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How to Kickstart a Strong Work Ethic in Your Children

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“Teach your young children to work, and teach them that honest labor develops dignity and self-respect. Help them to find pleasure in work and to feel the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.” - Joseph B. Wirthlin

Can you look back on a time when you baked bread with your grandmother or fixed your bike tire with your dad or helped your mom assemble a new piece of furniture? Those early days of hard work were the seeds that grew into part of your character you possess today. We, as parents, have that same opportunity to help our children develop a strong work ethic.

So do we take it? Does it really matter if we teach our children about work before they even have a job? Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician for more than 30 years, believes much of our children’s world view forms at home. They experience so many of the same emotions and challenges they’ll face down the road in their career.

“If our kids don’t learn to deal with these while they’re under our roof,” Dr. Meeker said on her podcast Parenting Great Kids, “how much harder will it be for them to develop those while they’re on their own?”

All three of my children have different personalities, interests, and communication styles. It would be  easy for my husband and me to feel ill-equipped to nurture a positive work ethic in each of them. Thankfully, we can turn to experts like Dr. Meeker, as well as others in her field and in our community, for advice.

That’s why I’d like to share a few of the great starting points I’ve discovered for helping your child develop a strong work ethic.

1. Allow them to fail.

One of the greatest ways to learn is through failure. I’ll be the first to admit it goes against everything in my parenting instincts, but it’s crucial for helping them understand that process. Once they fall, we can be their biggest advocate for getting right back up. Win or lose, we can remind them of how proud we are that they tried their best. 

Once a child fails at something, an incredible opportunity opens to have a healthy discussion about it. Instead of pointing out everything they did wrong, ask your child questions like:

  • What do you think happened?

  • How are you feeling about it?

  • Any thoughts on what you’d do differently if it happens again?

2. Focus on their character, not their happiness.

If we as parents look through the “whatever makes my children happy” lens, I believe we’re setting them up to struggle as adults. By allowing them to process things like boredom and jealousy and fear, instead of jumping in to make it all perfectly smooth, we give them the chance to work through those emotions. Under our care, they can ask their questions and begin to understand what it means to choose one’s attitude, seek support when struggling, or vent frustrations in a healthy manner.

3. Demonstrate and celebrate honesty.

Dr. Tim Elmore, author of 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, says, “A successful parent is someone who is leading and developing their child so that they can function as well-adjusted adults..and reach their potential.”

I’m going to add my own little spin and add that a successful parent is leading by example. Integrity goes such a long way in the workplace. Actually, it places a key role in every aspect of life. Demonstrating honesty in front of your children is a tremendous way to help them see its importance. Especially when we make a mistake and need to make it right with our spouse or with them.

The same goes with how we handle little Trevor’s white lie about how the lamp got broken or little Carla blaming someone else for why her chore didn’t get done. My children like to play the “he kept distracting me” card when they procrastinate during a task. Consistently holding them accountable and celebrating moments when they do confess to the truth will help our children begin to feel the value of their own integrity.


4. Give them regular responsibilities.

I’m not talking about paying them for chores, yet. These are simple, routine tasks you expect of your children because they are part of the family. Nearly all career paths involve working together with others and pulling our weight, so modeling this in your home is a great starting point.

Some examples of regular tasks can be:

  • Clearing the table

  • Loading the dishwasher

  • Putting away toys

  • Throwing away snack wrappers

  • Charging a school tablet or electronic

  • Returning a book to a shelf

If you’re like me, however, you’ve let some bad habits slip by. Just this morning, after taking my daughter to school, I looked at my living room floor and found two small piles of clothing. Each of my children had gotten dressed when I’d asked them to, but they’d left their dirty clothes sprawled where they’d fallen.

I started to reach for the first bundle of pajamas when I froze. I’ve done this a hundred times, I realized. This isn’t my job. I’d taken the easy route by simply cleaning up after them all this time instead of following through and making sure they put the clothes away. 

It made me think of a quote I once read hanging in someone’s garage:

“The job’s not done ‘til all the tools are put away.”

The lesson I’m taking away from this is that sometimes the best way to help your children develop a strong work ethic might be to have a little conversation with yourself first.

5. Start the conversation about money.

What’s the main reason you got your first job? For the paycheck, right? Seeing my name on that check with money I could call my own was a tremendous feeling. Despite still being in high school, I suddenly felt so much more grown up.

You can help your children develop a confident respect for money by “hiring” them to work for you early on. I borrowed Dave Ramsey’s approach and pay our children “commissions” rather than an allowance for the work they do. We pay for tasks like cleaning the bathroom, laundry, dusting, yardwork, etc. 

To go more in depth about how you can introduce healthy financial habits to your children, check out “How to Talk About Money with Your Kids.”

Screentime Tip: This summer, we introduced a new rule after sensing that screentime in our home had become nearly out of control. Every day, each of our children must complete a chore before they are allowed to use any screens. At first, this was met with plenty of resistance, but after a week or so, my 4-year-old son finally changed his narrative. Now he says, “What’s my chore today?” Then, off he goes. It’s great to see him go from following my expectations to following his own.

In summary, keep believing.

Dr. Elmore believes one of the deepest desires of all children (even as adults) is to know their parents believe in them. Whether they’re riding high or struggling, we get to make our kids’ day by pouring that belief into them. Just imagine where that will take them one day. After all, where has the belief from someone important in your life taken you?

Do you have a parenting strategy for helping children develop a healthy work ethic? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Follow us on Facebook for more family-centered content and product updates!



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