The Nature of Work

Mr. LeFevre founded and for years presided over the Freedom School in Colorado and has written extensively in behalf of freedom and the market.

This article is a chapter, reprinted by permission, from his latest book, Raising Children for Fun and Profit, a home-study course to equip the parent to instill in his progeny the necessary knowledge and values, including character, integrity, self-responsibility, and self-esteem, by means of which the child can deal with the facts of life, both in school and beyond school.

Work means the application of one’s energies toward the accomplishment of a given task. In a sense, the application of one’s energies, even when there is no task to be performed, is a kind of work. We could say, for example, that a man who is lolling under a shade tree is "employed" in day-dreaming. Normally, we don’t refer to actions of this kind as work. When we talk about work, we usually mean that a goal has been established and means are being employed toward the attainment of that goal. However, a man who is engaged in a sport activity is "working" at it. A man who has become destructive and is trying to rob a bank or a filling station is "working." In common usage, we reserve the word work for our constructive goals. So, if the goal is not constructive, we say that the man is playing or loafing. And if he is robbing a bank, we say that he is engaged in robbery and we don’t dignify that action by calling it work.

Begin thinking of your child as a worker. Certainly, he is going to play and day-dream and waste a good deal of time. This is only to be expected of any individual who doesn’t really know what to do and hence doesn’t know which means to adopt in order to employ his energies. The more quickly your child accepts certain goals as his own, the more quickly you can help him learn the proper means for the accomplishment of those goals. Work, as used here, will be limited to goal-oriented procedures of a constructive nature.

Interestingly enough, the child may resist the idea of working at the outset. This is usually because he doesn’t understand what he is to do or why he is to do it. Children really enjoy being busy. And it is no hardship for them to be busy constructively. Actually, they are going to be "working" one way or another, in that they will certainly be engaged in expending their energies. The child who understands reality and how he fits into it, will have an enormous advantage over the child who doesn’t. The former will very soon find things that he wants to do. Because he is motivated by what he wants to do, he will be eager to discover the ways and means to proceed in the direction he wishes to go.

The Joy of Working

How important is it that a person work? Most people stress economic necessity, indicating that if you don’t work, you won’t earn the money by means of which you can be self-supporting. This is true enough, but it is only part of the story. Factually, you and your child are going to be engaged in expending your energies. And the happiest and most successful people are those who work and work hard.

To begin with, the work of your child is going to be concentrated to a large degree in various learning processes. Make no mistake about it, that, too, is work. It takes discipline, concentration, self-control, and commitment to be either a good student or a good teacher. But the whole purpose of education is to assist the individual in putting his knowledge to work. To know something for the sake of knowing it may be fine. But to know something that can be used constructively is what we all desire.

Viewing humanity as a whole gives us another insight into the business of work. All men are consumers and their wants and desires are insatiable. We all want more and more things to consume. There is no mystery about it. If those things are going to exist, they will have to be produced. Somebody is going to have to do the work that makes production possible. Man, by his nature, is a consumer. Educated, mature man is also a producer. We begin life as consumers and we will continue to consume until we die. Production is a learned skill. We don’t come into the world prepared to work and to produce and distribute and serve. Children are little, animated appetites and they demand goods and services incessantly.

Look at it this way. An individual will consume during his entire life. But how much of his life will be spent in production? Usually, only the middle portion. When a man is yet a child, he does not produce, as a rule. And when he becomes truly elderly or possibly when he becomes ill or decrepit, he will not be able to produce. So the work span of man is much shorter than his consumption span. What does that mean?

It means that for human life as we know it to continue to exist, and hopefully to be a better life with more opportunities for joy and fulfillment, those of us who are engaged in producing are going to have to produce a great deal. We are going to have to produce enough in our productive years to bridge the much longer time in which we won’t be producing.

The Importance of Saving

Human survival is based upon the ability to create surpluses. If we consumed today everything we produced today, we would begin each day in a situation of unbearable want, deprivation, and starvation. Properly, the parents are productive enough so that while they are raising their children they are producing enough to take care of their own wants and also to invest in the wants of the children. Hopefully, when that is accomplished the parents will continue to produce so they can create sufficient surpluses to tide them over their later years when they will not be able to produce enough, or possibly when they cannot produce at all.

There is still another reason why surpluses are important. Every act of production is preceded by an investment of one kind or another. Investments are only possible where surpluses exist. So the more we can produce, the larger our surpluses can become. The larger our surpluses, the more we can invest. The more we can invest, the higher our standard of living and the more constructive our employment. The more constructive our employment, the greater our degree of security and well-being. In short, the more and the better we work, the better for us all.

