Using children as labor

I had a Monday deadline.  What with one thing and another, my (new) RAs didn’t finish or didn’t correctly finish turning my color figures into consistent black and white figures in Excel before the weekend.

Since I hadn’t actually finished writing the paper yet at that point I wasn’t going to have time to do it myself.  So I thought… I bet this is something DC1 could do.

I asked DC1 if zie was interested in learning excel and fixing up some graphs for me and said I would pay hir, though I didn’t yet know how much.  Zie said sure.

So DH showed DC1 how and we decided the exact shades and dottings and markers that we liked, and DC1 finished over the weekend in less time than I had expected (~3 hours total) and did a great job.  Zie had really nice attention to detail, something I haven’t had in an RA for several years.

My mom never let me help with her rote grading or other work activities, even when it was mindless stuff I could easily do.  I did do some data entry and cataloguing for my father for various of his self-employment ventures.  It is legal to employ a child in a family business.  Is my research a family business?  This particular deadline comes with a check and I do have my own EIN.  If I don’t have to do it, is it a hobby?  If it is legal, is it ethical?

I salivate at the thought of my brilliant, careful DCs running Stata code for me.  We’re not there yet, but man, that would be awesome.  I know economist children of famous economists who grew up doing RA work for their parents and other economists for cash, and they seem to think they picked up useful skills, especially when that first non-economics major didn’t work out.  A person who can code can make a tidy sum.

Did you ever help your parents out with their work?  If you have children, have they helped out with your work?

44 Responses to “Using children as labor”

  1. Leah Says:

    I am quite adept at photocopying, stapling bulletins, stuffing envelopes, preparing communion, cleaning bathrooms, and answering phones from helping out my minister dad at work. We did it for candy, usually (not the best motivator in hindsight). My parents didn’t use daycare, so we spent the summers at church with our dad.

    My kid thinks she’s helping with grading, but she’s not there yet. I use my phone to grade multiple choice (bubble sheets with a QR code). She does like to decorate papers, so I have to keep her occupied while grading. She does help feed fish in my classroom and “clean up.” Again, help level dubious, but I think that’s also an age thing.

    • undine Says:

      I am curious about how you grade bubble sheets with a QR code!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t know how Leah did it, but back in the day, my mom had stencils that she put over the bubbles and could mark each one wrong that wasn’t filled in. (Note: with this method you could fill all 4/5 items in and get 100%, though I think she glanced through for things like that.)

      • Leah Says:

        zip grade! Totally worth every penny. My phone makes a satisfying buzz each time it reads the bubble sheet. It’s something like $8 for a year subscription plus a free app. My life is measurably better now.

  2. independentclause Says:

    I stuffed envelopes for free. Evidently I thought it was fun.

    I turned pages for my mother who was a church pianist. That was not as fun, but it was badass. (In my humble opinion.)

  3. rs Says:

    My father was a lawyer and all my siblings and me grew up helping him in his work in various ways. Simple clerical work mostly. We were never paid anything as it was considered that it is part of our duty to help parents and also he is earning for family (I come from Asian country where the idea of paying to your kids do not exist). Yes, it provides an important skill to kids, so please involve your kids in your work if you can do it. They will be better equipped in world.

  4. Nanani Says:

    Depends how you define “work”

    I was the family tech support since I would actually read instruction manuals and the like for fun (or for lack of anything else to read on long car trips, while waiting for parents to finish other things, whatever) so I definitely helped there, but that was more like “making the printer go” and not on the level of what you describe here.

    At younger ages I remember “helping” my elementary school teacher mom by putting the gold star stickers next to the high scores, like Leah describes in the comments :)

  5. Cardinal Says:

    My dad managed a set of labs whose research was on a part of the construction industry. So every year he received in the mail a huge set of papers to update the various building & fire codes. These packages included instructions like “remove the former section 3.2 and replace with the enclosed 3.2.1 – 3.2.4”. It was a solid day’s work for a detail-oriented young teen. He’d bring me to work with him in the morning and set me loose on the codes, then take me out for lunch. I’d finish up in the afternoon and he’d knock off early for the day to take me home. He didn’t have to waste his staff’s work hours on necessary but mindless busy-work, and I still have fond memories of getting to spend time with him and knowing that I was genuinely useful.

    I have TAs so I don’t have to do much of my own grading, but I look forward to the days (surely not long now) when I can entice my kids to do some of the busy work.

