A year ago, if you’d asked me whether the U.S. Dept. of Labor should regulate child labor on farms and ranches, I would have stood up, done a big ole fist pump, and shouted “Heck yes! Go git ‘em!” Visions of Dickensian exploitation would have swirled in my head.
But that was before this (formerly) liberal city girl actually met a traditional cowboy and started spending most weekends on a 10,000-acre cattle and hunting ranch. Let me explain.
I am the single mother of a son who is now 11. He is my only child. When the cowboy first met my son, Alexander was 10 and couldn’t tie his own shoes properly. This is not an exaggeration. My son “couldn’t” do lots of things, and I accepted the diagnoses (read: excuses) the school system gave me for it. He had “gross motor delays” or possible “sensory integration issues” or whatever.
Then along came the cowboy. He took one look at my sloppy, lazy, video-game addicted son, chuckled, and insisted the only thing wrong with the boy was his mom, his schools and his culture, who/which had never required or demanded anything from him. Literally within hours of interacting with my child in a new (strict) way, the cowboy managed to turn him around.
It was like a miracle.
This improvement in my son’s behavior escalated when he began to join me at the ranch. There, my son did chores. Tough chores. He lifted, raked, swept. He cared for animals. The cowboy let my son know he expected the boy to be up at dawn, dressed, his bed made, and ready to work before he was going to be allowed to use the Kindle or DS.
The result? At first, I was horrified. I thought the cowboy was being really hard on my boy. But to my great city-girl, liberal mom surprise, my boy…blossomed. Under the traditional, conservative, hard-ass rural discipline of the cowboy, my son simply stopped having social problems. He became polite. He made the A honor roll. He asked me how my day was. He grew physically strong, and joined football, basketball and track in the city. He was reborn. He had no disorders.
And best of all, he became happy and proud of himself. He could do stuff. This amazed him. In the squishy liberal enclaves of the city, no one had expected he could do much at all. In fact, the only thing we’d required of him was that he like us, because it was all about us, the adults, getting our emotional needs met.
Now Hilda Solis, our nation’s labor secretary, is trying to pass legislation that would make my son’s participation in ranch life illegal. (Full disclosure: Solis once gave me a literary award on behalf of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and I consider her a friend.)
While I understand the well-meaning desire to protect poor and migrant children from exploitation, I now see that this issue is not as black-and-white as I (and lots of city folks) might once have thought.
The new law makes exemptions for children whose families “own” farms or ranches. That’s nice and all, but it won’t help us, or the countless families who live on ranches and farms but don’t actually own them.
In our case, the ranch is owned by a family in another state, and the cowboy lives on it and manages it for them. My son is not related to the cowboy, or the owners. Under these new regulations, my son will be prohibited from doing the very work that turned his life around.
Kids who grow up working on farms and ranches are some of the most confident and polite children I have ever had the pleasure to meet. I am proud to count my son among them now.
I also think that a big part of the behavior “disorder” epidemic among city kids (especially boys) is related to the lack of physical work and discipline (self discipline) in their lives, the very things they get working on farms and ranches.