Being a Kid is the Hardest Job You Ever Had


My friend Christine posted this morning that it was her little girl, Michelle’s, first sleepover last night. Her daughter refers to her sleepover friend as a “friend” or “sister” and, as Christine points out “Occasionally as ‘brother’, but we’re working on pronouns”. A cute moment for sure, and it reminded me of something I bring up to people semi-regularly both in and out of the classroom: Being a kid is the hardest job you ever had, or will ever have. Here’s 6 reasons why.

1. Motor Skills Are Tough to Master

Ever cut yourself on the finger? Ever wonder why – for the next few hours – you cannot stop using that finger? You know it’s got a cut on it, you know if you put pressure, or lemon juice, or a strong breeze on it, you’ll wince slightly, yet you still keep knocking that finger around, cursing slightly as you do. Why can’t you change the behavior on a whim? Because it’s automatized.

An Automatic Process is behavior that you’ve done so often that you don’t give it any conscious thought at all. However initially, all automatic processes start out as manual processes, which means you had to think step by step through what you were doing. Think about any specialized motor skill you have, perhaps dribbling a basketball, playing a musical instrument, or knitting – at one time you had to stop and really think about what you were doing. Over time though, it became automatic.

Now imagine if you had tons more manual processes than automatic, and you’ve got your average toddler. Kids spend a majority of their early years just figuring out how to do things like walk, gesture, hold, and manipulate items. You think your kid is happy they keep dropping things? Until these skills are mastered, attention must be devoted to them and away from other things. Wondering why your child isn’t paying attention to you? Probably because they’re too busy remembering how to walk – even if it’s unconscious to them. Automatizing takes time, and by the time you can articulate your thoughts, you’ve already done all the heavy lifting. Which reminds me…

2. Language is annoying – Not just English, ANY language.

There is an old urban legend that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow. I hate to break it to you, but they don’t have any additional terms than we do. However the reason the myth persists is because we innately understand the complexities of language and the variations of it. Recently these variations made news thanks to some rather impressive maps (Direct link appears down, here’s a story on it) that show how different ares of the US use different words for the same concept. We find this fascinating.

And kids find it downright annoying. Think about all the little language rules you know of – and some you know but didn’t ever know were rules. For example, if I show you a balloon that’s shaped like a dog and colored red, you’ll call it “The red dog balloon”. Yet if I show you a balloon that’s colored red and large, you’ll call it “The big red balloon”. “The dog red balloon” and “the red big balloon” sound wrong. There are actual rules on adjective ordering, that adults know by heart – although if you ask us to explain them (to say, our children) we stumble. Thankfully kids pick up on these things fairly quickly.

What takes more time is knowing the right way to phrase complex thoughts and ideas. Your child is angry, upset, scared, tired, and cranky. Now ask him to explain how he is? You’ll be lucky if you get more than 1 or 2 words. Not only are they emotionally compromised, they also don’t have 20+ years of experience with linguistics to draw on. They also don’t have 20+ years of cultural identity with which to form metaphors or similes. Which reminds me…

3. Emotional Regulation is Hard Work!

Say someone hurts you emotionally – or someone just annoys you. But you’re at your office, and there are people around, and as much as you want to, you can’t just go running down the hallway crying. It’s tough, but you make it through the day.

How long did it take for you to build up that shield around your emotions? Probably into adolescence, at the least. You wanted that shield – Oh how you might have wanted that shield in grade school when the bully was trying to get a rise out of you – but you just couldn’t do it. You couldn’t keep your emotions in check. So how’s a 4 year old supposed to even have a shot at it. I don’t know – and sometimes I think it would be wise for parents to remember this. Why can’t your child just hold in their disappointment and anger that they aren’t getting a toy? Well even if they want to (and sometimes, no doubt, they don’t because they know it might be to their advantage), it’s attention-filled tough work.

Speaking of kids knowing how to get what they want, it does seem at times that they’re master manipulators. Which is interesting, because…

4. They have no background body of knowledge to draw from.

I know tons of ways to get people to do what I want them to. How? Because I’ve used them before, seen them used, had them used on me, and tried unsuccessfully to use them. I understand the causes and the effects because I have a rich body of knowledge to draw from. If I didn’t, well, I’d be a toddler.

