Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Your Poverty Makes Me Uncomfortable"

Alarming News quotes a disturbing question posed to the "Ethicist" column of the New York Times (registration required). I have to quote this in full:
A woman I hired to do simple gardening comes weekly and, when school is out, brings her kids. While her twin preschoolers play in the shade, her approximately 9-year-old daughter works alongside her. I am uncomfortable watching my 8- and 11-year-old boys kicking a soccer ball as the girl walks past pushing a wheelbarrow. Should I ask the mother to keep her daughter from working? Should I not employ this woman? — JANE E., ALBUQUERQUE

You are rightly dismayed by this situation, but you’ve phrased the question curiously, emphasizing your discomfort rather than a child’s well-being. If you are concerned about the daughter, as you admirably seem to be, you ought not make her life harder, which firing her mother would certainly do. And rather than insist that the mother make the daughter drop that wheelbarrow, you might encourage your sons to invite the daughter to play soccer with them. Her mother will likely be relieved: having a 9-year-old “help out” all but guarantees the task will take longer.
It would be commendable if you could proffer some practical advice. Presumably this woman brings along her children because she has no alternative. Does your town offer inexpensive day-care programs? Are there other social services that might benefit her three kids? A bit of time on the phone or online might lead you to something that helps this family and eases your own mind.
UPDATE: The gardener failed to show up a few times, and Jane “used that as an excuse” to find someone else for the job.
I think this interchange probably provides a pretty strong test case between two very different fundamental orientations on child-rearing, education, and the relation of those things to work. I suspect a great many people will find the so-called ethicist's position reasonable and wise. For others whose orientation is more like my own, it will turn their stomachs. "You are rightly dismayed by the situation."? Really? The assumption that a pair of preschoolers would be better off in government-subsidized daycare rather than playing outdoors under the supervision of their mother and big sister is revolting. The implication that a 9-year-old can be nothing more than a burden to be parked in a kiddie-kennel likewise bothers me. Even assuming the healthiest of day-care options, a private baby-sitter, which better prepares that 9-year-old to be a healthy and productive member of society: watching TV while a bored college student does her homework at the kitchen table, or working alongside her mother to help support her younger siblings?


Rita Loca said...

Living among tribal peoples, this is incredible to me. I have seen pre-school age kids tag along to the gardens and take care of the infants under mom's watchful eye. The 9 year old would be back at home cooking or doing laundry in the river, quite capably. The teen ager is likely already a mother with her own child and the young Dad would be out hunting or fishing.
Frankly, we expect too little of our children.

Elephantschild said...

Harrumph. What comes to mind is JT Gatto's assertion that the child labor laws were designed to separate children from the "corrupting" influence of their (Catholic, immigrant) parents rather than to protect children from evil sweatshop shop bosses.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...


If there were an organized movement to reshape our education system from the bottom up, this should be its slogan. So much of what is wrong with our society traces its causation back to this truth.