Redefining ‘Emotional Labor’: A (Slightly) Whimsical Kid-Focused Analysis
How would you like a job that pays you to do little more than relax, indulge your hobbies, play whatever sports you enjoy, spend time with your friends, dress as you please or expensively, get pretty much whatever you might ask for (within reason and budget), watch lots of big screen TV and roll on the lawn with your dog and a stick?
The only catch: You have to make sure that you
- don’t cause any problems for your employer
- don’t repeatedly break important rules
- seem to enjoy learning and succeeding at whatever you choose to do
- perform “emotional labor” that makes your employer(s) feel good about themselves and you.
There is one job exactly like that.
Being a modern kid who gets a cash allowance in a modern economy.
Having this job means having as your main task the performance of emotional labor, in the form of having as your only occupation the job of making your parents feel good about having you.
The Long Road from Child Physical Labor to Child Emotional Labor
Making small children perform physically demanding, dull, dirty or dangerous labor by operating massive carpet looms or crawling into chimneys is now a thing of the Dickensian past in much, even though not all, of the modern world. But clearly there was a time, and a very long one at that, when kids everywhere had to pull their own weight—and often a whole lot more kilograms than that—in the form of substantial, manual labor contributions to the family’s survival and economic well-being.
Child labor laws, where they exist, have put an end to much previous outside employment, e.g., as the chimney sweeps and factory loom operators, while modern prosperity, labor-saving household and farm technologies, pampering and family welfare laws have dramatically decreased kids’ household jobs and chores as well as the willingness to do them.
Yes, things have changed. For many modern kids, their main job appears to be to make their parents feel good about themselves, their children, their children’s futures and family life as a whole.
In other words, traditional child physical labor has been replaced with child “emotional labor”, in the sense that a child’s main job is to create, sustain and support a certain emotional tone for the family, with no conventional economic output expectations or hopes whatsoever, save for possible (but not guaranteed) payback for parents decades later, e.g., in child-paid monthly retirement-home payments in the distant future.
Cushy job, if you can get it. The only qualification: Get born into a family that will keep you and treat you nicely.
Do We Need Emotional-Labor Laws for Kids?
Recalling the psychoanalytic observation that “the child is father to the man”, may it not also be true that “the child’s economy is father to the man’s”?—in the sense that there may be an economic niche for adults working in companies that is analogous to and an extension of the kind of emotional labor that a modern, pampered child performs merely by existing and not giving others too much grief? That’s an interesting question. But there’s another, more pressing one to look at first.
Also recalling how long it took for adults to get around to framing child labor laws that protect children from various forms of physical labor, it may behoove us to ask whether there may be an as yet unmet need for child emotional labor laws, as a natural extension of conventional child-labor legislation. The case for such child emotional labor legislation would be compelling if there are adult forms of emotional labor, currently also being performed by children, that actually are or would be inappropriate for kids.
Likewise, consideration of child emotional labor legislation would be warranted in cases where children perform emotional labor that no adult could perform or that no adult would agree to, on analogy with physical tasks such as crawling up into chimneys too narrow and cramped for full-sized adults.
Need to Prohibit or Regulate Child Emotional Labor?—Some Cases and Concepts
So, are there any forms of conventional emotional labor that should be prohibited for children? Consider some candidates:
- The fast-food franchise “Have a nice day!”, said to parents as they leave for work in the morning: That chirpy counter-person farewell, as a task, is emotional labor because it is generally regarded as requiring 1. at least pretending, even if not actually feeling, that the rest of the customer’s (or parent’s) day actually matters, or, 2. making the customer (parent) happy as a consequence of saying it, because (s)he believes someone cares.
Notice that fulfillment of just one of these conditions can be considered to be a complete form of emotional labor, even if (1)—the pretending or really feeling—is not required as a task.
Theoretically, a McDonald’s counter-person could say “Have a nice day!” robotically or just because it seems right, with neither feeling nor pretense required or experienced—an instance in which concrete daily practice more often than not matches abstract psychological theory.
Moreover, if the customer or parent feels happy as a consequence of hearing the farewell, the actual motivation of the worker or child is irrelevant to successful performance of that bit of emotional labor.
