In order to have work ethic, your kids must work

If you’ve ever wondered what teachers think of your kids, I’m about to share. It’s not juicy, but it’s important. After spending some time with your kids, I can pretty easily identify who has held a job and who hasn’t. This is important, because kids who have collected hard-earned paychecks are quite different from kids who have collected only allowances.

The first indicator is the amount of work ethic a student has. If I have a student who lays back, passively learns, accepts zeroes, and is disorganized, I pretty much know that he or she hasn’t experienced employment. I’m not talking about during the school year. I’m talking about kids who have never held a summer or part-time job. These kids are recognizable enough that I generally recommend that teens work outside of school and outside of the home, that they have a boss they must answer to, a schedule they must keep, and responsibilities they must carry out, undesirable as they may be.

Let’s talk undesirable. In a competition with all my friends as to who has had the worst job imaginable, I win every time. Guess what I did at the age of 19, home from college for the summer when all my friends were busy tanning? I worked in the men’s wing of a nursing home. Yep, I win. And I think I’m scarred for life. My second worst job was when I was a mere 12 years old. I worked at a local nursery poking holes in dirt and planting seedlings. I got paid by the plant, I think 13 cents per. I swear my hands were stained for months. I also babysat (the ubiquitous girl job), waited tables (the ubiquitous young person’s job), and helped at my mother’s office (the ubiquitous daughter job). I disliked many of these careers, outright hated most of the rest.

Yet every single one of these jobs built my work ethic and made me who I am today. Every job taught me life lessons. Bathing and caring for the elderly taught me compassion, as you would expect. But it also gave me an appreciation for my young body and my long life. I’m convinced it formed the basis of my pledge to live life to the fullest, because looking into the eyes of the aged, I saw a sense that childhood, to them, seemed just a moment away. I’m not going to lie – working with plants made me hate gardening. But it also taught me that working with my hands was not for me. I needed mental pursuits, intellectual curiosity, and dress-up clothes as part of my daily life. Waiting tables taught me graciousness toward those who serve, that some people can be petty and cruel, and that most are kind and generous. From my mom’s desk and filing cabinets, I learned that I could never work in an office. To this day when I visit my husband in that setting, I cringe a little. And babysitting taught me that kids are their parents’ treasures, and that caring for them was the most important task I would ever undertake. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what inspired me to become a teacher, to see value in nurturing other people’s treasures.

What would have happened if I had not had these experiences? Where would I be today? Would I have continued in school, as far as I could go? Would I have spent two decades in my career, striving to be better every year? Would I have the same level of appreciation for the life I’ve created, doing what I want to do and what I’m good at?

When my own kids became teenagers and I required that they work, I was able to see the benefits from an entirely different perspective. My kids worked alongside single moms, adults with stories longer than my kids’ lives, people with chips on their shoulders, and bosses with superiority complexes. They learned the invaluable lesson that not everyone grew up the way they did. They learned how much work goes into a minimum wage job, and the responsibility they must undertake as working individuals to pay taxes to keep the larger society running.

Never underestimate the power of a job. The most “menial” jobs teach us the most profound lessons. They might set our course for our future career or turn us off of a path we had considered. They teach us to show up on time, stay to the end, and complete our tasks. We must find methods in which to get along and even be productive with those with whom we would never associate otherwise. Most importantly, they force us to do that which we hate, and to keep doing it, as long as necessary to complete the job. Why would I wish that on someone I love? Because it teaches perseverance, patience, work ethic, and character, all of which are sorely lacking in many people nowadays.

I see it in my students every day, the huge gap between those who have worked in the real world and been forced to adapt to someone else’s expectations, and those who expect life to be easy and comfortable, their needs automatically met. The first group tends toward resourcefulness and internal drive; the second toward passiveness and entitlement.

Parents, I urge you to get your kids working during the teen years. A few hours of work a week can be as beneficial as a full-time summer job. It’s not about the quantity of time at the job. It’s about the experience of being in the real world and learning that their upbringing is not everyone’s upbringing, their lives not everyone’s lives.

For more advice on raising great teenagers, check out my book Teenagers 101.

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4 thoughts on “In order to have work ethic, your kids must work

  1. I agree and fully intend to have my boys work in a few years. I look back at the lessons I learned when I started working at age 16. It taught me timeliness and responsibility for results. Those things never go away and I’m so glad I learned them before graduating college and starting full time employment.

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  2. I appreciate this article and agree strongly that too many young people are not developing essential internal resources and life skills. I do think there are some other important ways to do this in addition to paid employment. My stepson went on a 128 mile hike during spring break when he was 14. It rained almost every day, he was miserable throughout most of it, AND no other experience has made him so proud or shaped his life more. He came back a different person–more confident, humble, willing to contribute, accountable, and especially more pro-active about his interests and pursuits. (I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t start working as soon as he’s old enough.) And I do think extracurriculars and volunteering can build character. I took my first job at 18, but my years before that were jam packed with marching band, writing for the school paper, volunteering, church activities, studying, etc. I regularly woke up at 6 am (and much earlier when needed) to do homework before school. I also have a 19 year old step daughter who is struggling with her first job, and only recently moved out on her own. She seems to be lacking a sense of drive and responsibility in her own life. I recently realized that by putting more effort into helping her than she has been for herself, I am becoming resentful, so I am stopping until she is willing to work and give back. I hope living independently will stimulate the growth she needs, but I am worried she will bounce back to us when she depletes her savings. I wish I knew better how to help her. I really can’t at this point, because I mainly feel angry that a person could so shamelessly seek to do the bare minimum and avoid work of any kind. Self-entertainment seems to be the primary daily pursuit of many Americans. How did we get here?

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    • I think you make a crucial point – it’s not the need to be employed, it’s the need to work, to struggle, and to overcome that is crucial to building work ethic. Let’s face it, if work were easy, we wouldn’t need the word “ethic” attached to it. We would all just go in, breeze through our day, and go home unstressed. Of course, we know this is never going to happen. That’s where work ethic comes in – the drive, the ambition, and the sense of duty we feel to do a good job, to solve problems, and to make the world a better place in some small way. It sounds like your daughter hasn’t faced much failure or had to struggle much in her life, and this has led to a true inability to cope. The best gift you can give her is to let her figure it out on her own. Let her struggle so that she can feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Once she feels that, her work ethic will form and you’ll see a transformation in her maturity. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

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