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Education and Parenting Solved: Fire all the Janitors!

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Education and Parenting Solved: Fire all the Janitors!

 By Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD and Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD

            Thanks to Newt Gingrich, we now understand the problem with schools in poor neighborhoods: janitors are overpaid and children should be mopping the floors.  Forget the child labor laws that Mr. Gingrich thinks are “stupid”; forget that courts have repeatedly declared that forced labor (for example of psychiatric patients and prisoners) is slavery; children need to learn the value of hard work.  As a bonus the Gingrich Plan can end the Occupy movement, because it cleverly uncovers the identity of the greedy 1% who created the economic mess—grade school janitors! 

             Mr. Gingrich’s proposal will generate a lot of jokes, but hopefully it won’t gain any serious traction.  All children (not just poor ones) need to develop a work ethic, which comes from character traits like morality, teamwork, and resilience.  But we know how children actually develop these traits, and it isn’t through forced labor as assistant janitors.  They learn them  through a loving relationship with someone who models empathy and caretaking, and they learn them through play.  Many people think of play as the opposite of work, but it’s more accurate to say that play is the work of childhood—which is one reason why most of us see child labor as an abomination.  

             Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, authors of Wild Justice, look to animals for insight into the development of ethics and morality in children. Many animal species share, cooperate, empathize, trust, act reciprocally and agree on social norms.  What’s interesting is that animals with the highest level of moral development—like monkeys, canines, cats, elephants, and dolphins, also engage in the most play. In these species, parents encourage and welcome playfulness in their young, letting them learn through joyful interaction rather than through enforced instruction.

             One example of teamwork and cooperation in animal play is when a stronger animal holds back so a smaller one can win a “wrestling” bout, or holds back just enough to keep the game going. Letting go of the need to always win is the kind of unselfishness and cooperation that is a foundation for a strong work ethic when one grows up.

             Resilience is probably the most crucial to work ethic because it means the ability to bounce back after a setback, and stick to things that are difficult or frustrating. All kinds of play contribute to resilience—especially play that requires taking turns and sharing who is in charge.  When children make that giant leap from playing side by side with one another to truly playing together, they are learning how to balance “I’m the boss” with “I’m your friend.”

             Most parents struggle on a daily basis with questions about how to best instill a strong work ethic:  Do we assign chores, give an allowance, or give cash rewards for good grades?  Janitorial work does not make sense for children in school, but chores do make sense within a family as part of a basic expectation of living together. Every family needs to figure out chores and allowance based on their own deepest values, but one thing to keep in mind is that external rewards and punishments tend to take away from an internal drive to achieve, accomplish things, and go the extra mile.  Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, argues that getting paid for chores or grades undermines internal motivation.  We’ve all seen children (and adults) who scrape by with the bare minimum of effort, focused on the payoff rather than the inherent value of doing one’s best.

             But perhaps Gingrich is onto something; maybe he just applied his idea to the wrong institution.  What if we apply the “work-study” program to politics instead of education?  After all, for years, angry citizens have rallied to the cry of “fire the politicians.”  The logical next step is to have children do the politicians’ work instead, so that they can learn leadership skills. Unlike custodial work, politics might be a job that can be done better by nine year olds.

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