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 boxes from big brown trucks for a well-known delivery service. After years of sports and workouts, Josh is equipped to provide the muscle power. But only time will tell if Josh has everything else it takes to succeed at this job and those to come.
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, to vacuum out the car. It's what we were working toward when we gritted our teeth and took the extra time to make him do something we could have done 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. Our family lives in one of the ten most affluent counties in the country. Children here learn designer labels before they learn their alphabet and are often handed the keys to a Mercedes on their 16th birthday. Still, I suspect that even in more down-to-earth places, parents who place a premium on teaching their children the value of work may find themselves going against the flow.
The good news is that the flow may be turning. Last August, the cover of Time magazine asked "Do Kids Have Too Much Power?" According to Time's 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. But if you can afford to live a comfortable lifestyle, it may only seem right that your kids receive more and work less than you did. Still, there is often a downside.
Take my neighbors Sheila and Vic. After years of catering to their kids' materialistic whims, they shelved the Nintendo except for special occasions, started having the kids wash the car instead of going to the car wash, and tied their kids' allowance to chores. Sheila says, "My dad left when I was young and we didn't have much. My mother was struggling to raise four kids, and I had way too much responsibility. I tried to make up for it by spoiling my own kids later on. But we saw that wasn't working—their attitudes left a lot to be desired. Now that we expect more from our kids, they're a lot easier to live with."
Sheila and Vic aren't the only parents to discover that giving their kids the best often makes things worse. 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 adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success. But the ability to work hard, to tolerate frustration, and to take responsibility doesn't just happen without a push from parents."
To help your child begin to develop a work ethic, use these guidelines:
Start Early. Don't count on school to mold your child into a good worker. The groundwork is laid well before kindergarten. While developing her educational method, Dr. Maria Montessori observed the intense desire of toddlers to be productive, to imitate adult work. She noted "sensitive periods" when a child is most open to certain skills. She believed that when teachers (and parents) take advantage of these periods, learning is filled with joy.