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Working Hard Like Peopleguys: the Value of Imaginative Play and Real-Life Work

Working Hard Like Peopleguys
The Value of Imaginative Play and Real-Life Work
By Jennifer Casey

As the sound of the garbage truck penetrated my still-need-more-coffee morning mental fog, my two-year-old son Ryan shouted excitedly, “Mommy! It’s the Garbageman Peopleguys!” And with that phrase, a new word came into our everyday family lexicon: peopleguys.

So what is a peopleguy exactly? Well, we wondered that, too, and it took us quite a little while to figure it out. Fortunately, Ryan was able to help us define that word over time through many examples. Essentially, a peopleguy is an expert worker. A worker can be merely industrious – a capable fellow, certainly, but perhaps not quite as knowledgeable as a bona fide expert. An “expert” is often book-smart, but not street-smart. A “peopleguy” has the knowledge as well as the capability. Kind of like the Six Million Dollar Man or the Bionic Woman. (Incidentally, the term “peopleguy” is not gender-specific.)

An “expert” is often book-smart, but not street-smart. A “peopleguy” has the knowledge as well as the capability.

Peopleguys work in every industry; there are Firefighter Peopleguys, Garbage Collector Peopleguys and Restaurant Server Peopleguys. (The word is always capitalized in my mind when paired with a specific occupation.) Peopleguys do their jobs well because they know everything about their jobs. They use special equipment and often wear uniforms in order to do their work. Another important aspect: Peopleguys enjoy doing productive work that makes them truly happy.

Suddenly, there were peopleguys everywhere. Who knew the world was full of such wonders? Ryan was amazed and awed at the kinds of things peopleguys did as a matter of course. Seeing the world through the eyes of our toddler (that perennial joy of parenthood), my husband and I shared his feeling of amazement. I think we also grew to appreciate some peopleguys more than we would have otherwise, too. (Sometimes those Garbage Collector Peopleguys are a little underappreciated, yet, without them…?)

Curious and eager, Ryan’s fascination with peopleguys drove him to question us with all the vigor and tenacity of a high-powered attorney cross-examining a hostile witness. Or like Macaulay Culkin’s character in the movie Uncle Buck.

Who are those peopleguys? Landscapers.

What are they wearing? Old clothes and work gloves.

Why? So they won’t get dirty and to protect their hands.

What are their tools? Lawn mowers, rakes, hedge clippers.

No, what’s that tool, the one with the big wheel? A wheelbarrow.

What do they use that for? To haul dirt and grass and rocks.

So, the peopleguys know what to do with that equipment? Yes.

How? They learn from other peopleguys. They learn by watching and trying it out for themselves.

Doesn’t it look like lots of fun to be a peopleguy? It sure does.

And the inevitable declaration: Well, I am a Landscaper Peopleguy! I know just what to do!

Then we would drop everything to find the right uniform, equipment, supplies, and workspace in order for him to be the peopleguy he wanted to be.

It’s been three-and-a-half years since we first heard the term “peopleguy” – and Ryan is still going strong. Each morning I ask him, “What is your work going to be today?” And he will tell me which kind of peopleguy he intends to become, puts on the uniform (if he hasn’t already) and gets right to his work. Often he has several different important jobs to perform in a day’s work and will make changes as he deems necessary.

Childhood is a time for exploring reality – the outside world as well as inner desires and thoughts. So we make an effort to provide a home environment where Ryan is able to actualize his desires to the fullest. To that end (with much assistance from our generous family), we have amassed all sorts of costumes, equipment and supplies. Child-sized gardening tools. Hats by the dozen. Swords and binoculars and bug-catching nets. Realistic uniforms. LEGO and blocks. Painter’s tape. Goggles. His own box of real tools. Really, the list of peopleguy-related items in my house is mind-boggling!

"Childhood is a time for exploring reality – the outside world as well as inner desires and thoughts. So we make an effort to provide a home environment where Ryan is able to actualize his desires to the fullest."

But not having just the right piece of equipment or clothing accessory will not stop Ryan from becoming the kind of peopleguy he wants to be. He is always ready to improvise (that’s where the painter’s tape comes in, usually!) with couch cushions, rocks, sand and water, blankets, paper and crayons. And that is nice, because I know that there is not enough money in our bank account nor room in our house to meet the requirements of every possible peopleguy permutation.

Fortunately, Ryan has an abundant imagination. For instance, did you know that roller-style backpack with a pullout handle can also become scuba gear? Or that Daddy’s bicycle helmet can be transformed into a hockey goalie mask simply by wearing it over one’s face instead of on top of one’s head? It’s true! Before the peopleguy craze came to my house, I never imagined we would get so much use out of a regular old pair of pajamas.

Ryan is always happy to pretend to be a peopleguy, but as he gets older he takes genuine pleasure in working as a real peopleguy! Like most families we know, we always seem to have about twenty-three household projects going on at the same time. Nothing thrills Ryan and his younger sister Morgan (at two-and-a-half, a peopleguy-in-training) more than helping us out with our real work. From simple tasks such as folding laundry or changing a lightbulb to more complicated extended projects like painting the garage or assembling bookshelves, our kids are always active participants. In fact, nothing can keep them away from important projects and of course we don’t even try.

Usually, a household project will begin with a Call For Peopleguys, an announcement of the project and request for volunteers. After the volunteers have mustered, the project is discussed in detail and we will all determine just which peopleguys are best to do that particular job. Equipment and supplies are gathered up and placed in the work area. Next comes the Uniform Fittings, when appropriate, as decided by Ryan. We must all wear the right uniforms, including construction hats if he decides that there is a relatively high head-injury risk. If you do not comply with the safety regulations, then you are off the job, and being the mommy is no excuse to ignore said regulations.