  6. Kellen Says:

    My mom worked as an admin and I definitely helped with stuffing envelopes a few times, and was paid for it–not really sure of the logistics of this (don’t remember if the check came right from the company. I was a young teen, so old enough I think.) Once my sister went away to college, my mom also paid me to help clean the horse stalls, which was basically just like a way of earning pocket money.

  7. bogart Says:

    As a teen, I remember doing some bibliographic formatting for my mom — she worked in an admin role in a department where somebody was editor of a journal, IIRC. And that was for pay. I don’t remember other paid work (for her), though there may have been bits.

    I don’t think my stepkids ever worked for their dad, whose job was basically data wrangling and data access provision (would have offered useful job skills, though not necessarily in the areas that interested them); I don’t know if they ever did work for their mom.

    Will you document your DC’s income and open a Roth for zir?

  8. Old Jane Says:

    Think you are wondering if child gets money from helping if they are employees in a family family. question: Are you going to pay the child and have payroll taxes deducted and do all the IRS and tax filings? Start your thinking with that issue in mind. It is mind clearing.

  9. Steph Says:

    My dad was a HS teacher. I very rarely graded (occasionally I’d grade a multiple choice homework/quiz), but over the years I organized papers, alphebetized things, re-organized and cataloged storage closets full of chemicals, stickered/stamped textbooks with the school’s info, entered grades into the computer, and judged science fairs. It helped that I didn’t go to the school where he taught, in terms of conflicts of interest. I also apprenticed for him at his side job as a painter. I always got paid.

    Technically we also “helped” with some classroom demo stuff – I remember drawing transparencies with examples for some set of categories (kingdoms? chemicals? IDK anymore) that were probably more cute than anything actually useful.

    I think the key is choice, and compensation. I enjoyed helping my dad with stuff and getting money; it was a nice way to spend time with my dad. We were never forced to help him. He was generally paying us to make his work go faster, and he would hire former students to help if we didn’t want to do something.

  10. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    My son, as a high school student, created the PteroDAQ data acquisition system that I use in my applied electronics course. I did not pay him for this. We have released the source code free on BitBucket (it is one of many things on his resume). He also has helped me create videos for my class (only one of which has been released so far), and proofread a consultant’s report I wrote. This work was unpaid, but then so was the extensive consulting and advising I’ve done for his start-up company. We help each other because we can and because we want to, not for financial reward.

  11. yuppiemillennial Says:

    My mother had me do clerical work for her as a kid. She initially offered me $3/hour (this was early 2000s) but after some point it just got added to my chores list. Not sure I learned any useful skills, but organizing her folders helped me better appreciate different sorting algorithms in college.

  12. Cloud Says:

    Once I got old enough, I helped my mom (a 1st grade and then 3rd grade teacher) grade papers. As a college student and then a grad student, I went into her classroom when home on breaks to listen to kids read, do my favorite simple, non-messy science demo (this one:, and generally demonstrate that scientists aren’t all old white guys with crazy hair.

    My dad was a librarian, and there wasn’t anything I could do to help with that.

    I haven’t made use of my kids in my work yet, but I suspect I’ll have them reading and proofreading things for me before too much longer….

  13. Calee Says:

    I helped with many, many hours of mailings for my mother — a professional volunteer. Never paid. When I was about 15, I worked a summer as a low level file clerk at my dad’s law firm. I used a typewriter(!!) and was paid minimum wage. We tried to teach our nine-year-old how to photoshop out a background but she wasn’t ready for the detail. My kids help shlep boxes already and I think we’re getting close to being able to have them record audio for children’s books. They will be helping with the family business, first without pay, then later for it. They know it and are looking forward to it.

  14. Sara Says:

    My dad was an academic, and he always had jobs for my siblings and me when we wanted to earn spending money. My oldest sister could type 100 words a minute in the early ’90s due to all her practice transcribing his notes. I was the graphic design kid (making class handouts or signs for his office). It was a lot of fun to me trying to learn how to make the software do what I wanted. We also helped with things like filing and shredding for his home office, but that may have been just part of our usual chores.

  15. Sarabeth Says:

    My mom totally let me grade her quizzes! I think her students thought it was cute? There wasn’t any professional judgment involved. I liked doing it when I’d finished reading all the books I had from the library at the moment.

