Why I want my kids to have “dirty” jobs

Currently, my 18-year-old daughter has the crappiest job in town.

She’s helping clean the filters at our town’s sewage treatment plant. She gets outfitted head to toe to plastic slickers, then helps in the once-every-four-years-task of scraping off the “cake” (it’s not really cake) from filters, runs the filters through a washer, and puts them together again. It’s monotonous but easy work, and it’s a good temp job at $12/hour, which is more than any other job in the valley for unskilled labor. And since she’s interested in processes, it’s giving her some insights as to if she wants to pursue engineering in college.

But it’s far from glamorous. In fact, she rushes home from work and takes a hot shower for 20 minutes. One afternoon she said, “I know I asked for spaghetti, but can we have something else for dinner?” I told her I was planning on ravioli, and she said, “Good, because today I learned what a parasite looks like, because I found one: long and red and wriggling, like spaghetti in sauce, come alive.”

I don’t think we’ll be having spaghetti for a very long time.

You may be thinking, “Why do you let her do this job?!”

Because I want all of my kids to have a dirty job at least once in their lives. Mike Rowe has commented extensively and beautifully on the merits of hard, filthy work, and here are my two cents’ worth: my daughter will, in her future, encounter nasty, vile things: family will get sick all over her, disasters will occur in her house or yard, and she will run headlong into manifestations of “Yuck!” that only she can resolve, because she’s the only capable adult around.

Life is revolting and disgusting, and we can’t run away from it. Being a grown-up means handling the hard stuff. And it helps to have some early practice in it.

I won’t detail the horrors I’ve had to mop up, but I knew I could do them because when I was a newlywed, my husband and I worked at a hospital in an east coast city. Back in the 1980s, this facility struggled to follow protocols, and there was contamination everywhere. (It was later temporarily shut down.) I discovered these messes the hard way when we were contracted to take out the trash while the regular trash guy had an extended vacation.

I never before realized how disgusting surgical trash can be. Nor will I ever forget the sound of wet, bloody bags splatting, and breaking, in labor and delivery. I think I wore a permanent wince for those weeks, and also rushed home to take very hot showers, especially when we encountered incorrectly disposed of “sharps.”

But because I endured that bloody crap (literally) I knew I could handle anything else adult life would throw at me.

That’s why I let my two oldest sons work in the oil fields of North Dakota as roustabouts. They’ve been covered in oil, worked in weather -20 degrees below zero spraying salt water to clean rigs, labored in 90-degree weather climbing into slimy pipes, and lived to tell about it.

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My second son learned on his first day at work as a roustabout to NOT take off the protective gear too early. The work’s not done until it’s COMPLETELY done.

In fact, nothing built in them more confidence, which they needed before joining the military or becoming LDS missionaries.

This is crucial confidence, not some fluffy, fake self-esteem too many teenagers and adults are laden with, but well-earned, struggled for, “Look at the work we’ve accomplished!” worthy kind of pride. They’ve learned at an early age that they can do hard things.

Which means they can do just about anything.

Everyone deserves to have those moments, to feel that sense of accomplishment of having done something necessary for society, something not everyone else would readily step up to do. I have to admit I’m proud of my kids not running home after the first difficult day on the job, whining that they never want to go back, although I’m sure they wanted to. Overwhelmed, I’m sure each wanted to quit their jobs, but they stuck with it, until they rose to the challenge.

Gordon B. Hinckley rightly said, “There is nothing in all the world so satisfying as a task well done. There is no reward so pleasing as that which comes with the mastery of a difficult problem.”

My oldest daughter spent a long, hot summer on the Utah-Arizona border digging up Native American artifacts in 110-degree heat, drinking gallon after gallon of water to keep hydrated as she shoveled for hours in the dirt. Weeks later she still found dust in her gear.

Image may contain: one or more people, child and outdoor

(In archaeology, the office is outside.)

My second daughter is in her final year for her bachelor’s of science in nursing, and there’s no dirtier work than nursing. She’s been covered head-to-toe in, well, everything, and when she becomes a labor-and-delivery nurse, it’ll only continue.

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(White scrubs don’t stay white.)

We have four more children who I also hope will have demanding and dirty experiences. We’ll be moving to the coast of Maine this summer, and already my husband is looking for lobstering jobs for our 16-year-old son and investigating what “seaweed harvesting” entails. Then there’s the blueberry harvest.

