Reflection 2 (The Netherlands)
When my twin brother and I turned 14, my parents made it known that we were now old enough to start spending our time on Saturdays and during school holidays in a more ‘useful’ way. In other words, we should think about getting a part-time job. Hiding out in the garden, playing computer games or simply languishing on the sofa watching TV was all well and good, but getting a job would allow us to do something more fulfilling. Also, we would be able to earn some money of our own. This idea was initially met with some resistance, but it was soon taken on with enthusiasm. For teenagers in the Netherlands, having a part-time job alongside school is commonplace and generally considered to be a good thing.
I tried out various jobs: doing administrative work, delivering newspapers and working in a music shop. These jobs were either short-term, or I didn’t last very long. But then I started working at the local butchery and delicatessen shop. At first, I started out in the ‘back’, which involved preparing the meat, washing up and doing lots of cleaning. Soon enough I was working out front, serving customers. I ended up staying in this job until I was 19.
Although any meat-related skills are no longer of relevance as I am now vegetarian, the job was formative in many other ways. I learned how to prioritise tasks, to work in a team, to engage with customers, and to handle money. During a time that was riddled with insecurities about belonging and fitting in, the job offered a space in which I felt appreciated and respected. It certainly helped that the shop was a small, family-run business.
A few decades on (and being in an entirely different line of work!), I still refer to my work experiences as a teenager with relative frequency. They laid a foundation that I would not have obtained through school or otherwise.
Reflection 3 (Brazil)
My early childhood experience of ‘work’ was doing small paid chores for my father, like shoe shining, weeding the garden and washing the car. That was at age eight to 12. Being entrusted such important tasks by my father, and being rewarded with payment, was a big deal for that small boy! This was true work as I saw it, a domain of opportunity and a way to participate in the world of grown-ups. Of course, my actual work as a child consisted of going to school, doing homework, and helping with household chores like washing dishes. But all of that was, well, not actually work in my eyes.
These early childhood work experiences were positive: they were about being appreciated and entrusted with tasks that suited my age, doing things, getting tired and enjoying the rewards of a job well done (but sometimes having to redo a job if it was not up to specification). It was a playful way to learn, complementary to both formal learning at school and social learning while playing and hanging out with friends. And while learning, it enabled me to grow confident and conveyed love and appreciation from my parents. There is no harm or sense of danger.
I grew up in Brazil in the 1970s. Back then, it was very common to see shoeshine boys on the streets and public squares. They were about my age, wore no shoes themselves, and lived a very different life from me. They were up till late into the night to earn money to bring back home, maybe exploited by adults, harassed by police and shouted at by customers. Back then, I was afraid of these shoeshine boys, because they used to have a hostile attitude towards other kids like me.
Looking back, I can just start to imagine how entirely different their childhood work experience must have been. Same ‘work’, entirely different experience. The harm in their case was foregone education, being exposed to abuse and exploitation on the streets, and growing tough from having to survive in the hostile environment of streets. Every child needs protection.
Fortunately, nowadays it is hard to spot shoeshine boys on Brazilian streets. The educational system, the rising standard of living, legislation and enforcement of children’s rights has come a great way in ensuring all children have access to education.
These mini-essays are part of the ‘childhood experiences of work’ series. As we prepared to launch ACHA we asked partners to reflect on their own childhood experiences of work. The prompt was simple and open: approach it in however you like; write as little or as much as you like, in whatever form you like; try to put yourself back into your frame of mind as a child; use 18 years old as a rough cut-off age, and think about harm.
Eighteen reflections were received from ten women and eight men aged from 29 to 70 years, who grew up in the UK (7), Ghana (3), Netherlands (2), Canada (2), Argentina (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1) and US (1).
If you would like to share your childhood experiences of work please send a short narrative (under 1,000 words) to ACHA (ACHA-Enquiries@ids.ac.uk). All narratives that are published on the ACHA website will be anonymised.
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