Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Child Development and Work

Last weekend, while I was visiting my parents for the holidays, my cousin and his wife and three boys came to visit us. The oldest is six. Like me, and his father, he is smart, and likes playing with Legos and reading books, but is not extraordinarily brilliant.

Over the holidays, I had restored two old cast iron machines, a food chopper and a meat grinder, from my grandmother's basement. I cleaned off some rust, disassembled them, cleaned off more rust, and then coated them in canola oil, until they could easily be assembled and disassembled by hand.

Somehow this came up in conversation, and my dad asked me to bring the machines out to show them. While they were out, I realized that they might be a fun thing for the six-year-old, my first cousin once removed, to play with.

I asked the boy, who was looking through some books, "Hey W__, would you like to put together a real machine?" His eyes lit up with excitement and he jumped up and followed me out to the shed, where we had been talking.

Each machine is six pieces when disassembled, although their construction is slightly different. I assembled the meat grinder while he watched, and then pointed him to the pieces of the food chopper. It was the case, feed screw, crank, chopper, and two assembly screws. He had it assembled in less then two minutes.

Then, of course, he wanted to chop something. I found a patch of green weeds for him to feed into it.  Then he started turning the crank, and the chopper worked well, producing something like coleslaw.

Then he started grabbing handfuls of grass and weeds to chop. I told him how to use the thing safely, never putting his hand near the feeder while the crank was turning, and let him keep going while I talked with family nearby.

When I went inside to get the camera to take pictures, and tell everyone what was going on, my mom commented "Maybe we should have set him up near the compost pile." He was still going when I went outside, so we picked up and moved the table the chopper was attached to. Then we tossed the chopped weeds into the compost pile and I used the pitchfork to go through the pile for fruits and vegetables to chop. 

Pretty soon I had a pile of banana peels, apple cores, avocado husks, pomegranate pith, lettuce and cabbage stalks, pepper cores, a corn cob, and a few rotting tomatoes on the table. He started to chop this pile up, industriously and methodically. He just kept going and going. He never got bored or tired or frustrated with the task.

It was hard work at times. Sometimes he had to use his whole body to move the handle. He would lean over it and use his weight to press it down, and then use his legs to lift it up, like a weightlifter doing squats. When even that did not work, because he had fed in too much at once, he reversed the handle, cleared some of the stuff out, and kept going. He had the attitude that he could handle this job, and that he would do whatever it took to do it right.

It was an incredible display of what I would call 'work ethic' if he was not having so much fun. He was clearly in a flow state. He did not stop until he had turned every fruit and vegetable in the compost pile into chunky salsa, and he was clearly disappointed when there was no more work to do.

He had done quite a bit of useful work. The compost pile will be much better as a result of the chopping. The task was physically strenuous and mentally challenging. Under minimal supervision and with relatively minor positive feedback, he had assembled a machine and dedicated himself to using it to do challenging and productive work. And when he was done, he disassembled the machine and helped me clean it.

The human brain is clearly wired for children to do things like this. If he lived in a primitive society, he would already be an economically productive member of the family or tribe. Much of his life would resemble this fun vacation. He would be surrounded by relatives, learning useful skills from them, and making them proud by applying those skills. He would have a measure of independence, and the pride that comes from doing useful things to the world.

Under the rules and structure of our modern society, he will have to sit through 12 years of schooling before he is considered capable of doing any kind of useful work. In order to live a decent life, he will require six more years of schooling. Even if he is a good student like I and his father were, he will hate much of this, or be bored by it. He will be constrained and powerless and isolated from his family for much of his childhood. In order to keep him happy, his parents will have to spend money on things that replicate the experience of learning in this fashion.

I am not nostalgic for any time in history. Life before rule of law, democracy, and property rights, and the technology and infrastructure that came from them, was nasty, brutish, and short. But that life, and not modern life, is what our brains are wired to function in. The more I learn about how the human brain functions, the more I realize just how bizarre and alien our modern world is, and what it costs us to live in it.

There have to be better ways of educating our children and organizing society, ones that maintain the benefits of our modern world while being more suited to the natural functioning of our brains. I do not know what they are, but I do know that, if things go well, our descendants will see our current society as   twisted and perverse. 

I suspect that, in this society, people will start working at a much younger age, and life will be a combination of work and education. "Child labor" had a horrible connotation nowadays, because of its history in the industrial age*, but I can guarantee that my little cousin enjoyed doing that labor far more than he will enjoy most of his time in school. If our work lives were structured the right way, and if people had the right attitude about things, then children of as young as eight could spend a couple hours a day working, doing useful things for real money. This would most likely be better for their development as human beings than the contrived and artificial development environment that they currently experience.

*I suspect that time working in a textile factory is no worse than time spent in some of our public schools, but that is a different topic.

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