Parent Wants to Instill a Work Ethic

By Sylvia Rimm

August 25, 2013 5 min read

Q: In general, kids don't have the work ethic they did years ago. How do you instill the desire to work hard and have them do their best, instead of doing just enough to get by?

A: That isn't an easy assignment for parents who are themselves frequently working too hard and often don't have the time or patience to teach children to make a full effort. Also, they often flood their children with material things to keep them busy, so that children don't learn to work for or wait to earn their parade of technological toys.

Teaching children a work ethic for schoolwork as well as other kinds of work will make a big difference in their confidence, intelligence and overall self-esteem. Here are some strategies that can help:

— Praise kids as hard workers when you observe them making strong efforts. Their efforts may be in schoolwork, housework, chores, yard work or volunteering in the community. Praising them with compliments like "You persevere;" "You're not a quitter;" "You make a difference;" "I can count on you;" or "You accomplish so much" will make your children value their hard-working capabilities.

— Refer to your children's positive efforts in referential talk within children's hearing when speaking with other adults. Parents seem even more believable when children hear them talking about them to other adults. Kids never fail to listen, and they make even more effort when they hear you talking about them. Saying, "She's such a great help;" "He's so responsible;" "She accomplishes so much;" or "He doesn't quit" will boost your children's confidence and their perseverance.

— Work in a one-to-one partnership with your child. Whether it's setting a table, making a bed, painting a room, constructing a birdhouse or working on an important school project, adult-child bonding during projects can make children realize that work is important and that they can be effective workers. Kids love the one-on-one attention they receive while working with parents, and parents become positive models for work in partnerships.

— Take fun breaks with your child during projects. Include healthy snacks and drinks, talking and especially laughing together. Breaks provide balance and will help your child recognize the total satisfaction that comes with work.

— Don't compare siblings negatively by telling one that he or she doesn't work as hard as the other. That will only increase sibling rivalry and cause one child to feel like the shirker, while the other feels like the worker.

— Elementary and middle grade kids aren't old enough to be formally employed, but they're at an age where they're likely to take on their first side jobs for neighbors, friends or their own families. Mowing lawns, washing cars, weeding gardens, caring for younger children as mothers' helpers, scrubbing floors or doing laundry will all teach kids a positive work ethic. You can help ensure these first jobs are good learning experiences by patiently insisting that your children perform tasks in a timely and satisfactory manner. They'll need "training" from their friendly employers on how to fold laundry neatly, mow even the difficult to reach places or play gently with the children they're babysitting. Learning to accept criticism as well as appreciation and payment from their "bosses" are elements of a work ethic that can generalize to motivation in school now and in their careers later.

— Last, but not least, say good things about your own work and take pride in your accomplishments. If you complain often about your job or brag about what you get away with, children are less likely to take pride in or value their own work.

For a free newsletter about "Growing Up Too Fast" (Rodale, 2005), "Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades And What You Can Do About It" (Great Potential Press, 2008) or "How to Parent So Children Will Learn" (Great Potential Press, 2008), send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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