  16. Katherine Says:

    I never helped with my parents’ work when I was a kid, but the summer between high school and college my dad’s (three-person) company hired me to do some data entry type stuff. I think they paid me $10/hour, but I don’t remember. The work was so incredibly boring and unpleasant that I quit after two weeks – by then I also had a part-time weekend job working at a laundromat, so I didn’t need the job as much, and I enjoyed the laundromat work so much more. I felt kind of bad for quitting on my dad and his business partner, but not so bad that I was willing to face the mind-numbing drudgery of the work.

    I don’t have kids, but in the far future I could see myself hiring hypothetical children to proofread or turn my hand-drawn figures into computer pictures. I don’t think I would hire them to do grading, because I would worry about student privacy issues.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I would rather be a garbage collector than do data entry.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Garbage collectors get paid A LOT more than data entry clerks!

      • xykademiqz Says:

        I wanna be a trucker. For real. I assume it’s not without dangers, but I would get to drive non-stop. It pays well, I hear.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        @xykademiqz, being a trucker used to pay well, when it was a union job on a corporate truck. Nowadays many long-haul truckers are independent contractors, with few benefits, low pay, and responsibility for all their own truck purchase and maintenance.

      • chacha1 Says:

        You have to drive for a union outfit, for sure. My brother-in-law used to do long-haul for UPS and he made bank.

      • Cloud Says:

        I don’t mind data entry! Put on some good tunes, and just type… Of course, I’ve mostly done data entry into databases I designed, so it also functions as assumption testing. I wonder, if I did a bunch of data entry into someone else’s database, would I find I couldn’t resist providing suggestions for improving the design?

  17. chacha1 Says:

    My very first out-of-home job was in the file room at my dad’s office. :-) I don’t remember ever helping Mom with her stuff (she was a teacher), probably because she made really good use of her free periods. I honestly can’t remember her bringing much home. Teachers in the 1970s/80s did not have the same administrative burdens teachers have now.

    Both of us helped out a lot with chores at home, especially outdoor chores that had low strength or skill requirements. Anything done at home was just for brownie points, very occasionally an allowance bonus, or a Treat Out (we lived in the woods and getting into town was a big deal).

    I personally would not consider a child “employed in the family business” until said child was executing a given set of tasks with some regularity. I’d consider the occasional “can you help me out with this” an allowance-bonus or Treat Out scenario. :-) If you seriously get to a point where DC is doing stuff your RA would do (if you had a competent/reliable RA), then definitely call it a job!

  18. undine Says:

    My kids graded multiple-choice quizzes sometimes; other times, they hand-wrote labels with complete bibliographic info to stick on photocopies for various scholarly projects. I do remember that back before PowerPoint was ubiquitous (circa 1996), I taught them how to use PowerPoint & Eldest made an amazing visual argument about why we should get a rescue iguana. (We got the rescue iguana.)

  19. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Long ago when I took my 17- and 12-year-old daughters with me to a craft show where I was a vendor, I laid out chores they could do or not do. But, it paid, and they were not getting any money if they did not want to work. It was the preliminary production work for my products. Some of the chores, like tracing something, only paid a quarter. But, they could trace many in a short time. I taped a piece of paper to the table with the little jobs, how many they did and how much they earned. They were totally in charge of the charts and what I owed them. When they took the money from the cash register, they noted that on the chart, too. They had all the money they needed plus, they were free to trade my craft for anything they wanted without any payment to me. I did feed them, provide drinks and snacks, so they were not on their own. I think the younger one got every penguin in the Opry Land Hall we were in. They also learned to work the cash register and give change.
    They both enjoyed the autonomy and trust I placed in them for their own recordkeeping.

    When the younger daughter was 17, she applied for the manager position at a national business and GOT it. This was the child who had chores to do when she turned two. Her job was to bring the garbage cans in every Thursday morning. She fell down lots, let the lid fall off, struggled to put it back on and drag the cans and did it every week. I sent her out in the cold and rain. She also sorted the utensils from the dishwasher into the divider in the drawer. Every day, she became faster. This was not paid work! She wanted so much to be treated like her older siblings who grumbled about chores! I fixed the grumbling when I promised chores would be doubled if they continued to grumble!

    • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

      Woman after my own heart. We send JuggerBaby to take some trash out to the bins now too! No inclement weather as our bins are stored inside but still, has to hold onto it on the long trip to the bin and remember to put it in. Small steps!

