The Importance of Free Will and Purposeful Work for Children

I enjoy reading quotes about a variety of topics. Good quotes are condensed truth delivered in a fashion that is as amusing as it is thought-provoking. But sometimes I read a quote, which at first sounds so wise, witty, or practical, and then after a few seconds I’m like, “What?!”

I recently read a quote credited to Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson, a successful businessman, investor and philanthropist, and founder of the Virgin Group, which, by the way, controls more than 400 companies. I’m all for listening to what hard-working, successful people have to say.

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

Makes sense. Children often learn by doing, which involves failing, or in this case, falling. I get it. It’s an illustration we understand because we’ve all seen it for ourselves. But learning to walk has nothing to do with following rules.

I’m sure the context of that quote is about how Branson took huge risks to become as successful as he is, which has involved many failures and controversies.

But that’s the problem with quotes. Some are all pith, no substance. I believe I can say with confidence that Branson has followed many, many rules while building his business empire, investing in space tourism, and breaking world records kitesurfing.

From the Ten Commandments to “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22), we understand rules as boundaries of behavior and measures of maturity. Parents use rules as safety nets to keep children from breaking moral codes and making dangerous mistakes, as well as standards of conduct which serve to assess a child’s character growth.

Rules are good. Rules are important.

However, I can also read Branson’s quote and see the danger of being so focused on what our children shouldn’t be doing that we don’t teach them what they should be doing. His success is not a result of rule-breaking, but of focused, relentless, innovative work. 

Think of the dynamics of the Garden of Eden. God placed His perfect creations in a perfect environment, and gave them meaningful work, along with the opportunity for choice, a rule to govern the parameters of that choice, and the corresponding consequences.

As we know, Adam and Eve chose to disobey, and thus God began the process of chastisement and restoration. He lovingly meted out the consequences, gave them hope through a prophecy regarding His plan for redemption, and then He told them to get back to work. Hard, sweat-of-the-brow, painful work.

I think after we deconstruct this whole scenario for the thousandth time, what we take from it again and again is the idea that we will be able to do better than God at keeping our kids in the garden, because we aren’t going to give them the same choice God gave Adam and Eve. We are going to give them better rules and dire consequences; the kind that will prevent any such nonsense as fruit eating or talking to snakes.

It’s folly, of course. We know in our heads that we can’t keep our kids from making poor choices, but our hearts are full of love and fear, and sometimes our heart drowns out the sensible voice in our heads.

Our children will inevitably experience failure and sorrow, so what should we do?

We know to help them develop the habit of Bible reading and prayer, to give them a firm foundation of sound doctrine on which to base their faith and practice. We can also give them the skills to guide them through life’s decisions, circumstances, and challenges. We need to put our kids to work, and to let them make choices.

I remember years ago hearing a preacher make an off-the-cuff comment that the only thing we know about Jesus as a boy was that at 12 years old he could survive on his own for days without his parents, and speak intelligently and respectfully to adults. He was already serving as His father’s apprentice, so it’s fair to say He was skilled in a marketable trade.

Could our kids do any of that? Is what we know of a 12-year old Jesus a parental goal worth considering?

I think so. And I think it’s needed more than ever—if the headlines are any indication of the world our kids will face as independent adults.

  • Have our kids learned coping skills so they can deal with stress, peer pressure, emergency situations?
  • Do they possess self-control in areas of temperament, as well as health, finances, and time management?
  • Do they have a sense of empathy and compassion for others?
  • Are they self-motivated with a strong work ethic?
  • Do they know how to persevere through difficult situations?
  • Are they forgiving, generous, and merciful?
  • Do they know how to anticipate problems and be proactive in finding solutions?
  • Can they work well with others to complete a project?

Our kids need purpose just as much as we do, and purpose involves work. It might start with chores, but if there is an opportunity for a young person to do meaningful work, they should be given the opportunity to experience it.

Most parents don’t do this because they are afraid of what influence the world might have on their child. It’s a valid concern, but in my experience, it isn’t the influence of the world that’s the problem; it’s the idle mind without focus and hands that never get dirty.

