The Secret Garden and the Necessity of Work for Children


The opening lines of a book can make or break an author. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve picked up because the cover and title pulled me in only to read the first few lines or paragraphs and be put to sleep. One of my favorite opening lines is from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Who doesn’t know “Call me Ishmael” is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Or what about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” There’s also the ever classic A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dicksons:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

An opening line makes the difference between a book everyone knows even if you’ve never read the actual book and being forgotten and worse not read.

Returning to the Garden

That’s why I admire Frances Hodgson Burnett. She took a risk. Her opening line to the now classic Secret Garden: "When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen."

From there, Burnett paints a picture of a spoiled, bratty Mary Lennox. Her governesses regularly quit. She hit her Ayah (nanny) when she didn’t get her way. Her mother lives as if Mary doesn’t exist and her father doesn’t pay her any attention. She’s described in an almost non-human way. Even as everyone around her dies from sickeness, you don’t immediately feel sorry for Mary.

As the story progresses and she finds herself in another world at Misselthwaite Manor, her humanity slowly returns as she discovers the secret garden and works cultivating it. She goes from the girl with no friends and no family to counting her friends as she and Dickens work in the garden for the first time. She excitedly tell him, “You make four.”

After entering the garden alone for the first time and preparing to leave, Mary exclaims, “‘I shall come back this afternoon,’ she said, looking all round at her new kingdom, and speaking to the trees and the rose-bushes as if they heard her.” Shortly thereafter Mary calls the garden her “secret kingdom.” Martha who is the normative character in the novel tells Mary (notice the names Mary and Martha),

“‘There now!” she exclaimed, ‘if that wasn’t one of th’ things mother said. She says, ‘There’s such a lot o’ room in that big place, why don’t they give her a bit for herself, even if she doesn’t plant nothin’ but parsely an’ radishes? She’d dig an’ rake away an’ be right down happy over it’ Them was the very words she said”

As Mary works the garden, her humanity blossoms. She obeys God’s command to cultivate and have dominion. As this is occurring, you find yourself the reader more sympathetic for her. You start feeling bad for not feeling bad for her to start.

Children Who Don’t Cultivate and Have Dominion

The industrial revolution brought many good things to our culture, and with any good things bad things arose and laws had to be made. One of those bad things that we had to correct quickly was children working long hours in a factory.

However, another consequence of a good law to correct a bad thing was another unintended consequences. We removed work as an integral part of the home. Before many people had farms or family businesses and children were expected to contribute in a real way. They weren’t involved as token workers. However, since the industrial revolution and labor laws, we’ve removed this essential element from childhood—work. The command to cultivate and have dominion isn’t just for grown ups. It is for all peoples big and small, young and old.

We’ve replaced cultivation and dominion with “Kids will be kids” or poor expectation for rebellion during the teenage years. Don’t get me wrong cultivate and have dominion can be fun. Like Mary discovered, it could be planting a garden. Or maybe building a fort in the woods. Maybe it’s mastering a talent like piano or writing or cooking.

How can we expect to make mature disciples (that’s the expectation—not rebellious teenager!) if we do not teach them one of the first truths of Christianity? We were created to work. When we remove this creational good from our children’s life, we dehumanize them. To understand this turn on the TV, pick up a celebrity gossip magazine, or look on Twitter and see how many trust fund babies who never had to work are poorly adjusted members of society.

Parents, open your eyes to the beauty of the ordinary all around you—which includes the stuff we’ve created and the work we’ve done. Encourage your kids to see it. Rejoice in the sweat of your brow. Include them in the work and not in patronizing ways. When they mess up, teach them instead of throwing them out. And after a good long day of work, teach them how to rest for the glory of God. This should be a fundamental, on-going lesson we are teaching our children. Neglect it not. Go forth to cultivate and have dominion and don’t forget the children.


Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.