The US should get kids out of factories


I have received about ten emails from people who are outraged that the Obama administration is proposing that kids be banned from doing farm work.

People who grew up on farms are posting comments all over the Internet about their farm nostalgia. And I get it. I understand that kids run wild on a farm in a way that city kids could never dream of. But the flip side to that is that kids die too often on farms. From machinery.

A nine-year-old boy in my town just got crushed under an ATV that he was driving himself. And, three days later, a neighbor asked if his four-year-old could drive his ATV on our land so he could go faster.

“The four-year-old???”

“Yeah. He has great body control.”

Seriously. This is the mentality we’re dealing with in rural America where kids are doing farm chores.

Kids are exposed to machinery on farms in the ways that kids were exposed to machinery in factories during the Industrial Revolution.

So I think the Obama administration is on the right track. Unlike 30 years ago, today’s farms are industrial.  Our farm included: that picture up top is my husband. You can’t make enough money milking cows or planting corn without using huge machinery. Most people don’t traverse their land on horse because there’s too much land and horses aren’t fast enough. Which means families are riding on ATVs and jeeps – both of which kids are driving way before they have a license. Kids are planting and harvesting. Kids are milking. Kids are going into industrial chicken coops.

None of these jobs is the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. This is the farm industry, and Lewis Hine showed us, 100 years ago, that it’s no place for kids.

Our national denial about how disgusting our food supply is is the same denial we use to say that kids should be able to do chores the same way they did when family farms were really family farms.

But the Obama administration could go further. We still treat kids like they are in factories when they are in school: They are managed by bells like they punch a clock, they specialize in narrow, unrelated subjects like assembly line workers, and they are educated in batches like a manufacturing plant.

If treating kids like industrial age workers on a farm is no good, then it’s no good for schools, either.


31 replies
  1. Meg
    Meg says:

    I never feel too cozy with more regulations being imposed in the name of “for your own good, because you’re too stupid to take care of your own kids.”

    Yes, parents all over the map are idiots, and have checked their brains at the door when it comes to protecting their kids or being adult enough to size up realistic expectations and risk analysis. But should the government have carte-blanche to play full-time nanny? I think not.

    • toastedtofu
      toastedtofu says:

      In 1869 Mary Walsh was thrown from the steam car prototype her cousins had built and was crushed under its wheels. In 1955, Dr. C. Hunter Shelden published a paper showing the extensive injuries people sustained during car crashes.

      ***In 1959 Congress passed legislation requiring all automobiles to comply with certain safety standards***

      Nils Bohlin invented the 3 point safety belt, and by 1959 it was standard issue on all volvo cars. He did a study of 28,000 car accidents in Sweden to prove the effectiveness of the seat belt.

      ***In 1970, Australia was the first place to make wearing a seatbelt mandatory for drivers and front seat passengers***

      And you know what? Some people still don’t wear their seatbelt.

      The difference between government legislation and a nanny is that it is much harder to ignore a nanny if you don’t want to follow the rules.

      Asking people to do their own risk-analysis for everything is ridiculous. Most people wouldn’t even know where to find a scientific study let alone know how to read one. All people (myself included) rely on heuristics to make decisions, and as Penelope points out,the mentality of rural america is NOT child safe.

      Since people make decisions based on what they know, and what farmers know is inherently unsafe for kids, it is actually unfair to expect them to come to the realization that farm work is unsafe for kids on their own.

      Education, invention, and legislation are the keys to a safer world.

    • trish
      trish says:

      Meg, the proposal wasn’t going to stop kids from working on their parents’ farms. It wasn’t as far-reaching as many people assumed it to be.

  2. Luke Redd
    Luke Redd says:

    It’s true. Our system treats kids like good little robots needing to be programmed. In that mindset, what does it matter if they lose a limb now and again? I sometimes imagine our assembly-line leaders waking up in a cold sweat as they have a sudden epiphany: “You mean children are humans too? Well, I’ll be damned!” Mind you, kids aren’t the only ones viewed as less than human.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh that’s a great link to Lewis Hines photos. The photos have been haunting to me since Ifirst saw them when I was in colege.