And what do toddlers do? Well let’s think about how we ‘know’ something. There are 4 basic ways we come to understand our world: Authority, Common Sense, Trial and Error, and Empiricism. Authority is easy: Someone in authority tells you something, and you believe it. Empiricism is easy too – you test things systematically to determine their causes and effects (a.k.a. Science!). Kids have a lot of authority knowledge (i.e. “Don’t touch that!”), and lack the formal reasoning abilities to use empiricism. That leaves common sense and trial and error. Trial and error is time intensive, requires multiple failures generally, and solutions rarely generalize to another context. Most of us would rather try to use some common sense before we embark on trial and error, but in a child’s case, they simply don’t have the wealth of memories that we have.

And think about that wealth of memories – at some point, you had to actually attend to all those things…

5. Kids have to remember everything.

Imagine a trip to the mall you’ve never been to before. You glance at a store from 20 feet away and realize it’s a clothing store that caters to a different type of body size than you own (In my case, that’s about 95%), so you move on to the next. How long did it take you to make that decision? Maybe 2 seconds. In that 2 seconds you…

  • Looked at the store front and picked up on subtle hints of colors and design
  • Looked at the displays to see what they contained, and then surmised that they weren’t selling fake people, but rather the clothing on the fake people.
  • Looked at the name of the store and appreciated that “Forever 21” did not mean that the clothes would make you remain 21 indefinitely, “American Eagle Outfitters” did not actually outfit eagles from America, and “Victoria’s Secret” was not well-kept.
  • Saw into the store and realized that there either was or wasn’t anything remotely interesting.
  • Figured out the approximate price of the items sold there ($, $$, $$$, $$$$$$$, etc…) based on cues you’ve learned (i.e. if the sales people are wearing suits, my wallet is going to cry).
  • Crunched all that together in some algorithm that you’ve developed over the years, and made a decision.

Now imagine if you were an alien and didn’t have any of that information. You’d spend time trying to piece it all together each time you encountered a new store. Now try having a larger alien tug at your arm as they wonder why you’ve stopped to stare at clothing which you obviously do not need yet.

Now imagine if it wasn’t just the mall – it was in your house, in your car, in your neighborhood, on your TV, in your music, at the movies, with your friends, with your parents, with your teachers, etc… That could get a little… frustrating. Know what else would be frustrating?

6. They don’t get to make any decisions about their lives.

Hey – I got a great job for you. Ready? Here’s the details:

  • 7 hours a day, with 1/2 hour for lunch, 5 days a week.
  • Preset holidays and vacations that you absolutely cannot alter in any way.
  • Tasks assigned solely by supervisors, no choice in task acceptance.
  • Minimum 12 year requirement before you can move on to another position.
  • 1-3 hours of work outside the office, with little out-of-work support.
  • Assigned to work in groups, often with peers that are unable or unwilling to act professionally.
  • Supervisors are overworked and thus not always able or willing to give you the attention you need.
  • No pay – you’re getting experience here! Actually you get to pay us for working here.

Sound like your kind of job? Probably not. Yet for many of us, this is the first job we’ve ever had. It’s called school.

It always amazes me how many people look back on school and say it was the best time of their lives (and thus it should be the best time of their kid’s lives). When you ask them to recall their favorite moments, invariably you get stories of friendship, games, and social interaction. You never hear someone say that the best part of school was the classes, the homework, the schedule, or the required coursework. Why? Because those parts simply sucked.

American’s build our culture around the concept of choice, to the point that colleagues of mine such as Sheena Iyengar write books and give talks about how we should be more choosy about what we choose. We worry about choice so much that we sometimes get choice paralysis or choice overload. But we don’t want to give it up – choice is integral to our identity as Americans or even American educated (I have an Indian friend who finds eastern cultures harder to work with after having spent 10 years in America and having choices about everything).

Yet kids get no choices. We tell them exactly what to do, when to do it, and who to do it with. Then we look at them and wistfully say “Ah, to be a child again”.  In fact, these days we demand children start “acting responsible” around age 12 yet they don’t get any real ability to exercise that responsible nature until age 18 or 21. It’s a little like saying “Here’s a new toy – take care of it for 6 years and then you can play with it”. Or better yet “Work this job for 8 years and then we’ll start paying you” (Back pay?!? Heck no!).

So there you have it – when you were a kid you couldn’t make any meaningful decisions about your life. That’s OK because you didn’t know anything about life, were constantly learning, couldn’t express what you thought or felt, and sometimes couldn’t even hold something without dropping it all over yourself. Sometimes you did get to play though, and that was pretty good.

Of course most of us still get to play now – and our toys are much more fun. Sure we have to pay bills, and work jobs that aren’t much better than school (But then again we get compensated for it), but at least we don’t have to worry about the 6 items above.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *