It’s hard not to want all the things for our kids: for them to be the smartest, kindest, strongest, most talented versions of themselves. But as much as parents want to raise creative, empathetic, and tolerant kids, above almost everything else parents want hard-working kids.
According to a 2014 Pew study, 92% of parents say it’s important to teach children hard work — and this trait was second only to responsibility. And indeed, a strong work ethic can pay off big, especially when kids grow up and fly the nest.
“It’s important because when kids launch, you want them to be ready to solve their own problems, and you don’t want them to fold in the face of adversity. Teaching them to have a good work ethic enables them to face challenges and motor through them,” says Dr. Damon Korb, MD, developmental and behavioral pediatrician, author of Raising an Organized Child, and director and founder of The Center of Developing Minds.
But even for parents who value work ethic over other traits, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to passing this characteristic along to their children. “I think every parent wants their kid to have work ethic, but work ethic is not an automatic thing,” Korb says.
So how do you instill work ethic in a child? It’s a multi-level process, according to Korb, one that involves modeling, teaching, and demonstrating the value of work ethic.
1. Praise the effort, not the outcome
There’s a tendency for parents to praise the wrong wins, according to Janis Meredith, a family and parenting coach and founder of Raising Champion Families. While you might be tempted to gush about how smart or adorable your child is, it’s important that you praise the effort your child is putting in. “Affirm what kids can control versus what they can’t,” Meredith says. “They can’t control how beautiful they are, but they can control how hard they work.”
Research backs up the power of language in cultivating work ethic. Studies have shown that being praised for intelligence might actually undermine a student’s motivation, compared to students who receive praise for their efforts. “We don’t emphasize the great grades and winning soccer games, we emphasize being diligent about homework and being responsible,” Korb says. “We emphasize that they’re working independently and the practice they put in.”
It’s also important to talk about improvement, especially in the face of challenges. “If my child is struggling, I can say, ‘Wow, that looks really difficult, and you haven’t figured it out yet,” Korb says. “The ‘yet’ inherently implies that I have confidence you’ll get there, you just haven’t gotten there yet.
2. Model work ethic in action
As parents, our own work ethic influences our kids’ relationship to work. But whether you head to an office from 9 to 5 or toil away at home, your kids may not pick up on it if you don’t make a point to share it with them.
“You may work hard at work all day, but if you don’t come home and mention it and talk about what you did, they won’t totally understand it. Letting your kids know what you’re doing is important,” Korb says. Make a point to talk about what you do at work, including the challenges you face and how you’re working to overcome them.
Same goes for stay-at-home parents. “Let your kids know what you accomplished. They may not notice house is cleaner or that the sheets got washed,” Korb says. “When they are home, let them see you fix the sprinkler — even better, let them join you and help and see it takes work.”
Though it’s not enough to simply model doing work. You’ve got to model the right attitude, Meredith says. “For me, sometimes my work ethic dangerously tips into martyrdom. That kind of work ethic — being martyr because I’m doing hard work — is not a good example,” she says. Try to model doing work cheerfully, consistently, and patiently instead. “Whether you’re talking about your job or housework, show your kids that sometimes hard work is hard, but there’s always a reward.”
3. Use everyday challenges as teachable moments
Just as it’s important to model work ethic, it’s important to teach it — but lessons in work ethic don’t involve a dusty chalkboard or pencil and paper. Instead, parents can indirectly teach work ethic through day-to-day experiences.
“As parents, our job is to be teachers and not scolders,” Korb says. Constantly teaching children to deal with problems versus punishing mistakes will help nurture your child’s ability to work through tough situations.
“Anytime there’s an obstacle or problem, look at it as something they can work on.” “I could yell and scream, but that’s not going to teach them to make good choices,” Korb says. “Say, ‘How are we going to fix this? We’ve got to solve this problem.’” For example, if your child draws on the wall, communicate that you’re disappointed, but that we need to figure out what it’ll take to get clean walls.
Another way children learn work ethic is through routine. “What I like to teach kids, even when they’re toddlers, is that the project isn’t over until it’s done. Before we start the next thing, have to do the last step,” Korb says. Routines, no matter if it’s your before-bed ritual or your dinnertime regimen, have a beginning, middle, and end. This reinforces the concept of followthrough. “It’s not directly teaching work ethic, but kids learn to work because everything they start they have to finish.”
4. Give kids opportunities to flex their work ethic
There’s no need to send your kids off to the salt mines to put their nascent work ethic into practice: There are plenty of ways kids can develop this skill at home, school, and in their activities.
One win-win: Have your kids participate in chores. As soon as you can teach children to do simple things around the house, like picking up toys, throwing their laundry in the washing machine, or unloading the dishwasher, you give teach them that they’re capable of helping Mom and Dad take care of the house. Just be sure to adjust your expectations accordingly. ”Sometimes it takes a little more effort,” Meredith says. “It can be easier to do everything ourselves than have patience to show them how to do it.”
The soccer field, baseball diamond, or swimming pool offer other opportunities to sharpen work ethic. “My kids’ experience in sports was such a great place for them to learn that sometimes won’t show results right away, but if you keep putting effort you’ll see success at some point,” Meredith says.
5. Step back and allow kids to struggle
Maybe the hardest aspect of cultivating a strong work ethic is to swallow the urge to jump in and pave a smooth path when the going gets rough. By allowing kids to struggle, we teach them to persevere.
It’s okay for children to get aggravated and discouraged, Meredith says. By persisting in the face of setbacks, kids become more confident in their own abilities and their work ethic grows stronger. If you swoop in and do things for your kids — especially things they should be capable of doing on their own — it sends a message that Mom or Dad doesn’t think they can do it. Of course, there’s one caveat: “Don’t put them in situations where they’re set up to fail. Make sure you’re gauging their level honestly,” Korb says.
“Often times we struggle to sit back and watch our kids work hard. We want to jump in and make things easier,” Meredith says. “But when we do that we’re robbing our kids of that opportunity to really grow. Even though it’s hard to pull back and watch your kids do the hard work by themselves, sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for them.”