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7 Strategies to Build a Strong Work Ethic in Your Kids

7 Strategies to Build a Strong Work Ethic in Your Kids

Today is my first son’s first day at his first job.

Josh is rarin’ to go, but pauses for a hug and a blessing before he leaves. It’s a simple but physically demanding job – unloading big brown trucks from a well-known delivery service. After years of sports and workouts, Josh is equipped to handle the muscle power.  

But only time will tell if Josh has everything else it takes to succeed on this and all the jobs to come, to sustain his academic momentum in college, and eventually to provide for a family.

While today marks a rite of passage for Josh, it doesn’t stand in isolation. It’s the day his dad and I have been preparing him for since we first taught him to pick up his clothes, to crush the cans for recycling, or to vacuum out the car. It’s what it was all about when we gritted our teeth and took the extra time to make him do something when we could have done it faster and better ourselves.

It’s the real life test of our everyday efforts to raise children with a work ethic.

Believe me, it hasn’t been easy. In today’s culture of plenty, parents who place a premium on teaching children to work may find themselves going against the flow.   

The good news is that the flow may be turning. According to a Time magazine poll, 80 percent of Americans think children today are more spoiled than children 10 or 15 years ago, and 75 percent think children today do fewer chores.  

Dr. Ruth Peters, a psychology contributor to NBC’s Today show and author of Overcoming Underachieving (Broadway), says: “Daily in my practice I see parents who have made the mistake of not taking the time and attention to teach their children to be workers and achievers. These kids have learned to settle for less rather than to face and challenge adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success.”

The ability to work hard, to tolerate frustration, and to take responsibility doesn’t just happen without a push from parents. To get your children off to the best start, here are seven guidelines:  

Start Early

Lay the groundwork early. When our three-year-olds beg to peel carrots, or our four-year-olds plead to sweep the floor, our tendency is to say they’re not ready. But teach them when they’re eager and they’ll be more likely to step up to the plate later on. 

Accept What You Get

When faced with less-than-perfect results, graciously praise the effort.

For example, when seven-year-old Madison surprised her family by cleaning the windows, her mom ignored the smudges and smears. 

“What hard work!” she said simply, “I love to clean windows too. Next time let’s do it together!” 

Know Your Children

There’s a difference between a 5-year-old who doesn’t know that plates have backs and a 10-year-old who neglects to wash them because he’s in a hurry to play. One needs teaching, the other needs accountability.

Parents also need to know how to motivate each child. Young children are often motivated by verbal praise. Older children may need more: money or privileges. 

Teach Delayed Gratification

Establishing a pattern: we work, and then we play. You might say to your child, “I know you want to play outside. Let’s pick up all these blocks and fold the clothes and then we can go together.”  Or, “Let’s get the house cleaned up and then we’ll make some popcorn and watch a movie.”

Equip Them To Earn

Through the years we’ve given our kids a base allowance, then awarded bonuses for work done well and cheerfully. We’ve also encouraged them to find other ways to earn money.  

These have included raising rats for pet stores, paper routes, and a wood splitting business. What all these ventures had in common was that they took an enormous amount of time and energy – mine and their dad’s!  

If your child wants to rake leaves, be ready to knock on doors with him. If she wants to walk dogs, help her place an ad in the paper. Be ready and willing to help your child start working, and you’ll be amazed at the life lessons she’ll learn.

Encourage Volunteering

Today volunteerism is trendy.  Many schools require community work from students each semester. For Christian kids volunteerism holds a special resonance, as it means following Jesus’ command to love and serve.

When your children are young, find ways to involve them in your own service projects. Let them help you deliver a meal to a new mom or houseclean for an elderly friend. Pick up trash on your street or on the beach, visit convalescent homes, or pull weeds for a next door neighbor.

Be a Role Model

So much of who our children turn out to be is a reflection not of what we try to pour into them but of what they see in us. It’s not the big occasions our kids will remember most, but the everyday stuff that revealed what their parents were really made of – how we handled frustration, whether we were on time and kept commitments, whether we did our own work with a smile or a frown.

Like all good things, building a strong work ethic in your child takes constant effort. But you’ll know it’s worth it when your child comes home from the first day of his first job looking tired and satisfied and grown-up and says something like Josh says to me: 

“My boss said I did a good job, Mom. Thanks for everything.” 

Barbara Curtis (1948-2012) was an author and mother of 12 who blogged at

Publication date: August 21, 2012