Opinion | In praise of child labour
Late one evening recently, I was on my way home from work. It was after nine, and I had forgotten to buy something for dinner. All the stores were closed except for the convenience store around the corner from where I live.
I live in the Østerbro district, but even with all the people who live in the area, the only sandwich shop in my neighbourhood closed in December. When that happened, the convenience store saw an opportunity and started selling sandwiches.
The store is run by a middle-aged couple from India, and occasionally their 12-year-old son also works there. On the night I was there, the store was about to close for the evening and the son was busy taking down the outdoor display and carrying cartons of fruit and vegetables in.
I asked if I could still get a sandwich, and he answered with a prompt “you bet” and proceeded to put on a pair of plastic gloves and take his place behind the counter.
“What’ll it be?” he asked. “Anything you like.”
Maybe the boy’s parents – without thinking over it – taught him that letting people decide what kind of sandwich they can order is the recipe for satisfied customers.
I ordered and the boy got to work chopping lettuce, slicing tomatoes and putting my sandwich together. After just a few minutes he was wrapping it up, putting it in a bag with napkins and handing it to me.
Taking the gloves off and moving to the till, he asked: “You want something to drink with that for an extra 15 kroner?”
I paid, he gave me my change and in no time I was on my way again. At no single point did the kid sulk about having to make me a sandwich. He was professional and cheery the entire time.
The exchange was a valuable lesson for the boy that is unlikely to be taught in school or by his parents. What he learned was that customers like good service, and that you can profit by selling a good product at a fair price, if you keep an eye on your costs and if the free market is allowed to function.
The couple who own the store should be recognised as parents of the year for daring to do something that most of today’s Danish parents wouldn’t dare to do: make demands on their children from an early age and give them a taste of the real world.
The boy’s parents gave a 12-year-old adult responsibility and he showed that he can live up to their expectations and do so with a smiling face. That’s not something you would get from most adult Danes.
They have made him a part of the family business and he has enthusiastically accepted his role.
Many Danish parents do just the opposite. Instead of giving their children responsibilities and making demands on them, they spoil them. Instead of letting them earn an iPad when they ask for one, they just go out and buy them one without requiring anything from them in return.
This same type of parent does whatever they can to make sure their children never find out what it means to fail, or to be denied something they want. These are the parents who blame the teacher when their child doesn’t do well in school instead of asking what they themselves or their children did wrong.
Their endless struggle to boost their children’s self-worth only gives rise to spoiled, demanding children. In the long run, these children will have more trouble succeeding in a world that is becoming never more competitive.
These kids are going to grow up and they will suffer because they have never experienced anything that could cause them pain. For that reason, they will be intolerable. They will have learned that they can get whatever they want. For that reason, they will be impossible to satisfy.
So let us praise work and working children. Not the modern-day slavery we know from the sweatshops of Asia, but jobs like being a paperboy or a cashier at McDonald’s that build character and require a sense of responsibility.
At a time when our elected officials are discussing whether children should learn about entrepreneurship in school, one could ask whether they could learn more about the subject by getting together with a couple of classmates and getting paid to do yard work for others.
The Indian couple who run my neighbourhood store understand the value of work. That’s a mindset I so wish could be integrated into Danish culture.
The author is the head of the Copenhagen chapter of Konservativ Ungdom (Young Conservatives).