At long last, the project will finally commence! I find it impossible to imagine how learning cannot take place when working together. While we work, we talk about our work. What do those instructions say? Can you find eight washers and the two-inch bolts? What is the best way to hold a hammer? What should we do with the old light bulb? Do you see the broken filament inside? How nice the hedges look! Where should the clippings go? What happens when you break an egg open? What are some tricks to flouring a cake pan?

The children participate as much or as little as they like, and in developmentally appropriate ways. Morgan can paint a wall with a little sponge brush and it looks great. She loves to sweep and wash dishes with soap and water. Ryan uses hedge clippers and hammers and folds towels and dishcloths with confidence.

They also learn important lessons beyond the skills they are picking up from these real-life jobs. They are discovering for themselves all the great feelings that go along with working productively and accomplishing tasks, particularly feelings of efficacy, confidence, and pride.

Our kids participate in our work outside of the home, too. Once a week, while I’m off with the little one to a Mommy & Me music class, Ryan accompanies his father to his office. My husband is self-employed as a computer programmer. Being self-employed offers an advantage to involving our kids in many aspects of the business, although many traditional workplaces may allow visiting children, too. At his dad’s office, Ryan has a tiny desk with a white board and markers down low within easy reach. Of course he cannot really help (yet!) with the actual programming, so we keep him involved in the administrative tasks of the business. He goes with us to the bank to make deposits. He helps with the mail. He loves to shop for office supplies. He takes pride in the fact that his dad is a Computer Programmer Peopleguy and loves to help out.

When we started a rental cabin business a year ago, Ryan expected that we would want his assistance and he has been involved every step of the way. Both kids came with us to the lawyer’s office when we signed the paperwork to set up our rental company. We brought them to our meetings with the realtor and they accompanied us on our trips to look at properties. Ryan carried a small notebook and pencil and made notes about the cabins we saw, just as I did. He told us what he liked and disliked about each property and discussed his opinions fully with the realtor. The kids were with us the day we met with the home inspector and followed him around, watching him do his job and asking lots of questions. The day we bought the house, the children were there in the closing attorney’s office and proudly walked around our very own new property after the closing. They were integral in helping us fix up the home and giving tours of the house to friends and relatives who came to see it. Ryan jumps up and down with me when we look on the rental calendar and discover that our property managers have secured us a new rental client.

An important aspect of our working together as a family is that my husband and I are able to share our happiness when we are working on productive activities. Sure, not every chore we tackle is met with a “Whistle While You Work” level of enthusiasm, but we do our best to explain what we are doing and why it is important to furthering our personal or family goals.

An example of this is going to the bank to make a deposit for one of our businesses, which I find thrilling in the extreme because money in the bank is, well, money in the bank! To small children, going to the bank can be a very boring errand, especially if the lines are long. The phrase “money in the bank” doesn’t mean much to a child who does not understand the concepts of money or savings or mortgages. So I talk about what we are doing and why it’s important and why it makes me happy. Soon everyone else is a little happier, too.

This “sharing the happiness” idea works the other way too. Folding laundry is decidedly not the activity in life that I enjoy most! But with some help from Ryan, it goes a bit quicker and he has pointed out more than once how excited he is to fold all the dishtowels. That enthusiasm and pride is contagious!

Our love of all things “peopleguys” extends beyond our nuclear family. One thing that we have happily noticed is how eager other adults are to share their work with our kids. From the friendly wave of the mail carrier to the conversations with our realtor, the vast majority of adults we encounter are more than willing to take time to answer the kids’ questions and show them what they do. Sometimes this happens in a formal setting, such as the field trip to the fire station that we attended with our homeschool group last summer. But often we end up meeting and speaking with real peopleguys in a more casual way.
The local pizza store knows our kids by name, so the kids are often permitted to watch the Pizza-Maker Peopleguys putting pizzas in the oven and slicing them up. The owners of the store let them watch the cash register process and the wait staff allow them to get extra napkins and silverware on their own. Ryan loves to help out in these little ways at the restaurant and was thrilled when we got him a shirt with their logo on it.

I think that one of the reasons that adults are so responsive to Ryan’s questions is that he is very comfortable talking to adults. His interest is genuine and eager and he approaches adults with complete confidence that he will be listened to and taken seriously. Adults respond to his enthusiasm with enthusiasm of their own and will often take extra time to show him something.

It is important to my husband and me that our children explore this realm of adult work because they will one day join it. My father is an engineer; my mother has had several different occupations, but the one she worked in the most when I was a child was that of teacher. I knew what my friends’ parents did for a living and I read about other occupations. But my real experience with adults working in the world was limited and the only occupations I really knew anything about were those of my parents.

Right now, in the toddler/young child years, we are able to take advantage of our children’s natural love of imaginative play, dress-up and pretend. But this is only the beginning of their exploration of the adult world. As they get older, I am planning to take them on “Peopleguy Tours” (as I currently call it in my head) so they can meet the peopleguys who are doing their jobs and enjoying themselves. And I’d like not just merely to visit these companies – if it’s possible for them to participate, formally or informally, for money or as a volunteer, then even better! On-the-job experience is extremely valuable.

These experiences will be invaluable to them as they ponder the age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Having a broad base of experience upon which to draw will help them answer that question. In some cases, they may even be able to work at their dream jobs while young.

Working productively in an occupation that we enjoy is essential to our overall happiness. Childhood is the perfect time in which to explore all of the possibilities that lie ahead.

Jennifer Casey lives and works outside of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband Brendan and their children, Ryan and Morgan. When this article was published in 2008, she spent her days working on the family’s rental cabin business, blogging, answering dozens of eager questions from her children, and dreaming of a day in which she is caught up on all of her ongoing household projects (currently numbering approximately 349).

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