Lessons learned at work on the farm.

Late this Spring, I was scrolling through my news feed and came across a parenting article that resonated with me. The premise was simple: modern parents are tripping over themselves to make their children happy, and losing themselves in the process. In generations past though, the article explained, children were often just the background noise in adult environments, left to their own devices while their parents worked long hours, or even working alongside mom and dad, especially in agricultural settings. Used to be, kids worked for us; now we work for them.

My own indentured servatude to my children began in 2006, the moment my first baby escaped from my body, and continued in earnest when the second arrived two years later. For one full decade, I’ve been at their beck and call 24 hours a day, tending to consumption, elimination, and attention needs, rising to action at the first sound of “mama.” Eventually, my role transitioned to event planner, personal assistant, chauffeur, and, occasionally, nurse, with hugs, kisses, and band aids at the ready. Like most parents, I’ve scrambled to provide for their comfort and happiness as much for my own. My heart sings when they reward my efforts with kid-like toothy grins.

So I was ill-prepared to receive intense scowls instead when I announced that there would be no day camp or adventure vacation this summer break. “But whyyyyyyyyy, Mom?”

“So you can work on the farm and spend some time with dad and make lots of money!” I said with too much enthusiasm as two sets of frosty blue eyes glared back at me. I neglected to explain that we were actually reallocating our summer vacation fund for long-overdue home renovations and furniture that doesn’t double as a cat scratching post.

“You’ll love it. I promise,” I said, with a tone implying, “and that’s final.” “And we’ll be sure to sign you up for baseball, gymnastics, and art,” I added in a last-ditch effort to turn the mood around. They walked away in search of a screen to sulk into.

Imagining my great-great-grandma as a child, I tried not to feel guilty that my spoiled suburban offspring would be trading in a trip to the tropics for an uneventful summer break punctuated by occasional extracurriculars, its days held together by the structure of farm work. Perhaps one day they’d look back on their two-hour weekday workdays and appreciate the life lessons they collected along the way. And in case they need a reminder, I thought of a few of my own.

Teamwork & Camaraderie

The kids wander across the street to the farm at 10 AM sharp, slathered in sunscreen and dressed for success. Long pants protect from prickers and ivy; sun hats keep chubby cheeks from turning too pink. They report to their supervisor, farm manager Andrea Heim, who assigns tasks for the day. She addresses them with the same efficient pragmatism as she uses with any other farm hand or volunteer. This tone helps them understand that they are there to contribute to a collective purpose. Together with this small and mighty team, they work toward a cause much bigger than themselves. Some days they’re proud, their chests puffing up when I ask how work went. Some days, even pride is not enough to motivate through the annoyance of tough chores under a steamy sun.

Tasks range from cleaning to mulching to weeding to harvesting. The favorite jobs involve shade and sitting, like pulling starter plants from their cradles and lining them up for fast transplant. Weeding generates the most whining; this work is never done. As the kids squat and sweat over the same repetitive motion, they bore easily. The thrill of the weed hunt is diminished as the reality of an eternal battle sets in. The rows seem to extend deeper into the horizon with each passing minute.

I joined them on a rare day off from my office job, and was surprised to find that my friendly, soft-spoken daughter had transformed into an assertive, type-A driver on the clock. Organized and (dare I say) bossy, she took each new task as an opportunity to assess the scene, set the stage, and execute her plan. I watched her with admiration and pride, already hearing the crackle of the glass ceilings she would surely break in adulthood. But first, I had to stop her from breaking her brother as she chased after him for knocking down tower after tower of well-stacked seed flats. He was feeling especially ornery that day, but obeyed her direction, anxious to pass the time with whatever job was cast his way.

When lunch eventually rolls around, the kids pop over to the house to pack their own brown bags with smooshed pb&j, crust haphazardly torn, organic applesauce cups, juice boxes, and gummy bears for dessert. They circle up with the farm team in plastic chairs under the shade. Conversation is light, occasionally leaning philosophical, with “Would you rather…” hypotheticals thrown out for fun. Posed with the option of “…live as Ronald McDonald for the rest of your life” or “…hunt and kill the last twelve Bengal tigers on earth for food,” the kids don’t answer, considering respect for life on both sides of that coin.

Money Matters

In return for their time and effort, my children receive four dollars an hour. “Four dollars?!” I asked, incredulous, when my husband announced the going rate for child labor, “Don’t you think that’s a little high for junior-level talent?” He disagreed, fully aware of the workload ahead. “They’ll earn every penny,” he assured me.

Frankly, the kids don’t care how much they make. The sheen of payroll wore dull after just two visits to the bank, where they jumped up and down like little money-grubbing rabbits as I typed my secret passcode into the ATM. We discussed the all-important lesson, “Always pay yourself first,” and they carefully deliberated how much they would set aside for savings. After a certain volume, however, money becomes irrelevant. My kids crossed the apathy line at around $75, interested only in the weekly totals of burgeoning savings accounts. My daughter is saving for a iPod Touch — a purchase I have yet to approve. My son does not save as well as his sister, choosing instead to satiate his desire to own every Nerf gun on the market, and enough foam darts to start a revolution. Only the best for the King of Nature, of course. Aside from these few tangibles, money is purely conceptual and of no consequence to them.

Calling in Sick

Having held leadership positions for the last decade or so, my husband and I are sensitive to being inconvenienced by people calling off work for reasons that aren’t fully justified. We’ve redirected countless hours on behalf of employees who woke up on the wrong side of bed with a bucketful of excuses about why they can’t meet their obligations for the day. But our children will not call in sick. Our children will grow up to be highly productive, responsible members of society, dammit! They will work through rain and shine, headaches and growing pains! They will not let their team down! But kids will be kids.

On one especially low performing day, they were admonished by Andrea for typical kid behavior: dragging their feet, bickering, ignoring direction. Although they were physically present for the full two hours, Andrea made it clear that they did not earn their full rate; their day rate was slashed in half. When asked about it later that day, they complained to me that they didn’t feel good and it wasn’t fair that they had to go to work at all. I knew they were just coming off a busy weekend of sleepovers and play dates, so I didn’t hesitate to give them hugs and empathy for what must have been a judgement of unjust proportions. Ben interrupted my moment of compassion by barking, “We only call in sick when we’re puking!” And I, in turn, changed my tune to a play-hard-work-hard lecture.

Respect for Food

Through this experience, our hope is that the children of Spice Acres will not only learn where their food comes from, but also understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into producing it. And, as a result, become more thoughtful in their consumption habits, choosing foods that make them less dependent on our healthcare system and more in touch with their bodies. This outcome remains to be seen. My son may be intimately familiar with microgreens and kohlrabi, but he still prefers ranch Doritos and blue Gatorade if given the opportunity. I’m fairly certain that my daughter has a sugar beast living inside her that foams at the mouth with the prospect of mid-afternoon ice cream.

I make subtle attempts to discourage these preferences with awareness, balance, and moderation. Snacks are defined as junky or healthy, jockeying between Cheez-its and edamame (or Eda-dad-e if Dad’s on snack duty). We insist on the clean plate rule at dinner time, counting down the bites, including the no-thank-you portions. If they’re especially stubborn, I’m compelled to remind them that Dad is the very best Chef around and many people pay a lot of money to eat the food he makes. “Aren’t we lucky we get to eat this delicious food for free?” I ask my scowling little banshees. But the best seasoning is a good days work. Food is pushed around into mush on plates. “Can you believe you just picked this today at work? Wow, it tastes so fresh!” Suddenly, defiant eyes squint into smiles.