In college I studied the history of political thought, and I found that by the end of four years, the only thing I knew for sure is that people come together because it’s human nature to come together. And people like to feel they are contributing to the good of the group.

We are always weighing the good of ourselves vs. the good of the group. (Read John Stuart Mill or Jean Jacques Rousseau if you want to pontificate on this topic at dinner parties.) But the bottom line is that we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

It’s why people go to work when they don’t have to. It’s also why humans won the evolution game—because we are social and work together.

So then, what does this say about kids who are not allowed to work, not allowed to be contributors, and can only sit still and do what they are told?

It’s against their nature, of course.

We know that adults are not happy if they are not contributing. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are making sure not to leave their kids so much money that they don’t need to work, because it’s actually been shown to hurt people rather than help them if they don’t have to work. This is true of both kids and adults.

1. Homework undermines meaning

It’s clear from many studies that homework does not help kids learn. In fact, homework’s biggest impact is to destroy family time which is particularly sad because we know that family is the group where kids are most likely to be able to be contributors. The huge backlash from parents against homework is a result of parents perceiving that their own time is totally wasted.

Kids, also, feel that homework wastes their time. Kids know that it feels good to be part of a family, and kids doing homework are ostracized from family activities in order to “concentrate”.

2. Mentoring is an on-ramp to larger meaning

The most important indicator of career success after the quality of one’s education is the quality of one’s mentors. Studies show that adults who have three mentors in their life advance toward their goals much faster than people without three mentors. The reason for this discrepancy is that mentors help to integrate yourself into a group by matching your skills to the needs of the group. The group could be a wide-range of social situations, but the group is, at its essence, people who value what you have to offer.

It makes sense, then,  that kids who have mentors do better in their career. Because a mentor is someone who shows a kid how to be part of a group. The mentor teaches the skills the kids needs for contributing to the whole. And being valued by society is what motivates people to go farther. We are motivated by each other because contributing feels so good.

3. Kids need real summer jobs.

Kids should create jobs for themselves as early as possible. You don’t need to wait until you’re in college to get an internship. You can create your own internship. The earlier you start training to contribute, the better you’ll feel about the time you spend as a child.

The exchange that happens in a good internship is inspiring. The young person works hard to contribute to the group in a meaningful way, and the employer makes sure the young person learns a lot along the way.

I was struck by this photo of Madonna and her daughter Lourdes. It was during an internship when Lourdes was in high school. She said all her friends were getting internships so she wanted one as well. She was stuck working for her mom, which wasn’t her first choice. But she said it would have been worse not having a job than it was to work for her mom.

Even for rich kids like Lourdes, the worst thing is to not contribute.

4. Socially conscious actions feel meaningful

Kids want to make their own decisions as well. Making basic decisions about how kids spend their time and energy gives them the power to express their values to the community. Members of Gen Y, for example, are generally not earning enough money to give a lot of money to non-profits, but they try to work for socially conscious companies so they feel good about how they contribute to the group via their work.

I saw this in my son as well. We were picking out party favors for his bar mitzvah, and he saw Promotional Gifts has a list of gifts made from recycled products, and that appealed to him. There are few things as big as a bar mitzvah that kids are involved in at such a young age. My son sees an opportunity to do something that matters, and he’s not wasting that. He wants his bar mitzvah to feel like he’s giving to the community in as many ways as possible.

5. Parenting that is community focused ensures kids contribute in meaningful ways. 

I find myself more and more thinking about how my kids can help the community rather than how my kids can draw benefits from the community. It’s a switch in thinking for me. I am very focused on getting my kids what they need—even at steep costs.

But I’m convinced that if I respect my kids’ need to be part of something larger than they are, and I set up lives that accommodate that need, then I, too, will feel more like I’m part of something bigger than myself. And we all need to have that feeling – not just parents, not just kids, but everyone.

27 replies
  1. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I think it was the Huffington Post (?) that ran a story yesterday or the day before about kids Mexico working in the fields and not going to school.

    It’s supposed to make you feel sad. But I couldn’t finish reading it. I just couldn’t believe they’re trying to make money off the supposed misfortune of a little girl working nomadic jobs rather than going to school to become a teacher.

    The solution is not to ban the kids from working. The family will be worst off. They need the financial help the kid provides. I know it may sound awful to most people of the first world that remain unaware of the inner workings of family and societal relationships.

    Maybe the kid doesn’t make much money, but most parents deem it super important for the kid to work and help support the family so they learn responsibility and feel strongly a part of something bigger. In turn the kid knows their effort has a real effect and if they slack real consequences await.

    My sister used to work as a teacher in one of these work camps. After dinner time the kids (and adults) would come and learn whatever the lesson was. It was short. Then the kids would run around and then they would go to sleep.