And then there’s where the rubber meets the road; change of heart is wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we attempt to act in place of the Spirit, we rob our children of the opportunity to be moved by God’s Word, hear the convicting voice of the Spirit, and learn how to be doers of the Word and not hearers.

God has a plan for our children, and while He uses godly parents to lead and guide, He does not need us to act as mediators. He can and does speak directly to our children. He knew what Adam and Eve would do, but He loved them enough to give them a choice. Can we follow His example with our children?

Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. (Hebrews 12:9-10 )

I think we have the all the parenting examples we need. What we lack is the courage and faith to enact them.

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I think you've got your finger on the central problem of parenting: how to avoid coddling, which only produces weakness, and yet avoid premature exposure to the harms of life--which is crippling.

Branson's statement works as a rejection of excessive risk avoidance. Probably all he had in mind.

But walking is all about rules... gravity, for starters! Then you have the physics of making a whole bunch of levers work together in a pre-ordained sequence. So rule #2: thou shalt put one foot in front of the other. The learning process is always clumsy and full of failure, so, rule #3; thou shalt get up after thou fallest down.

As for kids... the balance is a difficult one. They clearly need "nurture" (Eph. 6) which is all about protection. But also need "bringing up," which is largely about exposure to challenges. They should "put away childish things" (1 Cor. 13) but not really until, as Paul puts it "I became a man."

And there are rules. "Evil companions corrupt good morals" (1 Cor. 15.33).

Firm believer in the merits of work. On the other hand, Jesus at 12 in a time when and old person was probably 40 or so...   I think we don't need to hurry maturity. There is probably no way to hurry it.

Susan R's picture


I don't think we are hurrying maturity--I think our culture has delayed maturity with faulty ideas about adolescence. I don't believe it was just life span that made a 12-year old capable of being intelligent, responsible, and independent. 

I'm not saying that a kid should have a drivers license and a mortgage, but that our expectations, generally speaking, are far too low.

The book that sparked this line of thought for me was The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. The Amazon blurb reads:

Robert Epstein, former editor in chief of Psychology Today, shows that teen turmoil is caused by outmoded systems put in place a century ago which destroyed the continuum between childhood and adulthood. Where this continuum still exists in other countries, there is no adolescence. Isolated from adults, American teens learn everything they know from their media-dominated peers the last people on earth they should be learning from, says Epstein. Epstein explains that our teens are highly capable in some ways more capable than adults and argues strongly against infantilizing young people. We must rediscover the adult in every teen, he says, by giving young people adult authority and responsibility as soon as they can demonstrate readiness. 

Over the years, as I put this idea of giving our kids more responsibility and ownership of their lives into practice, the results have been very rewarding. I have the contrast between our firstborn, 8 years older than his sibs and raised in a stricter, more controlled environment, to our younger three, given lots of freedom and autonomy. Our oldest has made nearly every mistake you can imagine (although now in his late twenties he has grown up to be a good, family-oriented young man) but our younger three have always been hard workers, responsible, trustworthy, communicative, and drama free. 

Results may vary, obviously, but like I said--for everything we think our kids shouldn't do, there needs to be something meaningful in its place that they should be doing.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I would agree with the generalization that as a society we're now generally maturing too late. I think it doesn't correlate precisely with control/lack of control though. In general, what I see is kids have adult privileges at younger and younger ages but not with accompanying adult responsibilities.

So I like the gist of your article, in that hard work is character building and if kids are going to have adult information and adult-like freedoms, they should have adult-like responsibilities to go with that. But I think "the answer" (as much as there is a "the" answer) isn't really to give them more freedom and responsibility sooner. It's to make sure freedom and responsibility arrive together ... at a time appropriate for the individual kid. But also in forms appropriate for the individual kid. 

I think we're mostly saying the same thing, but the anecdotal evidence in my own case makes me want to pull back on causal relationship between timely maturity and early freedoms/responsibilities. In my own case, I grew up in a very controlled environment, as did my two brothers and my sister. None of us went wild or crashed and burned later.  I was a bit behind the curve learning some things, but way ahead learning others. 

