Kids’ Work Ethic Is In A Crisis And We, The Parents, Have A Lot To Do With It

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While work ethic is proven to be one of the key factors for success in life; the struggle with children work ethic is one of the most common concerns voiced by parents, teachers, and professionals.

Below are concerns expressed by a mother of a 6-year-old boy, who came to get parenting advice from me last week:

“My son only wants to do whatever he wants. He avoids any activities that he perceives to be tedious or challenging. He does not show any interest in doing chores, puzzles, reading, drawing, or writing. Even getting dressed and going outside is becoming a challenge. When he starts an activity, he constantly asks for help, gets bored or frustrated, and gives up quickly.  The report from his teachers shows that he does not put effort into his work or use problem-solving skills.” 

Similar issues are being shared by many parents and are also evident in every classroom. Work ethic challenges are often associated with neurological conditions. However, I am most concerned with the sharp increase of these issues amongst typically developing children. These are the kids I am referring to in this blog.

Work ethic is similar to a muscle. It can be strengthened with proper training or weakened with misuse. The bad news is that kids’ work ethic is in a crisis and we, parents, have a lot to do with it. The good news is that with proper training you can improve your child’s work ethic.

Illusion: Many factors in modern parenting contribute to the crisis in kids’ work ethics. As parents, we bubble-wrap our kids and keep them in their comfort zone. In their minds, we have created an illusion that life is a picnic filled with immediate gratification and endless fun. We have made our kids believe that life is all about ‘me’ and about doing what “I want and whenever I want it”. Likewise, we have taught them that life is free of responsibilities and challenges as everything falls on their golden plate without lifting a finger. We have made them think that in life “everyone wins a trophy” regardless of his effort and “nothing is your fault.”

Reality: Why are we misleading our children? We are telling our kids a fairy tale. We are raising them for an artificial reality, not for the real world. Life is not a picnic. There is no magic wand, no golden plate, no endless fun. We all know that life is tough. Life is filled with tedious work, delayed gratification, challenges, and responsibilities. It is mostly about doing what is needed to get what is wanted. “Magic” mostly happens when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, work hard through challenges and boredom.

Outcomes: When bubble wrapping our kids, we have the best intentions in mind to make them happy. Unfortunately, we make them happy at the moment, but miserable in the long term. Bubble wrapping hinders the development of responsibility, independence, problem-solving, perseveration, and resilience. By doing so, we deprive them of developing the work ethic which is an essential building block for life’s success. With the best of intentions in mind, we are leaving our kids unprepared for real life.

Solutions. Below is a list of recommendations that have helped hundreds of my clients improve their work ethic skills:

1. Children benefit from before and after school visual schedule incorporating:

  • These are both activities that kids need to do and want to do.

2. Incorporate into your child’s daily life the ‘first’ and ‘then’ concept to train delayed gratification and hard work. ‘First’ do what is needed and ‘then’ what is wanted:

  • ‘First’ homework, ‘then’ play; ‘first’ tidy up toys, ‘then’ go outside; ‘first’ carry your skates, then ‘skating’; ‘first’ peel a banana, ‘then’ eat it; ‘first’ earn, ‘then’ spend.

3. Avoid using technology as a free babysitting service and provide opportunities for boredom:

  • Screen time is not recommended for children under 2 years old. For children 2 to 5 years old, screen time should be limited to 1 hour a day (see guidelines).
  • Avoid using gadgets to alleviate boredom during car rides, meals, and while waiting for something.
  • Have an unstructured time in your child’s schedule and teach him/her to occupy the time by making a technology free activity list for “I am bored” time.

4. Involve kids from early on in  self-care skills and daily chores to teach responsibility and doing what’s needed:

  • Life skills such as self-feeding, self-dressing, brushing teeth.
  • Chores such as making a bed, setting a dinner table, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, watering plants, loading /unloading dishwasher, feeding a pet, sorting/folding laundry, and even washing cars.

5. Teach kids traditional activities that require putting a continuous effort to achieve results:

  • Ex. woodworking, gardening, fishing, sewing, working with clay, ceramic painting, making a mosaic, coloring by number/color, building blanket forts, making handmade greeting cards, and scrapbooking.

6. Don’t remove obstacles in their daily life. Use the obstacles to promote problem- solving:

  • Encourage kids to choose their clothes in the morning, push them to make decisions in the restaurants, when shopping for clothes and groceries.
  • If a ball rolled under a couch, milk got spilled or zipper got stuck, don’t rush to help, encourage your child to find a solution.

7. Let them fail and use their failure as an opportunity for learning:

  • Ex. don’t bring forgotten lunch or agenda to school,  don’t re-buy a lost toy.

8. Increase physical endurance as it is closely related to mental stamina:

  • Minimize the use of strollers, incorporate hiking, swimming, biking.

9. Have family discussions related to work ethic:

  • Explain that boredom is a normal human state, our life consists of activities that we want to do, as well as those that we need to do; Life offers challenges, and our goal is learning to overcome these challenges rather than running away from them.

10. Make the teaching process a positive and connected one:

  • You can’t expect a child to do what you haven’t taught him yet.
  • Start at your child’s level of abilities and gradually increase your expectations.
  • Positivity is the key. If the teaching process is positive, children will be motivated to continue practicing the skills and will perceive parents as partners in the learning process.

The best way for teaching children is being their role model. Parenting is the toughest job ever created and it requires a high level of work ethic from ourselves.

By consciously investing our time and energy into our parenting job, by not looking for “shortcuts” in parenting, we are modeling to our children the true meaning of work ethic. Our work ethic of today is their work ethic of tomorrow.

Investing in our kids’ work ethic is the safest investment with the highest long-term returns.  Let’s unwrap the bubble wrap and set them for success!

This story was written by Victoria Prooday, a registered Occupational Therapist, Psychotherapist, founder and clinical director of a multidisciplinary clinic for children and parents. Subscribe to our free email newsletter, Living Better—your ultimate guide for actionable insights, evidence backed advice, and captivating personal stories, propelling you forward to living a more fulfilling life.

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