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Building a work ethic

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I was listening to Chris Hansen’s interview with the wonderful people from Solomon’s Porch, and was taken by a comment that “many people think teenagers are lazy,” when in fact, they simply don’t have the training or the tools. I don’t believe in lazy kids and have written about it in prior columns. I believe that behavior is based on two things: having the proper habits and having the proper training. So I thought it might be time to talk about building work ethics in our kids. 


According to Mary Ball, a parenting expert for over 40 years, “parents need to be very careful to not make life too easy for our children. The strongest people are the ones who have struggled with various issues and difficult experiences in their lives; they have learned how to cope in a variety of ways.” 


As usual, it starts with you. So much of what kids do is more about what they see than what we tell them. How we handle even difficult or tedious work, whether we are on time, if we do what we say we’ll do, and finish what we say we’ll finish – all these are the messages we are sending to our children. Most importantly, do we do our work “with a smile or a frown.” 


Starting early is the best. If your child asks to help with something, let them, whether or not you think they are ready (provided there is no danger involved, of course!). Let them peel the potatoes or sweep the floor or rake the leaves. Help them be successful; tell them how to do it better or more easily; praise their successes; accept their failures. My mother taught my sister and I to iron using my father’s handkerchiefs which in those days were literally a dime a dozen. He had a few scorched handkerchiefs, which didn’t in any way hinder their usefulness, and we learned the basics of ironing without burning down the house or wrecking valuable sheets or clothes. 


Always have chores. These can begin very young and at first may be part of a team effort. Putting toys away is fun when you’re little and your parent or sibling is helping. You can sing about each object, talk about each thing, repeat first letters of the items; you can do any number of things that teach more than just completing chores. 


If they aren’t ready to make a bed, let ‘em put the pillow cases on the pillows. If they aren’t ready to clean the litter box, let them help carry out the bag of used litter. If they can’t handle slippery, wet dishes, allow them to wipe the plastic glasses or carry the silver ware to a table where an older sibling can put it away. My mother had a cheap set of plastic dishes that she allowed us to wash and dry when we were young and allowed her grandson to load into the dishwasher. Remember that little kids especially always want to help. 


Consider chores as part of the daily responsibility of a family member. Save “allowances” for things that are extra. So much of any job or classroom responsibility is doing things we don’t always enjoy for no tangible reward. 


Finally,  from the time they are very small, instill the idea that one of their biggest jobs is to be a good student. Define good student as someone who tries no matter what, someone who does the work even when it isn’t interesting, someone who seeks help when he/she needs it, someone who is respectful and polite and grateful for the opportunity to learn, even when he/she does not or cannot see the relevance. Because the better students they are, the better jobs they will find, and then, even though they are prepared to work hard, they may not have to.