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Three Strategies to Build Work Ethic in Your Kids

“Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all,” wrote Sam Ewing. This statement was never truer than it is today. One of the questions I get asked most from coaches, teachers, and parents is: “How do I build a good work ethic in my young people?” Let me offer three fundamentals to accomplish this in teens:

  • Don’t give them what they should earn.
  • Don’t control what they should own.
  • Don’t hide what should be seen.

1. Do not give them what they should earn.

As a dad, I understand the desire to want the best for your kids, to want them to be safe and for them to have all the advantages possible as they leave home. Yet, far too often, our desire takes the form of giving our children that which they should earn. Even when kids are fully capable of working for a paycheck or earning a scholarship or achieving a goal, we step in and just give it to them. We feel it is our right and our duty. As I mentioned before, one big change in parental values since my childhood is the movement from parents taking pride in giving their children whatever they need to taking pride in giving them whatever they want. In fact, we sometimes feel we’re “poor parents” if we don’t give them what they want.

Far too often, the sense of entitlement we see in kids today is partly our fault. We’ve created this sense of “I deserve the best,” but our kids don’t necessarily want to work for it. In past generations, the person who received the best was the one who worked the hardest.

Heath is a good kid but hasn’t worked a day in his life. As a teen, he wants toys that are bigger than those he played with as a young child—cars, smartphones, and video camera equipment. Those “toys” are. . . well, expensive. During his childhood, Heath’s parents bought him lots of stuff, because they could. Today, his dad is out of a job; he has no discretionary money to buy anything that isn’t a necessity. Heath is an angry, resentful teen, feeling entitled to luxuries he’s never learned to live without and, now, cannot afford. And he’s having a difficult time delaying his gratification. This is a major reason to encourage hard work in teens.

2. Do not control what they should own.

Very often, adults control too much of a child’s life. It’s no wonder many teens lack work ethic—we’ve taken it from them. We own the projects, not them. We are more motivated than they are.

Robert Sun says, “Most people think raw intellectual talent is the primary marker for academic success among children. But new insights are proving that motivation is perhaps even more important to learning than innate intelligence.”

One widely cited study, recently published in the journal Child Development, reveals that motivation and cognitive learning strategies outweigh intelligence as the top factors driving long-term achievement, particularly in math. Led by Kou Murayama at the University of Munich, the study measured gains in math proficiency over a five-year period with 3,500 students in grades 5 through 10. Murayama’s team defined motivation with three distinct components:

  • Intrinsic motivation— engaging in a task for its inherent satisfaction,
  • Extrinsic motivation— expected short-term benefits (e.g., good grades),
  • Perceived control— believing my effort will produce a desired outcome.

Intrinsic motivation is propelled by emotion. Watch a kid’s personal ambition to succeed, and you will always find an attitude or experience that drives it. Teens need this “emotional fuel” to propel them towards mastery, overcoming the many obstacles and setbacks they encounter along the way. Without this fuel, they easily give up when the going gets rough. Their fuel tanks get refilled each time they expend effort and achieve something, internally or externally. Once they understand they can achieve through effort, they will keep trying. As they succeed in learning, they find the self-satisfaction that comes from mastering new skills.

3. Do not hide what should be seen.

Teens need to see the realities of life. How much do products or services cost? What labor goes into affording the luxuries most of us enjoy? What do the monthly bills require? These are reminders of the choices most adults have to make—how much do we want or need that gadget we saw advertised on TV? My friend Vicki told me that when her sons were in high school, she asked them to sit with her at the computer while she paid bills. They helped her determine which invoices were the top priority and what they could do without. It was eye-opening. We must not hide these real-life challenges from teens.

Another reality that should not be hidden is progress. By adolescence, people need to see the results of their work to be incentivized to do more. This is called learned industriousness. This term describes a behavioral theory from Robert Eisenberger explaining how people exert greater effort when they see even the slightest results. Then, individuals with a history of receiving positive reinforcement for their effort usually transfer this effort to other endeavors. Lab rats that pull a lever twenty times to get food are prone to try harder and longer in future challenges. They have been conditioned to sustain their efforts, believing it will produce results. Endorphins are released from both the feeling of hope and from the positive outcome. So, by allowing teens to see the hope of progress and results, we actually foster a work ethic in them. We must point out any and all progress.

One takeaway from this research is clear: When adults simply give something to a child, it may make her happy in the moment but not over time. It actually reduces her strong sense of self. Self-esteem doesn’t come merely from affirmation. Research demonstrates that affirmation without a kid’s hard work fosters narcissism. Self-esteem is fostered by effort and accomplishment. If kids are going to feel good about themselves, adults must balance unconditional love for children by allowing them to work hard and earn something. As they grow up, kids need increased levels of autonomy and responsibility:

  • Autonomy: I am free and can make decisions as I perform.
  • Responsibility: I am accountable to follow through on my commitment.

So, ask yourself: How can I practice the three imperatives above?

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Three Strategies to Build Work Ethic in Your Kids