Interestingly, most of us have been conditioned in our earlier life to look forward to our vacations and our time off from work rather than to our work. This is a complete departure from reality. Vacation times are not necessarily happy times. They may be necessary, just as sleep is necessary. But if a person is correctly educated, he will find work that he will enjoy and he will look forward to it because he can do it well and he gets all kinds of rewards for doing it.

The person who is yearning for vacation and for sleep and for time to loll under a tree as his main interest in life is, to a degree, longing for death. He wants to disconnect from the reality of this world, hoping to find surcease from pain and effort, one way or another. If children are properly educated, they will long to work; they will find great fulfillment in work; and they will work very hard and very long in the attainment of their goals.

The happy man is not he who has nothing to do. Examine the records covering men who retire once they reach the age of sixty-five, either because they are compelled to retire or because they choose to do so. Unless they can find hobbies or some other kind of work that will engross them, their life expectancy is reduced rapidly. Living really means working (i.e., constructively employing one’s energies). These are some of the reasons why work is important.

Three Types of Work

Work could be classified in various categories and at several levels. Remember, we are considering only constructive, goal-oriented endeavors. There is physical work. This is the employment of our energies, in doing simple tasks where our muscles and bones are employed directly. There is always some measure of skill entailed in any kind of work, even very simple work. A man who digs a ditch, runs a hand lawn-mower, or loads a freight car is using some skills, but the principal demand on him is in the expenditure of his own physical energy.

The next classification would be called skilled labor. The skilled worker has learned to deal with machines or mechanisms or power or electronic tools which, in themselves, do most of the work. A typist is a skilled worker. So is a man who drives a tractor, a truck, or a bulldozer, or who operates a linotype machine, a lathe, a drill press, or an electronic calculator. Most of the actual work in such cases is done by the machine. However, very skillful management of those machines is required to keep them doing their best. A skilled worker can work just as hard as a physical worker. But he uses a relatively smaller amount of his own physical energy, concentrating usually on how he moves his fingers, or possibly his arms and legs. Frequently, the skilled worker can sit down as he works, although that is not always possible, depending on the tool he uses.

Then there is the mental worker. He employs his brains in the accomplishment of some objective. Mental workers would include both teachers and students, as well as lawyers, writers, analysts, researchers, and inventors. Almost always there is a certain amount of skilled labor that accompanies mental labor. The teacher must study, and that means getting books and turning pages, and taking trips to see things and possibly experimenting with various tools and substances. And then the teacher must communicate. An architect is a mental worker, but he also employs the tools of the artist in his craftsmanship. The lawyer must be able to prepare a brief and to argue the case of his client. A writer must not only think what he wants to say, he must do the skillful work of selecting the right words and putting them down on paper. You can think of scores of examples in each of these three categories.

Because mental work is the most difficult, and also the least visible, we often feel that mental workers are somehow superior. This is probably as it should be. To become a competent user of the mind takes some extraordinary skills. Further, in this world we tend to reward mental workers at a rather high rate of pay. So there is a kind of prestige that attaches to mental work, including the advantage of more dollars.

However, this does not mean that there is anything wrong or demeaning about other kinds of work. All kinds of jobs need doing. Housewives do a lot of physical work requiring only modest skills. Also, they do other kinds of work requiring a much higher degree of skill, as when they cook and prepare and plan meals. Additionally, when a housewife becomes a teacher, she is really engaged at the mental level. We demand a very great deal from the housewife.

Rare Skills Rewarded

The businessman and the investor also works very hard in a variety of ways. He has certain very rare skills if he is to succeed. And this will require physical, skilled, and mental energy.

Sometimes, in our economy, we pay the very highest wages, not to those with the best mental ability, but to those with very rare skills. Professional athletes draw salaries that are sometimes two and three times more than heads of giant corporations. Yet all they do is carry a ball very well, or possibly they can knock a ball over a fence better than anyone else. Still others perform in the art world or the theater with its many phases. Men and women who are skillful in the arts can earn fantastic pay. But the demands upon them are sometimes staggering.

In teaching your child about work it is important that you find out where his motivations and his abilities take him. Naturally, you will want him to advance as far as he can toward his chosen goals. And it might be well to realize that the higher the goal (higher in the sense of the limited numbers of persons able to perform), the more different types of knowledge and skill that will be demanded.

Many parents refrain from giving their children physical chores around the house, feeling that such chores are beneath the child, since he has rather conspicuous talents of a more advanced nature. This may actually stunt the child’s development. Few people work any harder physically than a ballet dancer, an opera singer, a housewife, or even a good writer. It takes discipline and untold hours of dedicated practice and commitment to become competent in these fields. They can begin learning muscular coordination, which is always important, by running errands, dusting, sweeping, mowing grass, and carrying packages. If the proper attitude is developed toward work, you will usually fmd little difficulty in getting your child to do chores around the house.

