The thought of child labor makes me cringe.
I envision children spending hours every day in repetitive (and sometimes dangerous) work – forced to earn an income to help the family survive, or, more horrifically, because they have no family and are working for their own survival or are the “property” of a ruthless “employer.”

The working conditions for many child laborers are entirely unsatisfactory and even inhumane.

I’m shocked by the images I occasionally see on news reports when a factory collapses in Bangladesh or a fire rips through a garment factory in Pakistan. How is it possible for such conditions to exist in the 21st century? 

Child labor becomes the catch phrase for that which I despise, but is the labor of children always bad?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) – a specialized agency of the United Nations – said “not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination.”

“Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling is generally regarded as being something positive,” ILO said. “The term ‘child labour’ is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”

I think our understanding of what might be “harmful to the physical and mental development of children” is heavily influenced by our culture and specifically – in the western world – by our affluence and the way this has fundamentally altered our worldview.

In western countries, there are regulations that define appropriate conditions for the employment of children and youth.

We have guidelines and laws that dictate things like the age at which youth may legally be employed, the number of hours per day they may work and the kinds of work they may (or may not) do.

Children are expected to be in school, and, if they work, it’s in addition to their schooling, not in place of it. But it hasn’t always been so.

For those who grew up in rural areas, children were expected to work – at chores and even at paid employment. It wasn’t uncommon for whole families to work together in factories or fields.

In the island fishing community where I live, some families moved to a different community for part of the year and worked together at a fish processing plant. People didn’t think of this as exploitation, and one might even argue that there was some value for the children in being part of this cycle.

In other communities, kids were expected to work in the potato or blueberry fields during harvest time. This work gave them some income and taught them the value of manual labor and of the connection between work and money.

Sometimes I wonder if my generation – the baby boomers – has overshot the mark.

In our efforts to help our kids succeed, we have perhaps overprotected them from the normal responsibilities of adulthood, providing for them a life that is carefree.

But what has this approach yielded? Do they have dignity? Are we preparing them to reach their potential? What of their physical and mental development?

Despite our very good intentions, the current rates of childhood obesity, diabetes and other physiological ailments as well as various psychological and behavioral disorders are alarming.

Many of our kids are growing up in hazardous social environments, where they are either victims or perpetrators of bullying of one form or another.

Our high schools have become battlegrounds where students, like kids in factories in India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, are fighting to survive.

Outwardly, our kids may look like they have a great life with their designer clothes, the latest technological gadgets and money to spend on the latest fads, but appearances can be deceiving.

Their struggles are not the same as child laborers in developing countries, but in each case there are many dangers.

I think that we need to be careful of following the cultural drift toward ever-increasing self-direction for our kids.

They need direction, guidance and even the occasional boundary. And in a secular society, we can’t expect or assume that they will get all they need in terms of moral instruction in school.

I believe – and I believe it with more and more conviction – that children need to learn many things from their parents, grandparents, extended families, communities and churches. A secular society has its limits.

The assumption that developing countries should learn from us and follow our example worries me because we often fail to recognize the problems resulting from our cultural norms.

For me, the challenge is to find the elusive happy medium. We should advocate against the exploitation of children – by all means – but we should also advocate against conditions by which we mistakenly think we can keep our kids safe by protecting them from responsibility.

As we advocate against the exploitation of child laborers, let’s also beware of dangers of another sort.

Lois Mitchell is the Justice Initiatives coordinator for Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), the director of Public Witness for the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches (CABC) and the director of International Studies at St. Stephen’s University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. A longer version of this article first appeared on the CBM Justice blog and is used with permission. You can follow Lois on Twitter @cbmlois.

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