Children really are a blessing, emotionally and spiritually invaluable, giving a real meaning to their parents’ lives — but they also used to be a material blessing. In modern America, kids are expensive, and they add very little productive benefit to the home.
This is one of the major differences between the world of Anne of Green Gables and today. In the 1908 book, the later movies, and the new Netflix show (Anne with an E), Anne does important work and lives a full life in that context. Her struggles are more compelling than children’s tales of struggling at school, facing bullies, and choosing what sports to play.
As Jeffery Tucker, director of content for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), pointed out, children in the early 1900s were tangibly productive. “They worked, gained skills, and produced for their families or otherwise worked for businesses here and there. They were assets. As they gained skills, discipline, and a work ethic, they could become ever more valuable to their custodians and communities,” Tucker wrote.
This economic value is a major reason why people wanted kids in the first place, and the increasing price tag of raising children in today’s environment is a major reason why the U.S. fertility rate has fallen to record lows. As Tucker pointed out, today “kids are mostly a financial cost and defined as such, because the law, educational system, and welfare state make it that way.”
But besides making it less likely kids are born in the first place, this modern system arguably hurts children in more pervasive ways — by depriving them of the dignity of work and the mindset of productivity.
Anne of Green Gables shows this dignity in delightful ways. Anne is 13 years old at the beginning of the story, and she has lived a hard life. A family adopts her from her orphanage in order to get a worker who only needs room and board. The aging brother and sister had asked for a boy, but Anne charms them with her skills, work ethic, and knowledge, so they decide to keep her.
Anne was self-taught, but she loved reading, imagining, and dreaming. Not being in school did not prevent her from becoming a brilliant young lady.
But the story isn’t just about her learning — it’s about the challenges, opportunities, tragedies, and triumphs of her young life. As a child in those times, she was expected to be productive, and she was an aspiring adult, tasked with real responsibilities. School was one of those responsibilities, but it was not considered the sole purpose of her life.
Tucker, a staunch libertarian and even anarchist, described Anne’s life this way.
Back then, kids were not nationalized by the state, their every move controlled by public institutions, and forbidden from working by the government. They were challenged with as many adult responsibilities as they could handle. That Anne works hard, can do anything a boy can do, picks up vast skills, and her path of learning is largely unscripted is a real source of delight for readers and viewers. She proves herself up to the task.
But shortly after Anne’s story was written, the government outlawed her way of life. In the Progressive Era, school was made compulsory. Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, “child labor” was banned. Families and kids had no choice but to enroll kids in school, and only let them work — with heavy restrictions — during their teenage years.
“You aren’t really free to earn money serving others until you are 18, by which time kids are socialized to want to do anything but that,” Tucker explained.
Furthermore, programs like Social Security promote a mindset where aging parents and grandparents are dependent on the government, rather than their children and grandchildren, in old age. This removed yet another key function of children, and now they are less valuable to parents because they are no longer necessary for end-of-life care.
Pointedly, Tucker asked, “In such a world, would Anne have been adopted? Why would she be? Instead of realizing her value, she would have been stuffed into a holding cell for twelve years, and her caretakers would have been fiduciarily responsible for providing room and board with no compensation.”
These legal changes were done supposedly for children’s own well-being, but they actually deprived kids of their economic value. “Public policy killed the value of kids in the world, denying their rights to choose, work, and serve others,” the FEE director explained. “Society literally decided to devalue them to the point that they are all cost when young and unnecessary when their caretakers are old.”
When the cost of something goes up, people buy less of it. But aren’t kids better off now that “child labor” has been outlawed? Tucker suggests that they are far worse off. Today’s children are sorted by age, placed under an authority figure, and forced to regurgitate facts day by day, year by year.
“When we discover that the kids are bored and misbehave, we stuff them full of drugs, belittle them, jail them for misbehavior, and finally turn them out into the world at the age of 18 with no skills, work ethic, or knowledge of what it means actually to succeed in life,” Tucker concludes, damningly. He’s not entirely wrong.
Moreover, the very excuses for outlawing “child labor” — the horrible conditions of factories in the Industrial Revolution — are a thing of the past. In the digital age, there are new worlds of safe work kids could do while learning and enjoying life.
Anne escaped her orphanage because she could prove her value. She created her own place in the world, developed helpful skills, and drove her own learning. No laws prevented her from adding value in whatever way she could, and no laws forced her to sit in the same classroom with everyone else her age.
Jeffrey Tucker presented a theory to explain why Anne of Green Gables remains popular today. “Kids in those days were regarded by society as real human beings with rights and dignity and opportunity,” he argued. “They could live full and wonderful lives. They lived real lives as part of real life. Their rights were not systematically violated by the law in the name of helping them.”
Work is not just a way to earn much-needed cash — it provides the dignity of self-sufficiency and the knowledge that you are adding value. An increasing number of college graduates do not know this dignity, and there is no reason children should be prevented from experiencing it. Would there be as many unemployed college grads and young adults if these people had learned how to make money as children?
How many parents decided kids were too expensive? How many kids have been deprived the dignity of work due to outdated laws? It is hard to tell the full extent of the damage that government has caused by making children less valuable.