      I have had to do a lot of explaining to my kids about why we do things differently than other families. Bike helmets, for example, are nearly unheard of on farms. I use these photos to explain to my kids how important child safety is.


  3. Non Papa
    Non Papa says:

    “So I think the Obama administration is on the right track. Unlike 30 years ago, today’s farms are industrial.”

    But it seems like farming is getting safer for kids, not the other way around.

    The paper you cited was updated in the late ’90s ( and shows a 39% drop in the mortality rate of child farm residents between ’79-81 and ’90-’93. A separate paper found a significant decline in the number and rate of farm injuries between 1998 and 2006. (

    Are there any data showing that today’s farming techniques are more dangerous to kids than the techniques of the ’80s?

  4. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Agreed…our school system has not changed much since it started. It’s time for a major overhaul. I think you are the one to do it Penelope!

  5. Alison
    Alison says:

    Great argument.

    I think you should revise and try to get it somewhere more mainstream than your blog, because people need to hear this.

  6. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Have you ever heard of Sir Ken Robinson? Academics and grad students in education are in love with him (and I’m included in that number). He touches on this idea in his presentations. I can only hope that he becomes a more prominent voice among those who influence education policy.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      Isn’t he glorious??? I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind since his first Ed. Of Out of Our Minds. His finale with the most beloved poem of Yeats in his 2010 Tedtalks just makes us homeschoolers swoon. I tear up every time I see him read it. There are some wonderful vids of him on his website, too. It is very cool for us to hear young grad students are into him….yay!!!! Friends and I are finally reading Epiphany.

  7. CJ
    CJ says:

    Penelope, it’s interesting. You have hit on something we have been debating in our circle. Wonderful piece and topic, Thanx!

    I adore Gatto’s work. He is that rebel we need to make changes to a system at large (my opinion only of course), but I do struggle because he discusses how it is advantageous for young people to be treated or thought of in adult ways in terms of responsibility at ages like 12, even 10. Things like driving come up a lot as themes. I started to drive when I was 14.5. My husband the same, but younger if you consider go carts (the real racing ones, not the toys). Many of my farming relatives drove at something like ten years old- tractors, trucks, lawn mowers, etc.. I want to give my children freedom and the ability to garner their own idea of their strengths for themselves, yet it terrifies me as a mother- and very little in this world truly terrifies me. I literally feel a paralysis about their possible danger. When you write 4 years old on a four wheeler I just cringe on my insides. I am a private pilot, my husband races cars, we used to white water raft the big whites, etc. We are “the eat life for breakfast” type, but then I think about my kids and I become the grandma- scared, protective. And my farming uncles think I have it all backwards- meaning kids should be dare devils, not their parents.

    Your last sentence- I think the schools are set up to organize children’s expectations. Up early, rush to school/work, condition to numb your mind, lunch bell, condition to numb your mind, end of work bell, go home eat your microwave dinner that mimics your cafeteria school lunch, come back tomorrow. McDonalds assembly line edu.

  8. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    In the early stages of industrialization, the upper classes AND the working classes thought factory jobs were gifts to children because they were being taught skills for gainful employment.

    Child labour laws were only celebrated belatedly. Pre-industrial society had utilized child labour without standards, and most people failed to realize that the vastly different working conditions of factories necessitated new practices and standards.

    Great post Penelope.

  9. Jen
    Jen says:

    Having free range as a farm girl was certainly formative in my life and Mr. Odom’s nostalgia certainly plays well with me in that respect. But I don’t think the legislation he references would prevent the experiences he writes about. I remember being admonished for playing in the silo, to stay away from the pesticide stack, etc. I guess I had responsible parents in that regard. But I also don’t think there was ever a point that I would have been considered an “employee” of the farm. Weeding the garden and collecting eggs were chores–and I think even if you tried to make chores illegal that you’d have a heck of a time enforcing it.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I agree with your argument with the exception at which point the federal government should be involved. I believe an industry sector should have the first opportunity to regulate and advocate ethical and safe practices. Enforcement will most likely require local and state laws. Federal action should be taken on those issues that can’t be effectively addressed at the state level or affect all states. I think what upsets many people (including myself) is the perception of the federal government to be far too involved and overreaching in our daily lives and the lack of an opportunity for us to address and solve more problems at the local or state level.

  11. CS2010
    CS2010 says:

    Parents have been making money off children since the beginning of time, and it is, obviously, still done today. The U.S. is no better. All over the world parents are having children they can’t afford. That’s the real epidemic.

    Every culture has their own way of “monetizing” their children. One of the benefits to having a large family in the past was so that their children could be put to work and support the family as soon as possible.

    Why else would you have 10 kids? It’s a work force.

    I worry about other people’s children so much, I can’t imagine if they were my own. I would go crazy. If I had kids, I would have to homeschool just to keep them protected.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Your viewpoint is a relatively modern first world view of having children and parenting. You might want to read more history and look to the third world today. Parents often had (have) many children due to religious beliefs, lack of access to birth control and/or other inabilities to say no to sex during fertile time for the woman. Parents also had many children because infant and child mortality rates were/are astoundingly high. At one time in the USA and in many parts of the impoverished world having many children might have been the only way to insure your family lived on into the future.

      I have three children. We live a very comfortable first world life. If I had started earlier I may have had 6-8 children because I love my children and my family and the joy we have in one another. It has NOTHING to do with creating a work force. I find you POV myopic, egocentric, uninformed, and a bit insulting.

      • CS2010
        CS2010 says:

        I’m not disagreeing with you. I was thinking more in terms of child trafficking that is still occurring to this day throughout the world. People are having babies just to sell them or put them to work. This is happening now.

        I had working papers by the time I was 14, and I’m only 41 now. So we’re not talking ancient history.

        I don’t need a history lesson, but I appreciate your reply.

      • CS2010
        CS2010 says:

        I just wanted to add…the one who is being insulting is YOU. Why so defensive? A little stressed maybe?

        • MoniqueWS
          MoniqueWS says:

          Not stressed at all. :-)

          “Why else would you have 10 kids? It’s a work force.” This is insulting (to me) in that it is a trite comment to a very real situation with many reasons for being – a desire to have enough offspring to survive to adulthood, a desire to help the family/family wealth such as it may be survive, lack of choices, lack of education, proscribed birth control, religious law and traditions, desire to help others without offspring, desire to increase a family for reasons that have nothing to do with “monetizing their children”, etc.

          Not knowing what you were thinking/referring to – child trafficking – it was impossible for me to know what you meant. Worldwide population growth is thought to have more or less stabilized at 134 million (UN Population Fund) per year. The number of children trafficked each year is estimated to be 1.2 million (International Labour Organization) per year. This is only .896%. How many of those families with larger numbers of children think … “Gee let’s have another so we can monetize the baby.” Doubtful there are many. Of course if your child is the one trafficked against your desires and design that one is more than enough.

          Not knowing you or your history personally I have no way to know if having “working papers by the time I was 14” was about your real need to support your family and yourself or your real need to assert your independence and make spending cash for the mall or movies.

          You may not need a history lesson … you might want to work harder on your logical fallacies. (This might be insulting and may be construed as such.)

          It may be just as well you do not have kids. Thanks for the dip in the gene pool with the sharks!

          • CJ
            CJ says:

            Commmmmmmmon Monique, you have to know better than to debate as a mother of three with someone that hasn’t been a parent yet about BEING a parent and your perspective from being one. Holy shnikeees.

            My beloved and I were at a bar having dinner, table full of twenty something girls next to us screaming the night away over shots and how they would “never let a baby get in the way of their sex life with their fiancé” or “never allow their kids to do x, y or z that all the irresponsible parents do” giving examples like breast feeding in public or cutting up the food for their 2year old. No need for us to be smug….life shows itself to all.

