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Preparing Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Work Ethic

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Your kids will be growing to adulthood in a century where the complexity of technology and the pace of change is unlike anything humans have ever experienced.  This is one in a series of columns devoted to identifying core competencies that will help teens be successful in this 21st century workplace.  A strong work ethic will be as important to 21st century businesses as ever.  Your kid’s ability to buckle down and get to work will make them an employee worth keeping.  This column elaborates how parents can foster in their teen a personal ethic for hard work, persistence and determination to see a task through to the end.

Talk about it. Your kids need to hear about the value of hard work from you.  Make sure you help them recognize the link between hard work and accomplishments (e.g., financial, creative, social, etc.).  Consider developing some annoying phrases you repeat frequently in situations that seems even vaguely reflective of a work ethic.  “Never give up.”  “Never say die.”  “Go the extra mile.”  “A job worth doing is worth doing well.”  “Winners never quit; quitters never win.”  ”Death before desertion.”  You know, something catchy.

Your word is your bond.  Kids with a good work ethic honor their commitments.  Persistence and hard work arise from your kid being a person who finishes what they start.  It is about honoring commitments.  When your kid agrees to something, it should automatically mean they will follow through, complete the task and do it well.  Expect your kid to back up their agreement to complete a task with their word; and require them to keep it.  Don’t let them back out of tasks once begun (though it is ok to ask for help).

It ain’t over til it’s over.  Your kid will need to get in the habit of finishing what they start.  Make sure there are at least some tasks that require them work straight through to finish, no matter what.  This can be as broad as not quitting a team in the middle of a season to continuing until a specific chore is completed.  The more they complain about having to finish something, the more you know you are on the right track.

Punctuality.  A work ethic is about starting and finishing on time.  Punctuality is particularly important when other people may be inconvenienced.  When a time has been set for dinner, leaving for a movie, family gathering or cooperative activity, require your kid to respect it.  Punctuality regarding deadlines is equally important.  Have some tasks that must be completed by a set time.  (Make sure there are at least some regular tasks or activities where punctuality is enforced.  Expecting punctuality with every single commitment can end up making you a fascist.)  Warn them ahead of time when punctuality will be expected.  Then, should they fail to deliver, make it sting.  Pay them only if the job is completed on time.  Dock them (time or money) if they start late or don’t finish on time.

Work Habits.  Kids will need good work habits.  This includes staying focused on the task at hand (i.e., not trying to do several things at once).  Good work habits also include respecting paid work time.  If they finish a task while “on the clock,” your kid should look for something else to do that would be productive (rather than sitting and waiting to be told what to do next).  (See Initiative column for more on this topic.)  And, there are some tasks that are only appropriate off the clock like phone calls, updating social network sites and TEXTING.  You can help them get in the habit by having similar requirements for certain tasks or chores around the house.

110%.  A job once begun should be a commitment to a job well done.  Expect your kid to work to the best of their ability.  If the job they complete is substandard, send them back to do it well.  (Don’t let them wear you down by how many times you have to send them back or how much lip they give you.)

Mirror, mirror.  Your kid should understand that their work ethic is a personal reflection on their character.  Make sure they think in terms of what a project (and how they complete it) says about them.  “Are you proud of this?” “Will you be satisfied with what people will think of you when they see this project?”

One project a week.  Your kid should have at least one task they do well every week, no matter what else is going on.  Have a weekly review to keep up with their progress.  Ideally, they will already have examples of when they were punctual, hard working, did well and completed the task.  If you (or your kid) can’t identify something that required a work ethic, assign something.

Celebrate their work ethic.  Notice when they are punctual.  “I appreciate your getting here on time.”  Admire their work ethic on a task.  “I was really impressed at how hard you worked to get that done.”  Link some privileges to your kid showing a good work ethic.  “You know, you worked really hard on that.  I’m thinking I should trust you a little more with a later curfew this weekend.”  Avoid motivation through shame.  No you-are-such-a-lazy-bum’s or  why-don’t-you-finish-something-for-a-change’s.  It’s demoralizing and much less effective than building them up toward what you want them to be.

Helping them get unstuck.  Sometimes, the problem is not a work ethic; it is a lack of confidence or pessimism.  Keep an eye on your kid while they are working to see if they need some extra encouragement or actual help in a difficult part of the task.  This is an opportunity to help them be successful (while not doing the work for them).  Providing encouragement during the task is particularly important when they are in the early stages of developing a work ethic.  (If your kid still needs encouragement at age 25, something has gone terribly wrong.)

Show them.  Kids watch what you do, not just what you say.  This means that you will have to demonstrate a work ethic too.  When you are working on something, be sure to make remarks out loud that communicate a work ethic.  “I really want to do my best.”  “I’m not stopping until I finish, people are counting on me.”

Special tasks.  You can also have specific activities that can provide the context for requiring your kid to demonstrate a good work ethic.  Ever tried starting a fire with a bowsaw?  Let’s just say it takes quite a while (and can be very frustrating).  Have them build something (e.g., birdhouse, model building kit, etc.) in one sitting.  Anything that requires effort and some time will do.

A work ethic becomes a habit through repetition across time.  Better start early to get it ingrained by the time they head out into the world of work.

Here are a few resources:

How Children Succeed:  Grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character by Paul Tough

Self-discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents