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Teaching Young People How to "Work" — A Countercultural Practice

05Mar 2007

The topic of “work” has been in many of my discussions recently. It is the time of the year when parents and their student-children (especially high school and college aged) are discussing plans for this coming summer. And, in my house at least, the topic of work is part of that discussion.

But, additionally, many families with whom I work are consistently asking: “How do we develop a ‘work ethic’ in our kids?” or “How do we keep our children from developing a sense of entitlement, given our financial situation?” In fact, this is a common topic in the financial publications (for example, “Avoiding Entitlement” in the March 2007 edition of Worth.)

Ok, so let me straightforward about this. Kids (and people of all ages) learn how to work by working. You can’t teach them by lecturing about it, by showing them a documentary on work, by having them read a book on “developing a work ethic”, or by telling them stories about your childhood (two of the four of those are fairly common strategies used by parents and grandparents.)

And this is a problem in our culture today — especially the subculture of financial wealth — children and young people have very little experience in “working”. And largely, because of the choices we are making, they have very little opportunity to learn how to work.

In one family I served, one of the parents’ stated goals was for their children to learn a good work ethic. The problem was — their kids were already in their late teens and early twenties, and they hadn’t been raised to do much. Their parents had a housekeeper, a cook, gardeners and a lawncare service, a personal assistant who ran errands, a pool cleaning service, and the student who lived at college had a weekly private laundry service. In the summertime, the students were busy going on trips with their friends, their friends’ families, sports camps, as well as a family vacation. And their schedules were the same over Christmas break and Spring break — they were always going somewhere fun. During some summers, they would put in a few token hours at their father’s business (e.g. 2 hours a day) and get paid handsomely for it. This was essentially their experience of what “work” was.

Obviously, these young people really had no opportunity to learn how to work — largely because the parents had not made learning to work a priority. And this happens all the time.

One part of the problem is that it is costly (and a hassle) for parents to help structure the experiences of work — whether it is chores at home or summertime work. You have to make it a priority and some other part of your lives have to “give”. Your student may not be able to go on an exciting three week vacation with their friends, or your family vacation may be impacted as well.

A second aspect of the problem is that making choices to teach your children how to work is currently countercultural. If you have some financial freedom, the message is that you should allow your children to experience the best of life — exotic Spring break trips, being able to play on the best club sports team and travel every weekend to tournaments, or go to really neat educational camps or internships during the summer. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with each of these, in and of themselves. However, at some point parents have to say “no, you need to work this summer”. Or, “you can’t go to the sleepover until your room is clean”. (There are lots of variations of these statements! All of which are based upon the principle — work comes before play.)

To illustrate the seriousness of the issue, let me cite some discussions I have had recently with business owners across the country. When I ask them what they are looking for in people they want to work for them, three answers are common. They want someone who will: (a) show up (that is, they actually come to work); (b) show up on time; and (c) listen to and follow instructions. A pretty low level of expectation. And, interestingly, these characteristics do not just apply to high school students working at restaurants and retail stores, but for young adults beginning their careers after college.

I have a lot to say on this topic, but let me leave you with the following challenge. As you look toward your family’s summer plans, I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself:

“Will any of the activities planned help my children learn how to make and keep commitments, to do tasks that they really don’t want to do, and help them learn what the world of work is like?”

If not, when are they going to learn these characteristics?

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