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Teaching a Work Ethic

Work Is Done by Everyone

Kids work well for people who work alongside them. Kids frequently complain to me that their parents are always bossing them to do stuff they won’t do themselves. It is true that kids don’t see the often-exhausting work that their parents do every day and so can’t understand why it is that their parents seem capable of only sitting on the couch giving orders in the evening. Most of the parents I know are working very hard. But it’s also true that our kids are working hard at school and have as much reason to sit on the couch as we do. Families with the least stress around chores seem to be those in which everyone pitches in together to get supper on the table, the kitchen cleaned up, and the laundry sorted before sitting down to paperwork and homework.

Work Needs To Be Routine

Kids (and even grownups) tend to manage chores better when there is a routine. When everyone knows what needs to be done before they leave the house in the morning, what happens around dinnertime, what gets done before the end of the day on Saturday, it is all much more likely to happen. If, for example, you institutionalize the idea that beds get made before people get to go out the front door, you don’t have to talk about it anymore. It’s just a part of the rhythm of the day. If everyone knows what his or her Saturday morning chore is, you don’t have to go through a weekly argument about who is going to do what.

Please don’t make the mistake of relieving kids of all chores because they have homework, soccer, and violin practice. There will always be other things that seem more important to do than housework. Teach them how to balance their time, build in routines, and be contributing members of the family.

Consequences Need To Be Clear

On the farm, if you don’t weed the garden, you don’t get a crop. It’s harder to connect life’s consequences with household chores, but consequences are still there. Unfortunately, the natural consequences are often visited mostly on Mom. Chores left undone fall in her lap all too often. But, with a little creativity, you can make consequences clearer. For example, if Mom has to do someone else’s job, she can’t possibly have the time to taxi that person where he or she wants to go. No need to be angry about it. It’s just a fact. And facts, presented factually, are far more impressive to kids than the high drama of anger and recriminations.

It’s best if consequences can be spelled out ahead of time — perhaps at the same meeting where you outlined who was going to do what. Ask the kids what they think would be a fair way to deal with people who don’t do their share. Generally, when genuinely asked, kids come up with far tougher consequences than you would. Bring them down to something reasonable and fair. If you find that the consequence you all set don’t work, don’t get mad. Call another meeting. Review how the family wants to handle the problem. Sharing work also means sharing the work of figuring out how the work will get done.

When everyone willingly participates in household tasks, the work gets done without overtaxing any one member of the family and leaves everyone feeling good about themselves. A little bonus to look forward to is that your kids’ roommates and spouses will thank you for raising a competent member of a household.

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In summary, to enlist everyone in the family in family maintenance:

  • First take a look at your own attitudes about household tasks.
  • Make sure that everyone, adults and kids alike, does a fair share. Whenever possible, do chores together.
  • Make chores routine and regular.
  • Make consequences a lesson in reciprocity. When everyone helps, there’s time to do things that people want to do.
Teaching a Work Ethic

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Teaching a Work Ethic. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.