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Teaching a Work Ethic

It’s a familiar scene in my office. A family comes in with two or three kids. Mom, especially if she is single, complains about overwhelming exhaustion from her job and ungrateful kids. Doing double duty with work and household tasks, she does everything her non-working mom ever did, from volunteering at the kids’ schools to laundry, cooking, and cleaning, plus a demanding career. She can’t figure out how it is that somehow she gets less help from her kids than she remembers offering as a kid herself. Two-parent families don’t fare much better. Dad says he chips in when he can but he works too and, anyway, he can’t get the kids to help much either.

So I ask them what the kids are expected to do to earn their keep. Usually it’s something pretty tame: clean their rooms on Saturdays; clear the table; feed the dog. But these minor chores become the major cause of stress in the household. All the reminding, nagging, pleading, threatening, and bribing that goes on to get them done makes the adults wonder if it’s all worth it. Often enough, one or the other of the parents decides it’s just plain easier to do the task than to engage in the battle involved in getting the kids to help. The parents resent having to do everything. The kids end up feeling so entitled that they resent being asked to even clean up after their own spills and messes.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that conflict about chores comes up with almost every family; the only exceptions are most of the local farm families. On the farms, the kids work and work hard. Generally these kids feed animals, muck out stalls, help with the fields, and still do their homework and participate on sports teams. Why is it that their in-town friends can’t find the time or motivation to just take out the garbage?

I think it comes down to this: On the smaller farms, work is clearly valued, it is done routinely, by everyone, and the consequences for not doing it are obvious and clear. In other households, kids experience work as capriciously imposed by the big people and whether they do it or not has little observable consequence.

So, how do the rest of us (i.e., those of us without the handy reminder of a cow standing at the gate insisting on being milked) get our kids to pitch in?

Work Must Be Valued

First, we need to rethink our whole notion of chores. If you think they are optional, depending on what else is going on, so will your kids. If you hate daily chores and want to foist them off on the kids, the kids will resist the foisting. If you resent the amount of work you had to do as a kid and believe that it is now your turn to be exempt from household chores, you will incur the same resentment from your children that you harbor towards your own parents. If, deep down inside, you think there’s been a terrible mistake and that you are supposed to have a personal servant to pick up your socks, your kids will also be looking around for someone else to do it. Our kids pick up our attitudes whether we say them or not. Consider whether you yourself need an attitude transplant before you start working on your kids.

Here’s why: To teach a work ethic, parents need first to believe that doing the work required to maintain ourselves is a necessary, and even agreeable, way to spend part of every day. That mysterious and much-talked-about attribute called positive self-esteem is built on knowing how to take care of ourselves and how to do it well. Kids who are routinely excused from the daily tasks that go into maintaining a household end up “excused” from basic competencies. People generally feel good about themselves when they can accept chores gracefully as a necessary part of life, do them with skill and efficiency, and take pride in the results. People who can feel good about small things like a well-made bed don’t have to wait for the once-a-season homerun to feel like a person of consequence.

Once you’ve got your own attitude in the right place, you can think about having a family meeting. Outline what needs to be done to maintain the household so that everyone (including parents) can have time for other activities and some relaxation. Let the kids brainstorm with you about the basic chores (food shopping, meal prep, laundry, cleaning the bathroom, yard work, etc.) that happen each day and week and who does them. They, and you, may be surprised at the level of support some people get at the expense of other people.

When you have your list of what needs to be done, you can start making changes about how it gets done.

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.

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. (2018). Teaching a Work Ethic. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/teaching-a-work-ethic/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.