False Concepts about Physical Work

By Myron Horst

One reason that I wanted a farm was so that I could teach my children how to work and to have a good work ethic. When I used to work as a finish carpenter, the company that I worked for would hire college “kids” in the summertime to do laborer work. They did not know how to work! They did not know how to sweep the floor or use a shovel. Some of the worst workers were sons of executives of a large company. These guys had never had to mow the lawn or clean the house because someone was hired to do it for them. I realized that if I could teach my children how to work, they could be successful in whatever occupation that they went into.

Training our children how to work and to think like adults has been a much more difficult job than what I ever realized it would be. As time has gone along, I have realized that there are false concepts about physical work that many believe to be true. These false concepts hinder a person from applying themselves to the job at hand like they should. They end up only getting a fraction of the work done that they could.

False concept #1 – Physical work does not require much thinking and is for people who are not as smart.
Many people mistakenly believe that physical work does not require much intelligence or thinking. We get offers from various people and children’s groups to come out to the farm and do volunteer work on the farm. The impression that they seem to have is that the poor farmer has so much work to do and anyone can do it, and that he would be so glad to have a bunch of kids come and do it for him.

We turn down those offers because it takes more time to train others how to do the job, supervise them to make sure it is being done right, and to redo things that were not done right, than do the work ourselves. An example of this is processing chickens. Our family of eight can process about 125 chickens an hour. Each person has their station in the processing line and knows what to do. When we first started processing chickens, it took five adults and our oldest son six hours to do 60 chickens. At that point a new person’s help would have been help. But now, to have one person come in and try to learn how to process chickens would drastically slow us down. Their “help” would only increase our work load.

To work efficiently and to do the job right requires constant thinking and analyzing of what is being done, even if you are talking about something else. Physical work is not dumb work or work that requires a strong back and a weak mind. This is true even of simple tasks such as gathering eggs, stacking firewood, or dusting the furniture. We have heated our home with firewood for 18 years. In spite of that, each year I have to train the boys how to stack firewood all over again. They will stack the wood with short pieces on the bottom and long pieces on the top, or stack the wood with the wood stack leaning over and in danger of it falling over. One year a small stack was so unstable that I pushed on it a little and it fell over. It was not safe for children to be around. Several months ago, I finally realized what was happening. They thought that stacking firewood was such a menial task that it did not require any thinking and they thought about other things instead of where or how they were placing a piece of wood.

Physical work, to be done right and to be done efficiently, requires a person to be constantly thinking and analyzing what they and the ones that they are working with are doing; even simple tasks such as digging with a shovel or sweeping a floor. One supervisor that I had in construction a number of years ago said that he would rather pay a carpenter $16 an hour to dig a ditch and have it done right than to pay a laborer $6 an hour to do the job. Till you add in the supervisory costs, the laborer working slower, the laborer not thinking, not understanding the bigger picture, and not doing the job right, etc., it was cheaper and there were less headaches to have the carpenter dig for an hour.

False Concept #2 – Physical work should be fun.
Another false concept about physical work is that it should be fun. I have often been asked by a person watching what I was doing if it was fun.  They thought it looked like fun. To be honest, physical work is often not fun, especially when it is hot and the work is hard. But physical work can be very rewarding and gives a feeling of satisfaction when the job is done and done well. Work can be enjoyable and it is good to try to make it enjoyable when possible. It is also important to try to make the work so that it is not frustrating. But making work fun should not be a focus. There are many times when work has to be done and you can’t call it enjoyable or fun. A child needs to learn that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Not, when the work gets hard you quit.

It is a wrong concept to try to make work fun for children to get them to do it. Work is only fun for a short period of time and then it loses its enjoyment as something fun. This is particularly true of routine work and chores. Several of our boys, when they were young, would try to make filling the firewood cart “fun” by making up stories as they worked. What should have taken five minutes would take them a half hour. Instead of making work fun, it made it a drudgery because of how long it would take to get the job done. A similar thing happened with washing dishes. They would get books on “tape” from the library and listen to them while they did the dishes. It took “forever” to get the dishes done. They were trying to make a job fun. Instead, it taught them that work was not fun. It also taught them to work slow, the opposite of efficiency. When we pointed out to them what was happening, they realized the foolishness of what they were doing. We made a rule that they could not listen to stories or make up stories while they worked.

Children need to be taught to find satisfaction in the work that they do rather than look for it to be fun.

False Concept #3 – Making work for children teaches them to work.
Making work for children because there is not enough work to keep them busy does not teach children to work. Sometimes families, in an effort to keep their children busy have them do things such as vacuum the carpet everyday. Children are not dumb. They quickly realize that they are doing work that does not really need to be done. That type of work keeps them busy, but it does not teach them to see what needs to be done and do it without being told. Instead it teaches just the opposite: that “keeping busy” is the important thing instead of getting a job done quickly and efficiently.

The basic concepts in learning to work are: to see what needs to be done, to remember other jobs that also need to be done, to analyze what things are most important, to think through how to do the job the most efficiently, and to do the job quickly and with quality workmanship without getting caught up in small details that take a lot of time but don’t contribute much to the finished project. To help a son or daughter learn how to work is an important step in the passage between being a child and acting like a child to being a real man or a real woman.