntary work. So it's important to model valuing other ways of making a contribution as well.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCate

Some really good points Cate, especially in your last sentences.

and you kids get off my lawn!

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara in NZ

And I do think that the skills you get from typical part time jobs are valuable, I just don't think they're necessary for everyone. I want my kids to learn to identify what they want in life and how best to achieve it, and to take the initiative to work towards that goal. Some goals are best served by juggling many activities at once, others might need a singular focus on, for instance, academics.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is I will expect my kids to apply themselves to activities that have value, but whether that activity takes the form of a traditional job where they do set tasks for remuneration is not so much my focus.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKrissyFair

I worked as a teenager; I babysat, tutored, and taught a craft class for small children at my synagogue. It certainly taught me responsibility with money.
If I don't encourage my kids to work, it won't be because I want to let them be kids - it will be because they are doing unpaid things that will develop their skills and personalities more than paid work. I'd rather my kid be on the student council or school newspaper than be babysitting - those things are more likely to give him leadership skills that will help him in the future. Certainly my brother who's making big bucks in business did much less paid work in high school than I did - he was busy with various unpaid leadership roles in school and youth groups.
I think it's unfortunate, also, that many corporate jobs look more favorably at experience in unpaid internships than they do at paid work - it gives people with more family money an unfair leg up - but given that reality, I certainly wouldn't insist on a child of mine doing paid work to the exclusion of unpaid opportunities.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

The children in your photographs are so beautiful! What an amazing program, I am heartened by its existence.

Yes, I always worked. I had a once a week paper route in elementary school, jobs helping out around the neighborhood. I made our family dinner many nights in high school.

But that's all disappearing. So many kids are told "your only job is to do well in school." It's so depressing.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah P. / Julia's Child

I grew up in NYC and tried to find a job while in high school. No one wanted to hire a teenager. There are just so many adults that can do the job that I guess it wasn't worth their time. There are also age requirements for certain things unless you're getting paid cash. The only work I could have done was fast food, and I didn't want to do that. I did work as a camp counselor when I was 17 as my first job.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

[...] it’s not just in Afghanistan. Or in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, as Annie Urban, who writes the blog PhDinParenting, wrote about the cycle of poverty and abuse (as well as how you can help)–particularly for [...]

I didn't have a proper "job" until I was 19. However, I did a lot of informal work starting at age 12. Things like babysitting, tutoring and so on. As well, I did a lot of volunteer work as a teenager. I was a candy striper, for instance, and I was actively involved with the Girl Guides, often mentoring less experienced adult leaders.

With my own children I'm not in a big rush for them to take on paid work. However, as they get older I do give them more and more family responsibilities. I don't pay them for these. I feel like as a family we all have to do our part as we're able. My seven-year-old gets an allowance, but it's separated from chores. I want her to learn how to do basic domestic tasks, and I want her to have a sense that she's contributing to our household.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

[...] the world with appropriate types of hard work for children both abroad and in developed countries. (PhD in Parenting) Share | var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true}; Cancel [...]

I always think that work and children come back to the "how" of it, rather than the "what" of it.

Personally, I am a bit ambivalent when it comes to jobs. On the one hand, I think that experiencing being a productive member of society is really important, but, on the other hand, I have seen some real situations of "jobs gone wrong." For example, having the expectation that a child pay their way through university with little to no guidance or assistance (or lead up) can translate into a guarantee that a child won't attend university, as the job becomes a power struggle. A well supported child who is in full agreement with this arrangement can find paying their way empowering... but there isn't a one way fits all.

Another thing that concerns me about teens and jobs, is the lack of overhead. A teen pays no rent, has no real bills, and, so, can get in a situation of living far beyond their actual means... A teenager who earns $400.00+ a month can live pretty high on the hog, and can become very accustomed to a lifestyle that rent/tuition/food etc. no longer allow for, once they are living on their own. So, that is one aspect of teenage jobs that I really need to wrap my head around before my own kids become teenagers. I do not want them to fall prey to a lifestyle that they cannot maintain out from under my roof.

A third issue was a study I read years ago... regarding the impact of a teenager owning a vehicle on later life capital. The study controlled for socioeconomic factors, and found a major detriment to university attendance was owning a vehicle in one's teenage years - but a bigger correlation was when the teen bought and paid all expenses from having their own job. Researchers speculated that teens didn't want to give up their acquisitions for the expense of a degree... Anyway, that was years ago, I don't know whether it was followed up, but it kind of put me to thinking...

What I do think is crucial about a job, is interacting in a social situation with non-teacher and non-parent superiors. Learning about expectations and the consequences of a) doing a good job and b) not doing a good job. That these things are somewhat universals not just nattered on about by parents... I think that having a job leads to aspects of self suficiency, and I do think that it is important to normalize the paid interactions (negotiations for wage etc.) that only come up in the context of a job. I also think that having a job often helps teens see why they eventually need to go to university - the people in the positions with the upward mobility that most people appreciate all typically have some level of post secondary - especially if those teens can avoid the accumulation of stuff.

October 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

[...] Probably, none of them could have learned to read or write in their home villages, and they would have grown up to earn very little, live anxiously and lose children to preventable diseases or child labour. [...]

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaking Someone Else’s Lu

Save the Children Canada has a survey up now on children and work: http://www.savethechildren.ca/survey_children-and-work

If you commented on this post, would you take a moment to share your opinions and experiences with them in the survey? Thank you!

November 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

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