Industrial revolution: a revolution of the family

In her recent blog post, A liturgical downer, Brenda linked to the blog of a Benedictine sister: Monastic Musings Too. In her post, Millions of Holy Innocents today, she writes:

Elizabeth Marquardt raised the fundamental question in the title of her ground-breaking report, The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Parents’ Rights and Children’s Needs. Most homilies preached in Catholic Churches today will focus on abortion, in which the lives of millions of children are sacrificed for the needs – and legal rights – of adults. Marquardt’s 44-page monograph provides a larger context which helps to illuminate the political struggles around the issue. She studies the needs of the children in opposition to the desires and rights of parents. How did this opposition come about?

Social scientists place the heart of that change in the Industrial Revolution. Until that time, children were often part of the domestic economy – whether on the farm or in a craft or service occupation or business. From an early age, children participated in the work of the family, both contributing to the family’s livelihood and the learning the myriads of skills they would need as adults. The children of cooks learned to cook; of farmers learned to farm. Children were contributors to the family, and valued.

While I have lately become familiar with the Industrial Revolution as the start of unskilled, unsatisfying work, and also the beginning of consumer debt, I had not yet read anything about this … and it makes so. much. sense. It saddens me that this is the kind of thing that is missing in my life with my children. Since I don’t really have ‘work’, and Brad works in an office, Gwen is bored. There is only so much she can help me with at home – only so many sinks of dishes, only so many times I can make muffins, only so much sweeping to do. Yes, Gwen has toys, and yes she is often content to play with them, but I can just imagine how much more full her life would be if both Brad and I had practical, hands-on, skilled work to do in which she could participate joyfully!


  1. graham says:

    Hi Kim,
    Came across your blog again through our commonlife website. While I don’t think the Industrial Revolution was the start of unskilled, unsatisfying work (there have always been boring, hard, unskilled, and unsatisfying things to do), the ideas about domestic economy and its demise are interesting ones to explore. I think you’d like an article by Wendell Berry, in which he talks about this very thing: how his writing and teaching involves his wife, how technology often reduces the role – and therefore the need for – others in our lives, and how children and spouses can be involved in each others’ lives in productive, meaningful ways beyond recreation. This might actually be a good topic for one of our community meetings, because you’re not alone in wondering what domestic economy might look like in our own lives. Perhaps we could expand the definition of domestic in our case to include the community, and in turn generate some more vibrancy for us all.

  2. kim says:

    Graham! Nice to see your comment :) You’re right – I was definitely over-simplifying the role of the industrial revolution in the beginning of un-fulfilling work … but I do think it made unfulfilling work more prevalent! I’d love to talk more with you about this!

  3. Liz says:

    Read “The Idle Parent”! I think you’d love it. He talks about how kids will do better the less we do for them…very continuum concept. He talks about the false dichotomy of work and life a lot as well.

  4. Nadine says:

    You do lots of interesting things she’ll be able to learn – knitting for one, renovations, painting, gardening, blogging, food shopping, leading La Leche League meetings, supporting breastfeeding moms on the phone, participating in meetings, in addition to regular home maintenance (which is also a lot of work as we both know – and it’s all interesting when you’re only two!) – I’ll wager you engage in a lot more activities than you realize.

    Naomi Aldort says in her book “Parenting Our Children, Parenting Ourselves” that we have to stop mourning the loss of cultures past and start embracing the good things about the current culture that we are raising our children. I wonder what good things we can embrace about ours?

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