In his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris writes about this paradox at the heart of American parenting: On the one hand, we think of childhood as a place that should be free of labor — we’ve decided, collectively, that it’s inhumane for our children to slave in sweatshops or dig in a coal mine — and on the other hand, between the classroom, homework, and the extra-curricular activities picked to make a child the perfect college applicant, American kids work all the time.
[I]t takes a lot of work to prepare yourself to compete for twenty-first-century employment. Adults are happy to remind kids of this, telling them, “Put your nose to the grindstone,” “Stay on the right path,” “Treat school like your job.” When it comes to the right to organize, the dignity of labor, or minimum-wage laws, however, students are forced to be students rather than workers.
Maria Montessori said that play was the work of the child, but it’s obvious, now, that we see school as their job.
Last year she said that “a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school. Her parents think so, too, she said—that she should really go to school.”
Here’s a lighter, funnier story from legendary soul singer Jackie Shane about school as unpaid labor:
“I don’t like to be played… At school I was a fast runner. Ooh! Honestly, I’m not bragging, I could run. I just sort of leaped through the air. They asked me to run [in an inter-school competition]. I said, “How much does it pay?” They said, “Well, Jackie, this is your school.” I said, “No, no, no, no! I don’t own this school. If I’m going to perform, I want to be paid.” Everybody said, “Child you’re too much.” No, I found out early that you cannot be too much in this world. You can’t. It’s impossible. If you don’t get your gethers together, people will take advantage of you. I told them “What do you mean my school? I’m not getting a nickel. No, no, no, no honey, you’ve got to give Jackie some money.” All of that nonsense and patting me on the back and giving me a slice of pizza. Give me some money!”