How Do Kids Become Hard Workers?

“How do you get your kids to be hard workers?” This is a question that confronts parents and educators alike. In most instances, kids who work hard on things outside of school generally are hard workers in school, too. However, from the growing awareness that millennials lack the work ethic of previous generations to the mounting anxiety over the current iGeneration’s apparent inability to focus let alone work, the cultivating of a work ethic in young people is a hot topic.

So how is it to be done? Here are a few opinions from some best-selling books.

A few years ago, a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua caused a bit of stir. Chua, a Yale Law School professor, contrasts the “Chinese parenting” style with the typical parenting style of white Americans. “Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality,” Chua explains, “encouraging them to pursue their true passions and providing a nurturing environment.” The Tiger Mother, in contrast, made her two daughters take Mandarin lessons, do math speed drills, and practice their instruments two to three hours a day (no breaks on vacation and double sessions on weekends), all the while expecting straight A’s at school. And no surprise, the Tiger Mom got results. In addition to high academic achievement, her daughters won acclaim as young musicians. One of her daughters earned a statewide prodigy award for violin, and the other one performed at Carnegie Hall at age fourteen.

The Tiger Mom’s prescription for hard-working children is not for the faint of heart. Chua says that through it all, her daughters probably hated their mother, and there were many battles along the way. But by the end of high school, both daughters realized that they were glad that their mom raised them the way she did. Chua’s point is that a “boot camp” type of upbringing for children is not a bad thing. It didn’t crush her daughters. It made them strong and accomplished. Her daughters had to go through some suffering, but it forged them and made them confident. The Tiger Mom’s message is that most kids have to be pushed and pushed hard in order to accomplish a lot. And in the end, they won’t hate you; they’ll even appreciate what you did for them.

[Joseph Pearce notes: There is a good counter-argument to Chua’s “Tiger Mother” approach to parenting which I have endeavored to articulate in an article in this very Journal, entitled “Virtue versus Virtuosity.” It can be read here:  https://journal.newmansociety.org/2018/01/virtue-versus-virtuosity/]

Ben Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, has a book titled The Vanishing American Adult. Sasse is somewhat controversial among conservatives, but in this book he has some interesting things to say. He warns that the prevailing culture tide flows against learning how to work hard, and the situation is much worse than most people want to acknowledge:

“If you live today,” Flannery O’Connor sagely observed, “you breathe in nihilism.” It is the sea in which we swim. And she was writing a half a century ago—today, we practically choke on the pathologies of our culture. Therefore at our house we have come to conclude that building and strengthening character will require extreme measures and the intentional pursuit of gritty work experiences.

The Nebraska Senator does acknowledge that part of our struggle against culture is simply the convenience of life today and the structure of suburban living. Very few people are able to raise their children in an agrarian setting, where kids would need to work on the family farm as a necessity. Moreover, modern amenities and technology combined with labor laws and safety concerns have severely limited what children can legally do for work.

Many parents want to help their kids learn a work ethic but discover it’s simply very hard to find them work. There is much less work around the house than [at] any point in history… At our house, we have come to the realization that we must set aside time to plan work—and thus victories—for them. It is work to plan work, and we’ve had to resolve to do it, even when it feels artificial, and even when kids think it is borderline mean of us.

Sasse puts a high priority on having kids do work, any kind of work, at an early age, because if they are not being productive in some way, they are just being consumers. Kids that are productive can take ownership in their production and these kids have an immeasurable advantage in life.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist, echoes a similar thought. However, for Sax, having children do chores is important for teaching humility.

By exempting your child from all chores, as many affluent American families now do, you are sending the message, “Your time is too valuable to be spent on menial tasks,” which easily morphs into the unintended message, “You are too important to do menial tasks.” And that unintended message puffs up the bloated self-esteem that now characterizes many American kids. (The Collapse of Parenting)

Sax recommends: “Require your kids to make their beds. Wash the dishes. Mow the lawn. Feed the pets. Set the table. Clean the bathrooms.” When adults do all the menial tasks around the house, it breeds a sense of entitlement in kids that is difficult to correct.

Some people might be quick to object, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That can be true, but it depends on what you mean by “play.” There’s a difference between passive amusements and active leisure. “All amusements and no leisure makes Jack have a dull head,” but that’s a story for another day.

MO WOLTERING is the headmaster of Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Va.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.

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