It might be fair to say that in my upbringing responsibilities came out of sync with privileges. In any case, it worked well in long run (though I've learned my share of things the hard way like we all do) and I really wanted to try to duplicate that with my own kids. It's a bit hard to explain why that isn't what happened without writing a book. But the short version is infrastructure. There were a whole lot of factors that made growing up the way we did possible, including a largish family, very strong parental unity, excellent churches, very good Christian schools.

There are a few things now in middle age that I think might have been helpful to have been more exposed to earlier as a kid, but not many.

Long post already, but one more observation. I think there are a huge number of dimensions to parenting and it's very hard to generalize. But I have seen that many who grow up in a very controlled/protective environment develop strong habits but not deep understanding. Others, in less controlled environments develop deeper understanding but poor habits. Some of course don't manage to acquire either one. But it is possible to develop both strong habits and deep understanding. I think a good bit of structure and intentional parenting (which looks to many like "controlling" parenting) is essential for forming good habits.

I guess that was about nine more observations! 

Anyway, great topic, much to think about.

Susan R's picture


I think we do agree on this, because the point is that freedom should be linked to purposeful work--freedom is not just lifting curfews or unrestricted video game time.

Another example that might clarify: Ken and I taught our kids how to use kitchen and power tools properly from the time they were 4-5, and were included in things like making dinner and basic household repairs. It would freak people out to see my little Emma standing on her footstool chopping veg like she was channeling Rachel Ray. Or the boys in the garage with the chop saw or drill press. We got a reputation for letting our kids do 'whatever they wanted', as if we gave them cigarettes and Jack Daniels and the keys to the car.

"Aren't you afraid they'll get hurt?" This is the kind of infantilizing I'm talking about. Kids aren't stupid, but we treat them like they are.

And just because something is made for kids doesn't mean it's appropriate for kids--like movies and books. I absolutely despise most kid's movies, because the plot is insipid and the humor usually crude and the themes and messages reprehensible, so we seldom watched any. I'd rather they watch Alien vs Predator than The Little Mermaid

An important element is attitude--parents can be 'strict' but also encouraging and expecting good things from their kids. But if parents are controlling, treating their children like they are idiots or budding criminals before they've ever had a chance to learn what it means to be trusted and respected--that's just as much a recipe for stunting a child's character growth as is indulgence without consequences.

I hate parenting formulas, and I'm not offering one. There are far too many ingredients in the mix. What I am saying is that we have an interesting example of purposeful work+choice in Genesis, and IMO it creates the question of whether or not we can apply it to our parenting, and if so, what can that look like?

Edited to add: On the Branson quote--I chose it because it's just the kind of quote some people use to espouse 'breaking all the rules'; but there are different kinds of rules, so which ones shouldn't and shouldn't be broken?

Aaron Blumer's picture


If I had it to do over, I'd probably be a bit more aggressive with teaching them tools, etc. ... but not as aggressive as you've described. Main reason: As a kid I was stupid! So I've been very slow handing them the power tools, mowers, etc.

... but not too slow, I hope, on the "You live here and that means you work here" stuff.

I still don't entirely trust myself with the power saws... but I'd hate to see the kids be (a) adults with no skills and (b) afraid to use these things in practical ways. On the other hand, I don't think my parents taught me much of that, that I recall, but that hasn't stopped me from gleefully carving up many a fine chunk of wood, sometimes even correctly.

One of the items I didn't include in the "things that made my upbringing possible" list was living in a rural setting. I miss it, too. But having a large garden, large yard, out buildings... These created lots of opportunities for hard sweaty rewarding work.

Susan R's picture


I'm not very coordinated either--if I didn't have fingernails, I'd be missing the tips of most of my fingers, as I regularly dig my chopping knife right into the bed of my thumbnail. 

A rural setting does give kids more things to do--I grew up on a farm, and was using various tools from an early age. But my dad also had us take gun safety and first aid courses, because when you live in the backwoods of WV, the nearest hospital is about 40 minutes away. Some settings demand that children learn certain things very early.

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