Perhaps the child feels that his parents are imposing upon him and taking away his freedom when he is asked to help. But this is probably because he wasn’t asked in the right way.

A Goal to Achieve

Your child needs to be goal oriented. He will have greater happiness and greater self-assurance if he is active in moving toward something he wishes to accomplish. Activity for your child is not exclusively physical. If the mind of the child is active, and especially when the mind and the body can be active in harmony aimed at an accomplishment, the tendency to feel imposed upon will be reduced or will disappear.

Parents must take care that they don’t harm the child by keeping the chores away from him. Also, they should not impose. The important item to bear in mind isn’t the amount of work the child does, but his motivation in connection with the work. Curiously the child who busies himself with chores is usually the child who gets more done in other areas, too. Busy people get more done of their own choosing than people who loaf. When the child gets into the habit of loafing, he not only will not help but he probably won’t even help himself. The child who is thought of as important, not only in what he does but in what he thinks, is usually well adjusted. He feels that he is part of the team, that the team wouldn’t function quite as well without him. He will begin taking pride in the things he does and he will find ample time to pursue his own development as he begins setting major goals for himself.

Of overarching importance is the child’s mental and moral outlook. If the child becomes convinced, as a result of his early training, that one of the most important things he can do is to become self-supporting so that he "hurts no man," including his parents, and if, at the same time, his parents trust him and consult him and listen seriously and even gravely to his observations, even though he will reveal his lack of experience, that child will probably be happy. And the groundwork will have been laid to make him successful.

The Appropriate Attitude

In our present situation, work is looked down upon as an evil. It is viewed, of course, as necessary. But it is a necessary evil. If you will go to work to eliminate this kind of thinking in your home and certainly with your child, the rewards to you will be substantial.

No child will be happy if his parent sneers at him as a result of the work he does. Sometimes parents unintentionally begin to nag their children, feeling that their offspring could do so much more and so much better than they are doing. So they keep prodding with little remarks dropped from time to time to indicate a lack of satisfaction in their children’s behavior. Usually, this will not have the result the parents desire.

When a child embarks upon a task and doesn’t do a good job, the parent should exhibit a good sense of proportion and humor. And he should focus his attention upon the job, not upon the child, if the work is done badly. Instead of saying: "Mary, you can do better than that," it would be better to say: "Mary, I think it is possible for that job to be done better." Then, don’t scold or find fault with the person. Stick with the reality of the job requirements.

Possibly the reason the task was poorly performed was that Mary didn’t quite understand how to do it. Perhaps you have already shown her. But remember, her mind may have been engaged elsewhere and she only partially understood. You must exhibit the same degree of patience on such an occasion as you would want from your employer if you turned in a poor performance. Be sure that your child understands the nature of the task. Equally important, be sure the child knows why the task must be performed. Although it may seem obvious to you, remember, your child knows a great deal less about reality than you do. He may not have understood why the floors have to be kept clean. Be sure the child learns as much about it as you know. Also, be careful not to insist on the performance of chores simply on the basis of your authority. "Mary, I told you to do the dishes."

"Why, Mommy?"

"Because I told you to."

This is no answer insofar as the child’s curiosity is concerned. Her busy mind, in this case, may be considering the advisability of having each person clean up his own dishes. Or possibly the desirability of never cleaning any of them might occur. What harm would it be if everyone just got his own dirty dishes back again?

Don’t laugh at the child, laugh at the task. This makes the burden lighter. Explain the consequences of not doing the dishes.

If the child seems willful, sometimes an example can be provided. Get all the dishes done except Mary’s and let her have her own dirty dishes back again, at the next meal.

When Mary begins taking pride in her accomplishments and when she sees that they are important and make her a respected and valued member of the family team, you’ll be well on your way toward instilling the value of work.


F. A. Harper

Intellectual and moral guidance, voluntarily accepted by the follower, is no violation of liberty; it is, in fact, a main purpose of liberty so that the blind are free to follow those who can see. The danger is that in the absence of liberty the blind may become authorized to lead those who can see—by a chain around their necks!

The terrific urge to prevent another person from making a "mistake" must be resisted if liberty is to be preserved. The "protective spirit" that leads a fond parent to prohibit his child from acquiring mature judgments, as he substitutes his own opinions for those of the child, leads the dictator to act as he does in "protecting" his political children. There is no possible way to allow a person to be right without also allowing him to be wrong. The only way to avoid responsibility for anther’s mistakes is to allow him the full glory and reward of being right, as well as the full dishonor and penalty of being wrong. Only in this way can one person isolate himself from the mistakes of another, whether it be a Stalin or a neighbor.