Scott Hardie | August 27, 2001
We're reading Willa Cather's O Pioneers! in one of my lit classes, and the protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, is forced to grow up too fast because she is the oldest child on a poor farm and must supervise her siblings. We were analyzing a quote from the book, 'There's still a bit of the child left in people who had to grow up too fast,' that describes the usually serious Alexandra (at 24) displaying some spontaneous playfulness. This quote caused the teacher to go off on an angry tangent about how there's no such thing as childhood.

I don't know how old my teacher is and I'm not even going to speculate, but she said that when she grew up, prior to the 1950s, children had to do as much work in the household as parents did. Girls were expected to do domestic work in the house, and boys were expected to do yardwork outside. Once the fifties came and the child became the focus of the family, this changed, and children were expected to grow up with many hours of play-time each day and few chores (if any). My teacher did not object to the notion of childhood being a time of innocence, but instead to the notion of childhood being a time of playfulness. She said that it's a myth that children are naturally playful, and that we impose the notion of playfulness upon them, as well as the notion that play-time is important.

I don't care for some of my teacher's opinions (and the way that she launches into them with vitriol and interrupts whichever student is speaking), but I couldn't help but ruminate over this one today. Do we give children too much time to play? Do they deserve it? Does it harm them or help them or neither? I'd never thought about it before.

My initial conclusions are that play-time and chores are both important. If I had been given any chores at all when I was a kid, I think I'd be a lot more responsible now. I intend to give my kids chores and let them earn their allowances instead of getting it for free. But play-time is also important in the same way that playground equipment is important, because kids have a lot of energy (in this case, creative and physical) to work out of their systems, and they should be given a chance to do so. If nothing else, the fact that O Pioneers! was published in 1913, well before the 1950s, and argues in favor of childhood playfulness, shoots a hole in my teacher's theory.


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