  20. Debbie M Says:

    I helped my dad at his business one summer. He paid me minimum wage for the hours I worked, but I was stuck there all day (12 hours). The best was when he had me catch up with his accounting. The numbers were already recorded in the books. I just added up a bunch of numbers in rows and columns. (And then I added the row totals and column totals to check my work.) My dad had been dreading doing this. I took it as an opportunity to teach myself ten-key by touch. In the end, I had done three full days of work! Real money! My dad was shocked, but I told him that I had no other job duties whereas he was always running around doing stuff. I was 17 years old by then, though.

    My boyfriend says his teacher mom had him help make some teaching supplies. He said this was fun for the first ten minutes, but then mind-numbingly dull. If she had paid him, even one penny per item, he said it would have been okay.

  21. ralucacoldea Says:

    I think you are providing your kid with valuable real-life experiences i.e. paying him for the work. Having an aunt that has a farm, I can attest that unpaid child labour is a big thing in my country and I believe, a worth while experience for any kid growing up. As long as it’s on a voluntary basis, meaning your kid can always say no, I think not only is it fine, but actually a great idea.

  22. First Gen American Says:

    I was never paid for work. I hated picking fruit from the garden…mainly because my mom would let most of it rot before she had time to can it. It always felt like a waste. In hindsight, she was working 50+ hours a week plus doing all the housework so now I get it but it still annoyed me.

    My husband is better at getting the kids to do stuff than me but he never pays them. I offer money for above and beyond chores which makes them seem optional. My older son is not very materialistic and wants for little so he’s like nah, I’ll just keep chilling. I don’t want the money that badly. I guess I should offer a paid and an unpaid chore but not make it optional.

    My older son will voluntarily do stuff without prodding if it involves technology. (Like figuring out how my new car worked and what all the buttons do…how to get Bluetooth to work etc. )

    My younger son is much more efficient with his time. He blows through chores lickity split but isn’t as capable of doing everything just yet.

  23. mosamsky Says:

    My kids have spent quite a few half-days at work with me this year (some teacher workdays and a week where summer camp fell through). I’m in an academic library, and the project I was working on was full of tasks perfect for delegating to 3rd and 5th graders. They do a better job than the average undergrad–kids take this stuff very seriously! I buy them lunch and they’re happy with that. It’s worthwhile experience, and work that needs doing.

  24. Jenny F Scientist Says:

    My mom is a medical professional and my dad did industrial safety so… not really. Except! Once I did medical translation for an immigrant patient who didn’t speak English. Didn’t get paid though.

  25. SP Says:

    My dad is an electrician and he would sometimes bring us to job sites on the weekend… but we were no help (probably the opposite). We also went to Mendards (hardware store) a lot, but I don’t think that collecting the paint samples cards we thought were pretty was really helpful to anyone (again, the opposite). Looking back, that was really nice of him – he got us out of my mom’s hair so she had some time to herself on the weekends. Even if we ultimately got bored, we always were excited to go at first. My mom is a nurse, which also doesn’t lend itself to help from kids.

  26. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Why yes indeed. I was their cashier, shelf stocker and straightener, bill-pay manager / check writer, part time cook, fluff&fold, and sometimes groomer / masseuse. I didn’t get paid for any of it, in our culture my pay was food and shelter, but the skills were useful entry to life skills. Though I admit to still retaining a certain amount of obsession with keeping all shelves straightened.

    JuggerBaby has a few jobs which ze executes inconsistently: putting trash and recycling in their proper places, putting laundry in the basket or the washing machine, helping me vacuum or wipe down dusty furniture, reshelving zir books. I haven’t come up with many tasks that are terribly helpful and age appropriate yet but I’m always encouraging zir to be nearby and do what I’m doing or potter around.

  27. Rented life Says:

    Brother and I didn’t help our parents with work. For dad it was because he left work at work and his job wasn’t one we could help with and remain safe. (Max security prison-he did mental health. His clients knew nothing about him just in case.) for mom, now that I’m older I realize I could have helped with paper work but she never let us. They have particular ideas about what adults and children do. Children are kept away from all adult things. We had chores we had to do and then “extra” chores we could do for money. So I’m an expert cleaner.

    For my LO that’s not how it works.. Zie isn’t kept away from things like work, the kitchen, etc the way I was. We both work from home so zie sees us working every day, has seen me working zir entire life. Being almost 3 there isn’t much zie can do to help. Sometimes it go get that thing off the printer, or make a pile here kind of stuff. Hubby has helped me when some tasks got crazy and I’m sure my kid could when it’s age appropriate.

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