Children are also involved in household caring work. In chapter 4, we saw the obstacles to recognizing personal care, including child care, as real work. Acknowledging children’s own care work, however, turns out to be even more challenging than recognizing adults’ efforts. Children, after all, are not supposed to be caregivers, but recipients of care. Yet, as a number of researchers have shown, children involve themselves in a great deal of caring work, ranging from babysitting their siblings to attending a sick grandparent. The kinds of caring work children engage in vary dramatically with social relations: for example, children provide very different kinds of caring services to neighbors and to siblings. The various caring efforts vary also in their moral legitimacy. Like adults, children mark very strong boundaries between what they define as appropriate and inappropriate relations for care work. For instance, a child who regularly cooks for or takes an ailing grandparent to the bathroom would not ordinarily do the same for a neighbor. Both adults and children typically mark such boundaries with invocations of hostile worlds, noting the dangers of providing intimate services to the wrong people. Children, and adults, also distinguish care work from other types of child work, such as housework or wage work. What is more, children’s paid care work, such as babysitting for other families, differs practically and symbolically from unpaid help around the house.
Children’s care work matters. It extends to such crucial activities as making sure that ailing family members receive their medicine, and thus at times involve children in collaboration with healthcare professionals and social workers. In the course of such work, children not only produce goods and services directly, but also accumulate capital—such as the human capital gained by knowledge of medical treatment and the social capital gained with links to health-care workers. In addition, children’s individual accumulation of capital commonly enhances the store of capital available to the household as a whole. By connecting households with powerful outside institutions, children’s mediation sometimes greatly affects the family’s social position. Immigrant families, as we saw earlier, often depend on their native-born children to establish a wide range of connections between the household’s adults and the alien environment. Counterintuitively, this means that a household lacking children will in certain circumstances accumulate less capital than those with children.
Children’s caring efforts take a wide variety of forms, each corresponding to a different bundle of social relations. In her ethnographic account of pickup time at an elementary school in a mixed – income, ethnically diverse area of Oakdale, California, Barrie Thorne reports:
The pick-up scene offers glimpses of children actively constructing and negotiating everyday life, including divisions of labor within and extending beyond households. Kids take responsibility for locating younger siblings and getting them home; they organize themselves into groups to head for afterschool destinations; they make phone calls to check up on adults who are late; they carry messages between school and home. In addition, kids sometimes help out on adult job sites— for example, by sorting dry cleaning at an uncle’s store or by helping a mother clear tables in a restaurant. Children also contribute to housework. (Thorne 2001: 364)
Ask the Children, Ellen Galinsky’s national survey of a representative sample including more than one thousand U. S. children in grades 3 through 12, offers some revealing glimpses into the variety of children’s care work. The survey, supplemented with interviews, reported children saying that they “take care” of their parents by findings strategies of reducing parents’ stress and fatigue. One twelve-year-old girl used humor to help her mother: “I try and make her feel better. My friend can make people laugh so easy. And so usually I’m like, “Chris, my mom feels kind of bad right now—you wanna come over and cheer her up?” and in just at least five minutes my mom is laughing so hard” (Galinsky 1999: 240). Some of the children complained about their caring duties, feeling, says Galin – sky, that “their parents had become their children and that they were parenting them” (240).
In a reversal of perspectives, Galinsky thus shows that children responded to their parents’ work in interesting, unexpected ways. While most experts and parents worry that parents are not spending enough time with their children, children fretted less about the time deficit. They did worry a great deal about their parents, but mostly about the quality of their interchanges when parents were under a great deal of stress. Indeed, she points out, children often play detective, gathering “mood clues” from their parents. One child told about calling her parents at work “to get a reading on how they are feeling so she can determine whether she should clean up the house before they come home” (xvii).
Children actually provide a surprising range of services to their families. Yet the scope, variety, intensity, and value of children’s caring labor clearly have not received the attention they deserve. With precisely that deficit in mind, British advocates have coined the term “young carers” to designate children who make crucial contributions to other people’s welfare (on children’s care work, see also Becker, Aldridge, and Dearden 1998; Boulding 1980; Olsen 2000;
Robson and Ansell 2000). Household caring work and immigrant enterprise illustrate the substantial contributions children make to household production. As in relations between spouses, furthermore, these close studies of children show them not performing their work like automata, but implementing and reshaping their relations to each other, to parents, and to other adults as they invest their effort.