Helping Our Children Develop A Work Ethic – Part III

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

Schoolwork and extracurricular activities are two of the three basic building blocks that help your children develop a work ethic. The other is family chores. When it comes to schoolwork, let’s start off with a surprising truth: Pressuring your children to get straight A’s does not develop a work ethic. It may increase their stress to off-the-chart levels, but it won’t help them gain satisfaction from achievement or become self-motivated. Elisabeth Gurthrie and Kathy Matthews, authors of The Trouble With Perfect, note that children need to take chances and possibly fail if they are going to develop a strong sense of self. When parents turn up the pressure on grades, they encourage their children to play it safe in order to achieve a highly ambitious goal. As a result, they’re not willing to write a paper on a topic that really turns them on; they’ll choose a topic that they think will turn the teacher on. When kids are obsessive about achieving perfect grades, they not only are less willing to take risks, but they’re less creative and spontaneous than other children.

Pushing kids too much is a universal problem. An editorial in the Korea Times discusses how graduates of Seoul University burn out from the intense pressure to achieve at school. The editorial writer advises parents not to “force your children to study too much too fast. Let them go at their own pace. Nobody pushed Einstein, and he turned out all right.”

While you want to encourage your kids to work hard at school, your focus should be on motivating them to do their best rather than be the best. Consider the following pairs of be-the-best (B) and do-your-best (D) parental advice:

B: I know math isn’t your top subject, but if you study an extra hour each night, you can get an A.
D: I know math isn’t your top subject, but pay attention in class, ask questions if you don’t understand, do all the homework, and you’ll be fine.
B: You’re not going to get into one of the elite colleges unless you quit spending all your time playing music and focus exclusively on your school work.
D: You need to find a balance between playing music and doing your homework.

B: We’re spending a lot of money sending you to private school, so we expect your grades to demonstrate you’re grateful for this opportunity.
D: We hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunities to enroll in classes and do the type of projects that are unavailable at public school.

B: It’s good that you received a 97 on your fifth grade English test, but with a little more effort, you could have received 100.
D: 97 is a terrific score; tell us what you wrote about.

B: To be the top student in Mrs. Jones’ class, you need to talk to her, figure out what she’s looking for, and give it to her.
D: If Mrs. Jones’ expects you to do projects a certain way but you feel strongly that there’s a better way to do it, that’s okay with us but we suggest that you talk to her about your plans.

Beyond distinguishing between these two types of advice in your school-related discussions, you can do a number of other things to facilitate a work ethic. Specifically:

  • Communicate through your actions that you believe it’s important to make a solid effort at school. It’s not just saying that you believe it’s important, but taking actions that reinforce what you say. To that end, make sure you create a quiet environment for your child to do his homework – set rules regarding interruptions such as phone calls and online communication. You should also provide your child with resources for doing well at school – dictionaries, encyclopedias, online access for research purposes. Attend school open houses, parent-teacher conferences and your child’s school-related activities (sports, plays, music).
  • Involve yourself (as opposed to just observing) in her school work. This doesn’t mean do the work for her, hover over her while she does homework or correct every mistake on every paper she brings home. It does mean making yourself available when she asks for your help. Assist with drills and help her learn to prioritize assignments. Don’t just talk about homework but also ask if graded papers or projects were handed back, what tests and class projects are coming up and so on. Double check with the teachers on a periodic basis to make sure that your child is handing in all homework and what grades have been handed back recently.Some parents believe that their children don’t want them involved in the school process. Don’t believe it! Jacquelynne Eccles, a Professor of Psychology at the School of Education of the University of Michigan, has studied programs designed to foster parental involvement in their children’s schools. Her research discloses that children want their parents to be involved.
  • Initiate conversations about school-related ideas. Too often, parent-child discussions about school revolve around grades. Instead, focus on ideas raised in school. Talk about the subject of an essay your child wrote; or what motivated him to do a particular drawing; or his feeling that he should be allowed to do an assignment his way. Your willingness to listen to him as well as respond with your own ideas will demonstrate that you admire the passion and energy he brings to his school work.
  • Encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities that excite them. Some kids aren’t particularly excited by their academic classes but exhibit great interest and aptitude in other areas: music, art, computers, sports, ecology clubs and so on. Developing a work ethic around subjects that truly interest and involve kids is important. Certainly, they also need to learn how to work diligently when subjects aren’t interesting (such as mundane chores), but extracurricular activities offer an avenue to work hard at and take pride in something they relish. When they do participate, be careful not to dismiss or devalue their efforts. Don’t say things like, “I’m glad you enjoy band, but you’re probably not going to make your living as a musician, so get your priorities straight.” Even if your child doesn’t become a musician, his experiences in band will show him how hard work pays off in greater proficiency at an instrument, and he’ll take pride in his accomplishments. This is what a work ethic is all about.

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