Instilling a work ethic in your kids

Jun 27, 2009 at 11:10 a.m. ET

It's a common, almost comical refrain: "Kids today don't know the meaning of hard work!" While I don't necessarily agree with such a broad generalization, it usually does get me thinking about what I am doing to instill a work ethic in my kids. Am I showing them what it means to work hard? And the value gained from it? Am I showing them balance, too?

Working Mother and SonWhen we think of kids and work ethics, we often think first of school work. That's fine, and that's a start, but there is more to it, too. A work ethic is as much about mental commitment as physical exertion. It's follow-through and trust-worthiness, and honesty, too. It's being part of a greater community.

Lead by example

I think promoting a work ethic is never something that can be achieved by a "do as I say, not as I do" approach. You have to show your kids - often every day - what it is to keep at it, to keep going, even at things you may not particularly like.

There are days I don't want to go to work. There are days that I'm tired and the house is a mess and there are so many other things going on that it would be so much easier to call in sick. But I don't. I made a commitment to my company, and not just for the paycheck. And even if it were just for the paycheck, there are other people who depend on me to do my job so they can do their job. Similarly, there have been times that I've encountered a challenge at work that has been unexpected and hard. It would be so much easier to give up and walk away. But I don't. And again, it's not just about the paycheck. It's about being dependable, and choosing to have some confidence in my ability to figure it out.


These are things and ways I want for my children as they grow up. I want them to understand commitment and follow-through and not backing down in the face of challenges. I want them to know that it won't always be easy, but they can succeed if they just keep at it (most of the time, anyway). I want them to have a work ethic.

Because I want this for my kids, I walk a fine line of communication with them in how I talk about these things. On the days I don't necessarily want to go to work, I think it's okay to say that, as long as I also say, "I'm going anyway because I made a commitment to my company and there are others depending on the work I do." When I am particularly challenged, I think it's okay to say how hard it feels, as long as I also say that I intend to keep at it, to not give up, until I figure it out. And when I do figure it out? I let them know how good it feels, and the value that I've gained from the effort.


While these are just employment based examples, there are many such examples at home, in school, and in the community. There's keeping at the raking of the leaves in the fall, even though it's boring and there are going to be more leaves down tomorrow. There's follow-through with a sports team if you don't like the coach. Consistent "you can do it" encouragement helps kids push through in these situations - and it's a great time to talk about what a work ethic and commitment means.

Don't forget the balance

This may sound like everything is work, work, work around our house, and nothing is fun at all. That's not true. Teaching about a work ethic - both in conversation and by example - also means demonstrating appropriate balance in your life. As rewarding as hard work is and can be, everyone needs fun and relaxation, too. My husband and I work hard at our jobs and at other commitments, but we also set aside time to be away from those commitments and just relax. A strong work ethic seems to make those fun times even more rewarding because we've so earned them! And I know my kids are most definitely learning this.

When I think about that, "Kids today..." generalization, I know it's not really true. The kids I know - and not just my own - are learning about working hard and about follow-through and commitment. They, like us, work hard and play hard. Maybe the person making that generalization just needs to have a little more fun.

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