            Just because I describe the best multi orgasm in the world to another woman, it is entirely, utterly, void of all meaning until she has it herself. Loving your children, well, I don’t know, multiply that times infinity uphoria? it’s not fair to pick on CS- s/he, just doesn’t know. And at least CS admits that fear of how we might want to just protect them. That’s better than lots of arm chair parent quarter backs.

            We don’t know what we don’t know yet.

          • CS2010
            CS2010 says:

            I’m not exactly sure why you’re so upset by my comments. My life experiences have been very different than yours. I’m only stating what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes.

            I have had lots of experience being responsible for another human being, both children and taking care of a parent with early-onset Alzheimer’s. It is a huge responsibility, although with children a much more joyful one.

            I’m not sure what world you’re living in, but a lot of parents, after having children, realize it was a huge mistake. I’m not directing this to you. I don’t know if you’re a good parent or not. I don’t know you. Some people regret it, and then become terrible, unloving parents. Some mothers kill their babies. Do you read the news?

            Again, not sure why you’re so upset. Hopefully, it’s not from a guilty conscience.

        • Jump
          Jump says:

          It’s OK, CS2010. I, for one, wasn’t upset by anything you said. And you weren’t being myopic, egocentric, uninformed, or insulting. Some people just internalize, and it looks like some have more time on their hands to write judgmental flames to otherwise innocuous comments.

  12. JKB
    JKB says:

    Unfortunately, you examples have nothing to do with farming. A farm may have a few more 4-wheelers but those kids riding them recreationally can be found everywhere, except dense urban areas where getting hit by a cab is more likely. Are we to prohibit children from all activities involving risk? I read that sitting around on the computer or watching TV risks childhood obesity so exactly what activity is safe for kids?

    How about horses? A family member’s son is into rodeo, he competes, the riding stables have kids all over the place, but few are working, a few teenage girls mostly. The parents are paying good money for the kids to take lessons, board their horses and learn to care for their horses.

    Has there been an increase in children dying in industrial farm accidents? Modern tractors are far safer than those 30 years ago are children rolling them more these days?

    In any case, why not base restrictions on functional ability of the individual rather than broad bans based on hysterical fears?

  13. JillB
    JillB says:

    I now live in a small development in rural Idaho with my spouse, 8yo, 5yo, and one on the way. Your story about the 4 year old on the ATV just about killed me. I once saw 5 kids from the same family with the eldest (10?) driving all of them on the ATV with a toddler on his lap. (They are just cruising the neighborhood for fun, they aren’t farming) We are constantly shocked at what we see parents allowing their kids to do. We are very cautious with our kids and chalk it up to “we don’t have farm smarts”. I am terrified of the open water canals and don’t approve of my children driving or riding on motorbikes, etc… I am sure our neighbors think we are weirdos because we don’t own any recreational vehicles or trucks (among other reasons), but we don’t need them.

    I enjoy reading your homeschool information and do my best to provide my children with opportunities to explore their own interests. I agree that our school system sucks and there are crazy traditions and ideas in my district, but alas, I am not available or interested in homeschooling right now. Plus I totally love my career. (So I hope people respect that and don’t post that I love my career more than my kids because I don’t, but I have a really amazing job that provides unique opportunities for my kids too.)

  14. Citizen Reader
    Citizen Reader says:

    Does this mean your kids will be getting out of the goat and egg business?

    Working on my parents’ farm enabled me to pay for my own college. And no one took safety more seriously than they did. I’d like to see some stats on how many kids die in traffic accidents each year as they are being driven to sports, music lessons, etc. Should we entertain a proposal on banning parents from driving their children around?

  15. Cure of Ars
    Cure of Ars says:

    Obama should stay out of the business of telling parents of family farms what to do. How about a law banning presidents from allowing their 13 year old daughter from going to spring break in Mexico. Doesn’t seem safe to me. Or a law banning famous public speakers of leaving their child unsupervised while giving lectures in big cities. I don’t see Obama making laws against kids using riding lawn mowers in suburban areas. I guess Obama feels that he needs to protect dumb family farmers who cling to their guns and religion.

Comments are closed.