Helping Our Children Develop a Work Ethic – Part I

By Eileen Gallo, Ph.D. and Jon Gallo, J.D.

Kids aren’t naturally diligent or naturally lazy. A work ethic is learned behavior, and as a parent you’re the one who teaches your kids to acquire it. If you’re like most parents, you want your children to work hard and derive meaning and satisfaction from what they do.

Unfortunately, you may be sending them another message inadvertently. Though you may insist that your kids do their homework and help around the house, these requirements alone don’t guarantee that they will grow up with a sense of accountability and a drive to achieve. As we’ll see, financially intelligent parents encourage a work ethic in many different – and in sometimes surprising – ways.

A work ethic’s benefits are multi-faceted. Not only does it increase the odds that kids will do well in school and later in their careers, but it fosters a sense of personal responsibility. Kids without a work ethic tend to develop into lazy, unmotivated teenagers and young adults, blaming others for their failures.

Developing a work ethic in your children is a holistic process. It’s not as simple as making them pick up their toys before they can play outside or forcing them to get a job at the local fast food restaurant. To help you grasp the diversity of issues involved, answer the following questions based on the ways in which you’ve raised your children (or based on your beliefs about how you will raise them in the future):

  • Do you give them an allowance tied to doing certain chores around the house?
  • Do you encourage them to work hard at school but discourage them from getting jobs because they detract from their time to do homework?
  • When you give your children a task to do, do they usually take care of it effectively and on time or sloppily and when they feel like it?
  • Do you expect nothing less than straight A’s and express disappointment at B’s?
  • If your child works hard in a class but receives a mediocre grade, do you provide him with positive or negative feedback?
  • Do you feel it’s more important for your child to work during the summer or spend time learning about something he’s interested in?
  • Do you compliment your kids for a job well done, even if it’s something as simple as shoveling snow or raking leaves?
  • Are you more likely to complain in front of your kids about work or to express satisfaction about your job and career?
  • Would you characterize yourself as lazy and unmotivated when it comes to doing chores; do you often argue with your spouse about this subject?

Just pondering these questions gives you a sense of a work ethic’s complexities and variables. Let’s start by defining what a work ethic really is. We define a work ethic as the belief that we are personally accountable and responsible for what we accomplish (or fail to accomplish), coupled with the belief that what we are accomplishing is worthwhile.

As a parent it’s important that you model behaviors and have conversations with your children that stress this work ethic. From the time your kids are little, you want to provide them with encouragement and support for their efforts at home, at school and at work. There are positive consequences of instilling a work ethic in your kids . . . and negative consequences from failing to do so.

Parents who aren’t aware of the importance of helping their children develop a work ethic frequently take the easy way out and allow their kids to slide. Specifically, they:

  • Permit their kids to get away with not doing their chores because it’s too much of a hassle to keep reminding them.
  • Avoid talking to their children about their grades when they perform below their abilities in school because they don’t want to get into a big fight.
  • Find a summer job for their kids rather than allow them to seek work on their own.

To avoid falling into these traps, recognize the dangers of raising an overindulged child. Being overindulged isn’t just for the rich. Many middle class parents are either afraid to set rules and enforce them or just aren’t paying attention. They are often so focused on their own hectic lives that they don’t realize that their child is shirking responsibility or not putting forth a solid effort at school. This can result in a child who is given too much and held accountable for too little. Put another way, kids with a work ethic are developmentally enabled, while overindulged children are developmentally disabled.

Let’s look at some of the things psychological research has to say about overindulgence:

  • Overindulgence produces kids who lack self-assertion, are more dependent, have less concern for others, and are less self-reliant (the more they are overindulged, the more they need to be overindulged). Bredehoft, D.J. et al Perceptions Attributed to Parental Overindulgence during Childhood. 1998, (16).
  • Overindulgence is not restricted to giving kids too much. Overindulgence also consists of doing too much for them and having lax rules and no chores. Bredehoft, David et. A. No Rules, Not Enforcing Rules, No Chores + Lots of Freedom = Overindulgence Too. (
  • Overindulgence is a more important risk factor than peer pressure in terms of the likelihood that children will abuse alcohol and drugs. Wilmes, David. J., Parenting for Prevention: How to Raise a Child to Say No to Alcohol and Other Drugs, Johnson Institute (Revised Edition), 1995.

A work ethic is preventative medicine for overindulgence. To understand how this ethic serves as a preventative, let’s take a brief look at a critical study undertaken by Harvard University beginning in 1939. In what is known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the lives of 248 Harvard students and 500 young men from working class neighborhoods in Cambridge were literally put under a microscope. They went through a battery of interviews with a psychiatrist and a social worker. The social worker then traveled throughout the country to meet their parents and secure a complete history of their infant and child development. The study tracked their lives for over 40 years. They filled out questionnaires every two years, provided records of physical exams every five years and were re-interviewed about every fifteen years. Their wives and children were also interviewed. Socioeconomically, the group was diverse. Although a third of the Harvard students came from homes in the upper 10% of both wealth and income, almost half were attending Harvard on scholarship or had to work during the academic year to support themselves. While about a third of the men’s fathers were professionals, half of all of the fathers had never graduated from college. More than two-thirds of the working class families in Cambridge had been on welfare at some time. These two studies make up the longest prospective studies of physical and mental health in the world.

The results of the Harvard Study are eye-opening, especially for parents. In a 1981 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, George Valliant, the director of the Study, reported that the single biggest predictor of adult mental health was “the capacity to work learned in childhood” – in other words, the development of a work ethic. Men who Valliant described as “competent and industrious at age 14″ – men who had developed a work ethic during the Industry Stage of development – were twice as likely to have warm relationships (both family and friendships), five times more likely to have well paying jobs and 16 times less likely to have suffered significant unemployment.

Our experience with thousands of families over the years confirms Valliant’s conclusions. Time and again, we’ve seen the positive impact of a work ethic on children’s maturity and success and the negative impact when kids lack this work ethic.

If you need any more motivation to help your child develop a work ethic, consider a 50-year study by sociologist J.S. Clausen. He found that children who learned what he called “planful competence” in early adolescence had more stable, satisfying careers and fewer mid-life crises and divorces as adults. Planful competence means being dependable, having self-confidence and using intellect to solve problems. Kids who exhibit a strong work ethic have these qualities in spades. They learn how to do things right and to think before doing. This helps them avoid the impulsive, thoughtless decisions adolescents are prone to make, and it helps them acquire an area of expertise when they’re older.

We don’t intend to make a work ethic sound like an exact science. Some kids develop it early and some later. Some may go through a prolonged adolescence of underachievement until a specific event catalyzes their desire for fulfilling work and meaningful success. Some may drift from job to job until they hit upon a field that is their true calling.

As a parent, you can’t control these factors. What you can control, though, is how you help your children learn about jobs, school and chores. If they learn to value a work ethic, they will probably use it to achieve success and satisfaction sooner or later.

The question then becomes: How and when do you instill this ethic effectively? To answer this question, let’s look at the three areas that provide parents with opportunities to teach kids to be industrious and responsible for their work: Chores, School and Jobs.

In Part Two, we’ll look at helping our children develop a work ethic through family chores.

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