Let Them Tend Cows by Meredith F. Small

Let Them Tend Cows


Meredith F. Small is professor of anthropology at Cornell University and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Pa...

How competent are 4-year-olds? They are competent enough to work. By “work,” I don’t mean on the factory line, or forced labor of any kind. Instead, I mean tasks that are, by any cultural standard, age-appropriate.

Little children used to have chores; now, they have desks.

Look outside Western culture and watch children, even very small children, as they gather firewood, weed gardens, haul water, tend livestock, care for younger children and run errands. And no one complains because they are mostly outside and usually with other children.

By doing these chores, they also master life skills, like caring for a baby or how to herd goats, and with that comes proficiency and responsibility.

Children in these cultures are also contributors to the household economy. Karen Kramer, an anthropologist at Harvard, found that the time Mayan children spend working for the household increases with age to about 30 percent of the day, even when they attend school. Compare that with nagging an American teenager to wash the dishes (10 minutes), put the laundry into the washing machine (4 minutes) or pick up their rooms (10 minutes to 3 hours).

It’s all about how different cultures view childhood.

In non-Western culture, parents expect children to learn about what it means to be an adult by doing adult work. When we were an agriculturally based nation, American children used to work just as hard and contribute in the same way. But now, Western children are trained intellectually, in school, where they are taught to think about things as the entree to adulthood, and few contribute anything to the household economy.

That cultural expectation is now creeping earlier and earlier as 3-year-olds go to preschool and 4–year-olds start kindergarten. Everyone sits quietly at their desks, thinking and thinking, just when they’d rather be out tending cows or weeding the garden.

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