Recognizing these two conditions as separate is tantamount to (re)defining emotional labor by its required consequences as much as or instead of by its required employee-intentions.
To insist that intentions to perform specific forms of emotional labor are necessary for emotional labor to be carried out is to wrongheadedly confuse agreement and consequences with intent.
An employee can contractually agree to perform emotional labor in the sense of doing things that have positive emotional consequences and implications for clients and customers, without having to intend or pretend to feel anything, as the robotic or merely appropriate “Have a nice day!” illustrates.
So, assuming that such chirpy farewells do older teenagers and adults no harm, is there any reason to prohibit them as part of a kid’s (tacit) family-job description? As an argument to the contrary, it can be maintained that, far from being inappropriate or somehow damaging for a child, emotional labor in the form of morning farewells is excellent preparation for the adult job market.
In fact and in practice, the mere presence of one’s child at the breakfast table (presumably an expression of nutritional self-interest), whether silent or even sullen, tends to count as fulfillment of tacit family emotional-labor contract clauses to the extent that these days parents are grateful and happy to even see their kids sit down with them for breakfast or for any other reason.
This means that, irrespective of any intent on the part of the child, emotional labor is being performed, defined in terms of the consequences-criterion of emotion labor (even though the intention-criterion is not satisfied if the child is silent or sullen).
Hence, there is no need to ban kids’ breakfast farewells or breakfast attendance, as forms of emotional labor.
- Stock-broker-like expressions of sympathy (e.g., over portfolio meltdown): Nothing is more endearing than a child who displays adult sympathy, whether toward other kids, pets or adults. Ideally, this is not faked. But, on the other hand, and as argued above in terms of the “consequence-criterion of emotional labor”, it doesn’t have to really be emotionally felt or faked to count as emotional labor.
Merely expressing sympathy will suffice (from the contractual, if not existential/psychological standpoint), to the extent that it makes parents feel grateful for the commiseration and encouragement from such adult behavior—a key goal in emotional labor: to make others, including employers and clients, feel good or better (and therefore more likely, in the case of employers, to extend or enrich your contract).
Expressing sympathy without feeling or faking is something adults do all the time—in both professional and non-professional contexts. “I’m sorry for your loss” is often said because it is the right thing, the proper thing to say, as a cultural, social, moral or professional ritual with neither a trace of emotional pretense, employer pressure nor of heartfelt emotion.
That kind of duty-based acknowledgment of the right thing to express or do is what separates what is called “acting from a sense of duty” from pretense, employer coercion or emotional inclination.
To the extent that acting from a sense of moral, cultural, social or professional duty can proceed with neither faking, force nor feeling, it represents a key, largely unrecognized underpinning and distinct category of emotional labor of adults as well as children that is a third way around pretense and passion.
Again, like the whimsical, yet illustrative breakfast farewell, expressions of sympathy as familial emotional labor seem perfectly fine for kids, as well as for adults, especially since they can be prompted by a sense of what is right and fitting, instead of by uncomfortable pretense or fear of non-performance.
Such consequence-(re)defined emotional labor will, however, invite moral or legislative oversight when the resulting emotions the labor generates are problematic—which is an issue for adult consequence-defined emotional labor as well as that of children, e.g., the ringside joy of watching lethal, no-holds-barred gladiatorial combat.
This is the legislative door opened by creating the consequence-defined category of emotional labor.
- Simply being: Imagine that you could meet your contractual job obligations merely by existing and not causing problems. In particular, imagine that your only real job is to perform “existential consequence-defined emotional labor”, by making your employer or clients feel good just because you exist and exist well and happily.
That’s the utopian job playfully described in the opening paragraph, above.
It’s also the job of the average modern kid around much of the modern world.
It’s the easiest job there is, since pretending to exist is not only not a requirement, but is also not an option. As for intending to exist, that’s pretty much a given for kids, evidenced in the glee with which they are inclined to do it, especially when very little.
Finally, as for being forced to exist, that somehow sounds odd—as odd as suggesting that the chance to live and experience the wonder of a universe larger than a phone booth and in full color were an imposition.
But, as wonderful as the on-the-job perks of the job of being a kid are, one of the best things about the job is that so many among us, now adults, got the job so easily and enjoyed it so much….
…as a labor of love, given and received.