Why don’t we let our children work?

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I wrote this piece a few months back for Dawn blogs. It went through a…. shall we say… a genocide. Every sentence was butchered until the bytes ran red. However, I present it to you dear reader (and you are the only one I’m sure) that article in its original unaltered format, to quench your thirst. Don’t drink it all in one gulp, you could toss it back up.


On a temperamentally cold day in Beijing, China (circa 1990) – we were issued a warning that we would be snowed in. My father told our Chinese housekeeper that she best head home before the roads get blocked. In response, she pointed at an unprepared dinner and then at my father and stared inquisitively, as if to ask “who is going to cook dinner, you?” I don’t recall what arrangements she made that night, but given that she was with us another 2 years, I am assuming she made it home just fine.

At the time, I was not old enough to fully comprehend the significance of this gesture. This is a person who when given the choice put her work ahead of her own safety. It wasn’t a one-off either, I regularly noticed how even disgruntled employees just grit their teeth and get through their tasks because whatever they are feeling took a backseat to their work.

It has been over 2 decades since we returned to Pakistan, I have yet to see this level of dedication so widespread. I posit, this culture of responsibilities having limits starts at a very young age. The distinction between studying hard and work ethic is almost never made. We don’t see much of it around us and we don’t see its importance until much later in life when the work piles up and there are not enough bodies to take care of it.

The solution? Create odd-jobs that we can have our children do from a young age and appreciate the value of hard work first hand.

The naïveté of this article is not alien to me, ours is an economy that oft struggles to find work for adults, finding odd jobs for the youth is probably not even on anyone’s checklist.

It is a global reality that the impoverished are the hardest working people and they have quite the work ethic. It could be because the alternative leads to destitution.

Unfortunately, when we talk about “odd-jobs”, we are not discussing  the 12.73% children between 10 and 15 years of age working full-time to whom even education is a luxury; nor the 11.15% 15-20 year olds with little to no education. Article 11 of the Constitution strictly prohibits child labour, where a child is anyone who has not completed 14 years of life, (Employment of Children Act 1991). If you read our labour laws, you’ll notice that any time you see a child working, it is almost definitely illegal. Also outside the purview of and a far greater problem than the present discussion.

However work has been thrust upon these children and it is not something they chose or perhaps even understand. It is a much larger discussion on how education can be made accessible for them (such as free evening classes).

Obviously, all paid jobs will be taken by people who could really use the money, so it is probably best to let those jobs stay where they are and not usurp them just help teach our children some work ethic. However, there are ways of making odd-jobs count. They could be compensated in the form of school credit/scholarships, or perhaps parents can pay out of pocket.

Ideally, paper routes are a decent way of imparting this work ethic, as it involves a schedule and consistency, but those jobs are already taken, not to mention there are inherent safety risks involved.

Though it should be mentioned (and I am fully aware of the triteness of this statement) the negative/criminal elements of our society have no age limit, no work hours and no closing time they can get started much earlier in life and they have no retirement age, perhaps it has a correlation to these elements being a success around the world.

The first step is to abandon the notion that there some indecency in doing odd-jobs and chores for other human beings. There is a fine line between teaching a child the value of hard work and child labour. If we show a child that it is okay to look down their noses upon people who are doing hard work, then what values are we really teaching them?

There is another side to this problem, the lack of odd jobs. Fast food joints are not famous for hiring part-time employees – why would they, when full-time labour is cheaper to train and retain? Moreover, there are no environments even in the poshest of areas that can be considered safe enough to let your child in. Constant supervision is still going to be required. This requires reform.

There is a lot of incentive to create a premium on such a small-scale socio-economic reform. Because our economy is back on the rise. According to an Economic Survey:

“Major success of the outgoing fiscal year includes: picking up economic growth, inflation contained at lowest level since 2003, improvement in tax collection, reduction in fiscal deficit, worker remittances touches new height, successful launching of Sukuk, foreign exchange reserves significantly increased and stock market created new history”

Ref: http://www.finance.gov.pk/survey/chapters_15/Highlights.pdf

So everything is on the rise, this means more money in the economy and more tasks that can be distributed.

Additionally, another medium of work goes widely ignored for children is what you and I are doing right now. I am writing this article on a computer, you are reading it on an electronic device. If this is where a child’s focus lies, then perhaps they would be open to different tasks coming to them through it.

There are Bloggers, YouTubers and Viners around the world who start as young as 13 and do well enough to make a decent living off of it, because they have schedules, follow-up, accountability for their words/actions, the key is consistency.

With successful Kickstarter campaigns such as Markhor (hand crafted shoes) and Mont5 (leather goods), E-commerce and digital content is where the markets are shifting. It makes sense to get acclimated to the profitable side of the internet while so much of our time is being spent on it anyway. I once saw a young adult (~20 y.o.), write a very large passage on a plane using only his phone. Despite there being easier ways to write (switching windows constantly is hardly efficient) it was still heartening to see someone pursue their interests in any format possible.

Pakistan has a unique culture, there are people in lower economic brackets who hire housekeepers and/or cooks to help out, the more “well-off” families are, the more tasks they can get help with. Which makes sense for adults (to a certain degree), but it does not make sense for children to grow up thinking that there are things around the house that fall under “not my job”.

I once worked with a group in Islamabad who launched a program called “Inspire Pakistan”, they helped train school children from public schools take responsibility for their environments and trained teachers to strengthen these lessons. These children went back and cleaned their schools on their own, even the toilets. It may sound demeaning, but these children did not wait for someone else to do what they can easily do themselves. When I last checked, they had reached out to 10,000 students all over Pakistan in a handful of years. That is 10,000 students from numerous backgrounds who accepted their responsibilities. Something that should be taught and enforced from day one.

I refer to this as a socio-economic reform because it is everyone’s responsibility at this point. Our banks want children to have savings accounts, but won’t have their employees have a “Take your son/daughter to work day”.

In short, we benefit as a society and as a country by having people who grow up understanding, appreciating, and actually indulging in hard work. This is what lubricates international economies, perhaps we should consider changing oil ourselves.

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