Hard, dirty work also puts all other kinds of work into perspective. Recently my nursing school daughter commented that her current lab analysis job, which is so monotonous that she can watch Netflix while doing it, is wearing on her because of its dullness. But it pays for college and, she was quick to add, “I remember working at scout camp making three meals a day for 300 scouts in a substandard kitchen with faulty equipment all summer. THAT was much worse and paid far less. No, this is a good job and I’ll continue it until I graduate.”

My oldest son, a former roustabout, works every morning cleaning a fast-food restaurant. It’s easy, comfortable indoor work, he says, compared to cleaning oil rigs outside in the winter.

You just can’t buy that can perspective for your children. They have to earn it on their own, and it’ll be theirs forever.

Nor can they learn respect in any other way for those who do these kinds of hard, dirty work ALL THE TIME. My sewer-working daughter loves to hear the stories of the men who work in the treatment plant, and they’ve shown her their clever solutions to problems when the “expert” engineers said their requests weren’t reasonable. They take great pride in their work, and she’s proud of them. My sons are still in awe of the men they worked with in the oil fields, who are still there, year after year, in all kinds of weather.

We’ve been trying to instill respect for work in our kids. Our youth are growing up in the laziest generation ever, with few jobs for kids under sixteen to do, and not a lot of options available for high schoolers, either, depending on where you live. Even lawn mowing jobs have been taken over in many areas by “lawn care professionals” with trucks and trailers and expensive equipment.

It’s up to parents to point out important work happening all around us and teach kids to appreciate labor and how it benefits us.

Recently our furnace died, and two men came to install a new one. My five-year-old watched in rapt fascination as they maneuvered the old furnace up the stairs, brought down the new one, then cut and pounded and made quite a ruckus to get the new one into position. My son whispered reverently to me, after the noisiest work was over, “That was cool!” I told him I agreed, and that he could train to do that kind of noisy work when he grows up, too. He was delighted.

When the power went out this past winter, it was during the coldest days we’ve experienced in decades. After a few chilly hours, the power was restored and I checked online to see what had happened. In local social media circles, there were predictable complaints from disgruntled customers. I told my thirteen-year-old about that, and before I could comment, he said what I was thinking: “But it’s -15 degrees outside and windy! Those guys must have been freezing trying to fix the frozen lines. I bet none of those complainers had any idea how hard the job was, and they just sat at home wearing extra sweaters.”

I’d never been so proud of my son for appreciating the hard work of others in terrible conditions. I’d be even prouder if one day he did that same kind of work.

Nearly every work is worthy work (drug dealing, prostitution, and like excepted). There is no such thing as a too-lowly job. Every time I had a baby, I made a point of thanking the lady taking out my trash because I remembered doing her job.

Everyone who works deserves respect. I had an older relative who was notoriously rude to service workers of all kinds, until her own niece began working fast food. After watching the frenetic hustle of a lunch rush, my relative realized she could never do such laborious work simply because she didn’t have the stamina, and she began to be more civil to every worker she encountered.

One year, just a couple years ago, I worked as a “washing tech,” meaning that I sorted, washed, dried, and folded laundry for a large facility. Both my husband and I were underemployed at the time and were taking whatever work offered to us. As dirty work goes, it was relatively clean.

A couple of friends commented to me that they were shocked that someone with my degrees and experience was “only” doing laundry. I told them that while it was “only” $9/hour, no other jobs had presented themselves, and we had bills to pay and children to feed. It was good work, my arms became stronger, and I learned that I’m really lazy about getting our clothes clean at home. (I still am, but I’m much better at folding now.) I was grateful for the opportunity, and also glad that my kids could see that work is work, that you take what you can get because any kind of work is more ennobling than sitting around doing nothing and waiting for handouts. 

Hinckley also said, “It is work that spells the difference in the life of a man or woman. It is stretching our minds and utilizing the skills of our hands that lifts us from the stagnation of mediocrity.” (“Articles of Belief,” Bonneville International Corporation Management Seminar, Feb. 10, 1991).

My third daughter with the crappiest job may not wholly believe this yet. When she comes home from the sewer treatment plant each day, I remind her (after her shower) that nothing will be too gross after this experience. She shrugs and says, “I hope not.”

But I already know she’ll be pulling memories from this job for decades to come. That she’ll remember how more than once something brown flicked onto her unprotected face, and that she did not die from it. That she learned what real, solid work looks like, and that after this, everything will be a piece of cake.

(Umm, the real kind of cake, not the “sewer cake.” Maybe.)

He lay in his cot, tired but not as exhausted as the other new recruits. There was something to say for having been raised on an orchard and cattle ranch. He knew how to work and it showed. He completed every physical requirement in near record time while the other flabbier, weaker young men stumbled and flailed.

~Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon, coming later this month!

 

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