There's no place like home for take-the-kids-to-work day

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One day, my daughter's teacher directed a disapproving tone across the desk at my wife and me. "Your daughter," she said, "believes that neither of you have a job."

There it was. It was hard to know what to say. Both my wife and I work at home. She is a "writer," I am a "freelancer." We can also call ourselves "consultants." There is, in fact, no one in our house who goes off to work. I stammered some explanation. Somehow, we moved on and completed an otherwise positive parent-teacher conference.

Thursday, on "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day," this lack of official household employment poses a special dilemma. Our daughter gleefully put her finger on it when she announced she was looking forward to this day, because she would get to stay home from school. I remembered that conference with her teacher. Are we a house full of deadbeats? Loafers? What are we teaching our children about the value of work?

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As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family's getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.

Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night's e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home.

I know most people go off to work. But, ours is not some oddball approach to life. The way we live shares similarities with many of the people I see every day. On Sunday, I got a call from my dentist's office asking to reschedule a Monday appointment. Where does one find help willing to make such a call on a Sunday? It's the dentist's spouse - they work together. My local barbershop is run by a husband and wife team who have a back room where their preteen kids spend lots of time. They wander back and forth between "work" and "home" all day long. I know more neighbors whose entire work life is focused at home than I do neighbors who go off on a daily commute. This is too small and idiosyncratic a sample to say there is a trend. But it's clear that there are many households where "work" has taken on a different meaning, where the lines are blurred and the house itself seems to be the economic engine for the family.

As we hurtle into an uncertain future, it can feel as if we're going back in time.

Xenophon, "history's first professional writer" according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His "Oeconomicus" is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is "the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well." It is from this household care manual that we get the word "economics." It's about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, "home economics" is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.

The nature of work is changing, business pundits now tell us. Institutions shrink, businesses squeeze ever more cost out of operations, commutes get so long that it becomes a chump's game. Increasingly people in the "economy" are trading the workaday world for the workaday-at-home world. As the new century began there were more than 18 million such entrepreneurs, according to the US Census. Today, as I think back to that parent-teacher conference and relive the embarrassment of not quite being able to say what my job was, I realize my daughter was right. I have no "job" - but I work. Just as that farming household does. This, I fantasize, has benefited my family. Our children understand the mechanics of getting new business, starting, and completing a project, invoicing, waiting for a check, and then depositing it, just as kids in other times and places understand the crop cycle and what time of year you slaughter a hog. It's not a "job" - it's just how the family gets by. To our kids, "work" is an unremarkable thing, just another activity that we engage in, like cooking dinner or going to T-ball practice.

"Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day" was originally conceived as a way for daughters to become acquainted with the idea of professional work - so it's not a foreign idea, and as children grow they have the idea of "work" as a possibility. But as work changes, what sort of possibilities shall we sow in our children?

The "Oeconomicus" is rooted in daily life and the household. Housekeeping, and doing what it takes to keep the household alive, needn't be separate. That's what we've learned from work at home. By trading away a commute to an office, we have gained integration.

Now, I imagine my young son and daughter with more possibilities, when it's time for them to decide how to keep their own households running. This, I hope, is what might come from daily exposure to work performed in the house, not off in a downtown cubicle.

Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on ethics and civic issues.

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