    Everyone I knew looked at this as something sad and pitiful. I did too. I was stupid. This is brilliant. Families working together, education available if kids want it.

    Granted there was lots of sex because it’s like summer camp with all those teenagers lumped together. But it’s not like that’s not the case anywhere else.

    I’m not advocating slave labor for anyone but especially children. I just don’t think that people understand that taking work away from those children to stick them in school is probably worse because you take away physical activity, sun, fresh air, and most importantly the kid can’t fit with the family and relate to the parents as well anymore.(There’s a big divide in families when one becomes more educated than the rest. Ostracized.).

    Not sure what the real solution for those families is. probably fair wages and more mobile schools with teachers ready to help.

    And birth control. Definitely birth control.

    • Cate
      Cate says:

      Karelys, I support you on the birth control. Sometimes I dream that if I won the lottery I would give back with an intense focus on birth control availability for women and men (perhaps fund some research for men’s birth control). However, I have to call you out on the beauty of kids working the fields. Did you ever read the NYTimes piece (I think it was NYTimes) on kids picking tobacco? It was disgusting. Also, don’t be thinking these kids are picking organic. They are surrounded by pesticides at a very vulnerable point in their development. I think we have to be very careful not to romanticize that situation. I understand what you are saying, however.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I didn’t read it.

        I’d like to read it something written from the perspective of someone that knows the culture very well and has experience in it.

        Look, I’ve always worked alongside my parents. I worked in the fields picking fruit a tree away from my dad and a tree away from my brothers. It was fun. It was ridiculously hard work physically but mentally it was fun. Maybe my parents knew how to build morale?

        I imagine the NYT person writing for people that read the NYT. I’ve never read an article coming from a voice that is a part of the issue at hand.

        You can’t throw birth control at people. If you want to solve a problem you have to sit down and live their culture to understand where the problem is at and help that way….if they want your help.

        Most of Latin America is catholic or have strong catholic influence and they believe birth control is bad. It’d be counter productive to say “tada! I am here with lots of money. Catch! birth control for you! aren’t you glad I am here!?”

        You may think I was romanticizing the picture. Truth is, I don’t think there’s a problem with kids working. The problem is somewhere else. I think it’s super healthy for kids to work and work hard. Especially if they are alongside their whole family.

          • Karelys
            Karelys says:

            omg Hannah! that link is money! I can’t read it all right but I’m staying up late or get up ridiculously early to get quiet time and read it while I drink my stupidly strong coffee.

            Thank you!

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          Kid’s working and kid’s working can mean very different things – a kid working 10 hours each day at a hard labor job, which is the norm since those jobs don’t require much training, is not a good idea. I realize it is the norm in many developing countries but I personally think it would be a wonderful accomplishment to limit child labor. This kind of work leave very little room for play, very little time for learning, literacy, self realization and so on. Work in this case is not a vehicle to explore your option or enjoy working with family or whatever – its purpose is sheer survival. It is not like work described in the blog post a way to discover oneself, or learn the value of work, or the value of family. And sure, the first generation to become literate will not fit well with their parent generation and might not enjoy the same way of life – is this a reason to limit education? Not really in my opinion – there are many cases where kids are different from their parents, want to do other things, live differently independent of a specific social influence. Limiting education/school to make sure kids don’t have other experiences and fit better in their customary environment is not helping.

          • Karelys
            Karelys says:

            no one advocates for that. That’s horrible.

            This comment is good except that it rings a lot like when well meaning individuals try to figure out the problems in other cultures or racial circles without having been a part of the culture, the living, the experience of life’s challenge for being part of that race.

            When I was a kid I snuck a Vogue magazine to read an article on female mutilation. The girl in the story was then an adult and a very successful model. I cried. Then by chance a month later I was invited to be in a play playing a girl to be married off soon but first had to go through female mutilation. I nailed the role. People cried. I vowed to do something about the problem.

            As an adult I keep reading that GFM is going on in the US. Because it’s an issue strongly weaved into the culture. Making it illegal here and in the countries it originates from doesn’t solve the problem. It solves one but creates other. These women are unmarriable if they don’t undergo the ritual. If they don’t marry they can’t support themselves. And often they’re kept away from outside influence so they don’t know how to solve the problems on their own.

            As you can see, it’s problematic to come in trying to be the rescuer and convince you can solve the problem with your great ideas that would work great in your country, your economy, your culture, and people who share your values but those things wouldn’t fit in the other culture.

            I don’t ever advocate child slave labor. But I do have a question, if the kid doesn’t work the family lacks the earnings and everyone is in deeper problems. And the child is ostracized.

            Do you see? it’s not that your ideas are wrong. It’s that your ideas work best in a different context. It’d be best to provide support to someone that has been in those trenches to try to solve the issue. Because they know the situation from the inside out.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            No, I don’t say at any point that I have the solution for everything which hurts people and abuses their human rights. I also don’t say that I feel as the missionary rescuer having a solution for everything (or even for very few things). On the other hand – because something is currently woven into the fabric of one society does not mean it cannot be changed in the future. Even societal norms are not immutable. 100 years ago a woman working outside the house/farm and becoming an engineer was unthinkable and yet, society has changed and historic events have lead to a huge change in our perception of women’s work. What if we had said that women should always work at home/farm and all women in the society agree with it and so we are not going to work for change? And by the way, I don’t have to go outside the countries I have lived in – plenty of things to make better here.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            One thing has always been true – change is not initiated by those afraid of not adhering to societal rules. Clearly the model telling her story on FGM was not – she found a way out, the Nobel peace prize winners from 2014 did put their goal of improving life for those in their home society above their personal safety and probably happiness. They are working to slowly initiate and foster a change in the very society they live in or at least grew up in. It is not as clearcut – societies are changing as we watch – some not in a great direction for their people.

            But I also believe there is a universal right to live in dignity for us humans, and I happily applaud and support those working towards achieving this for more and more people. This does not mean overriding any national/societal differences, and I have lived in a few different countries for several years and would never advocate that we all should live in the same way, and follow the same societal rules as decided by country XYZ.

        • Bethcn
          Bethcn says:

          I love your perspective. Working isn’t bad for kids, especially if they are alongside their parents. The idea of getting them out of working and into schools just had too many unforeseen and unintended consequences.

          • Karelys
            Karelys says:

            But it was people trying to fix a rhythm, a system that didn’t work. And the benefits at the time were so much better than the sacrifices if you were poor. But now it doesn’t make as much sense for the majority. Homeschooling is challenging for many factors so people sweep it to the side as if the problem was with unschooling or homeschooling rather than how we’re doing things.

            Like not everyone was okay with the healthcare reform and the immigration reform. There are a lot of holes. But you can’t fix something so broken all at once. One bite at a time.

  2. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Loved this one Penelope!

    I just want to amplify one point you made. School is bad enough; the only thing that offsets its ill effects is constructive time with parents and the rest of the family. Homework makes that even more difficult.

    If you can’t homeschool, at least strive to minimize the time your child spends doing homework. Maybe that means communicating with the school board or the teachers. Whatever it takes.

    In my opinion, homework is–more often than not–a euphemism for what would be more accurately called “lifewaste.”

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    I’ve been on a Brene Brown kick lately. A couple of weeks ago I was half way through the audio for Gifts of Imperfection when I stopped to order it for my mother, sister, and myself. Today I just finished the audio for Daring Greatly.

    Obviously her viral TED talks are phenomenal, (though not for everyone…) but I think her books are worth the additional time. She speaks mainly to connection, including differences between belonging and fitting in. She finds that middle school students are keenly aware of the distinction.

    In her work on shame and vulnerability research she notes that many, many people whom she interviewed had traumatic memories of being shamed in school. She suspects that unprocessed incidents are recorded as trauma. So even small situations can be significant if they aren’t discussed and put into perspective. Something I found I wasn’t able to do when my daughter was in school.

    She also talks about the need for struggle to cultivate the ability to have hope. But one of the things necessary to attain hope after the struggle is the ability to have agency to change a situation. In school, that is something very few children have. Which is how learned helplessness and “checking out” can often result from a child being stuck in a situation that is a poor fit.

    As I listened, I found myself genuinely wondering why they don’t homeschool their two children. Not in a “How can she not?!?!?” or “Does she not love them?!?!” way. It’s just that I take the information that she puts out there and conclude “homeschool” and it seems so very clear to me. I trust that she has given a great deal of thought to it :D and wonder what else she is factoring in.

  4. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    OK so playing devil’s advocate, on the homework issue how is that different from a kid spending a huge amount of time away from the family concentrating on playing their musical instrument or working on a sport for hours on end. I think not all homework is equal and it is possible to find meaning in homework if you wanted to.

    On summer jobs, I interpret the Lourdes story differently. She wanted to do what all her friends were doing as the worst thing would be to go back to school and not have anything to contribute to the conversation about internships with her friends. In that case it’s more about belonging in a group than contributing to the workforce.

    Plus these days there are other ways to achieve the same learning and sense of contribution, without the ‘job’ connotation. Makers (in the hardware/tech sense) are people who want to explore their world and participate in its creation. And they do so by making things and contributing to the communities they are part of (such as sites like Instructables).

    #4 Socially conscious actions feel meaningful
    is the really essence of this post for me. I see that in many ways. In the open source communities I am part of there are more and more contributions from science phd students who are fed up of working alone in a lab at the mercy of their supervisors. They want to be part of something bigger that feels really meaningful and for the greater good.

  5. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    I’m on the board of directors for our small town’s youth baseball & softball league. We hire kids starting in 7th grade through high school to umpire. The umps start out in the fields on the 8 year old games where the stakes of a missed call are low. The most experiences umpires, hs juniors and seniors, are behind the plate on 14U games. By the time they head off to college our umpires have up to 6 years experience in a skill that can earn them $30-40 an hour and work can be picked up as little or as much as they want in the spring and summer. I think one of the best things we do as a league is bring up the umpires. I hate going to other communities and seeing adults umpire 8 yr old games. Waste of an opportunity.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      This is so great. I imagine that being “judged” or “refereed” by your peers is much better than by adults. It must be stiffling to have an adult have the last word. It must feel like an agreed upon settlement when a kid in your own age bracket does it.

      Or so I imagine. I have no experience in this.

      But I love what you bring to the table and now I want to be in the look out for programs like this to enroll my chid when he’s old enough.

  6. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Love this post, lots of nuggets on how to be a good aunt.

    Also helps me set up the framework in my own mind regarding homeschool versus school. It feels like you have to pick one and then vote on it or something; but posts like this say to me that no, it is exposure to an adult willing to help a kid see possibilities, and not throw-down one idea or another as completely right or completely wrong. Helping a kid see possibilities, without judgement, is a real gift. That is something to strive for.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I love how you look out for your family’s kids. They’re so lucky. Many people think “it doesn’t apply to me so I don’t care to learn it.” But not you.

      You’re a gem.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Another Mark that loves this post. I think it’s one of your top posts. You cover both topics of career and education excellently and seamlessly. I also love the title – Kids search for meaning just like adults do. It’s about respecting the rights of kids more than they currently receive in their education when they attend school. My hope is they receive the best education possible in whatever venue they receive their education. Also that more choices are made available to them and they have a greater role in the decision making process of their education.

  8. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    In my opinion there are three ways to change the world:
    1. Human interactions
    2. Market based economy
    3. Unusually effective propaganda

    There’s also direct force (war, terrorism, etc.) but that doesn’t seem to produce positive results.

    Philosophically, I see the big questions as who am I, what is the world like, and why am I in this world. A liberal arts education is ill suited to get you past who am I. Social activism on campuses and social media would make you think otherwise, but I am of the opinion that such campaigns are rarely more than an inch deep.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I agree that homeschooling and real living is a better outlet for discovering meaning since it allows you to approach big philosophical questions from a practical environment.

  9. Teryn
    Teryn says:

    I really appreciate your thought on being community focused. I have been struggling much more this year as a stay at home/homeschooling mom with boredom and dissatisfaction and I believe a huge part of that is our family is too inwardly focused. I think the kids as well as myself would benefit by finding ways to contribute to our community. Thank you!

  10. kats
    kats says:

    I would agree that social connections for young people are so vital, as well as having mentors. My son (13) interned this summer and felt so proud. Right now he is working on propping up our front fence so we can get a refinance and a good appraisal!

    And homework….yuk for much of it! Some homework, for my son, seems to be productive and he can work on things he could not do at school. He was homeschooled some and has plenty of interests and passions, so we are not worried he will get squelched. Yet, sometimes I watch kids going into the middle school, and feel sad. Many of them need something else. If kids are going to have these resources, we need to value young people and learning in our culture. Some parents cannot provide other resources because of their work situations. What about other flexible situations for kids? We badly need to reform education. Well, that’s my 2 cents.

  11. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I find it fascinating how similar these points are to the program of schools, especially exclusive private schools. They are very explicit about trying to establish themselves as a community. They place contribution to the community (or to the larger community) firmly at the center of the school. They seek to establish mentoring relationships among students. They very much share your perspective on the need for and construction of meaning, only differing in the establishment of the school as the community center. Charitable giving is modeled as early as three – my daughter’s preschool collected pet toys and supplies to give to an animal shelter. But that was optional, whereas participation in the scholarship fair is mandatory.

    Public schools in small towns have also served or tried to serve as community centers. In disjointed, divided, and mobile cities this wears thinner or seems absurd on its face.

    The contradictions of participating in a school “community” so abstracted from its physical community can be wearing. I am happy that at least one other kid in my girl’s all-white class (the public school is 13% white) is Hispanic. I know how nice the animal shelter is – I actually hired its founder to work at my company a decade ago. But it’s like a shiny pretend charity, when less than a mile away coatless kids show up at their school hungry.

    The word “community” is so abused lately. A select congregation of people with like interest, reaching across geographical distance, is not a community. The people you bump into by accident are part of your community. Pretend communities threaten to obscure the real ones, and then our community-based meaning will be entirely recursive and solipsistic.

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