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Will Your Kid Have the Right Work Ethic?

If you met me when I was a teenager, I doubt you would’ve been impressed with my work ethic. I didn’t exactly give off “future entrepreneur” and CEO vibes. Like every other kid in the world, I wasn’t one to take the initiative to clean my room, do the dishes, or wake up early on Saturday mornings to get after the yard work.

My parents were concerned, my mom especially. Would I ever have the work ethic I need to succeed? They nagged me pretty regularly, yet I resisted giving in to their demands. I learned to work hard eventually, but it wasn’t because of them.

The formative experience that instilled a strong work ethic in me came through a summer job.

My first few jobs were easy and didn’t require much to meet the expectations. But my third job was a doozy. I worked the early shift in the repair shop for Oakley Sunglasses at the international headquarters. I worked the early shift, from 5:30 am - 2:30 Monday through Friday, forty hours a week. I was given a quota for how many repair jobs I should accomplish per hour, which took me a few days to work up to. It was a quiet job—dozens of people worked there, too, but everyone had headphones on. The windowless room was brightly lit and about as boring as possible. After a couple of weeks, I felt like I would lose my mind without a little more challenge or stimulation. So I showed up one day to see how many I could do in one hour. Each hour, I became more efficient. The stated goal was to process eight repair jobs in an hour. I started to hit twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen repairs. I systematized everything—from tearing open the mailings to positioning the scissors so they were easy to pick up. I started to get sweaty, which was appropriate because the entire operation felt like a sweatshop.

After getting after it for a few weeks, one day, an older veteran employee approached me during a lunch break. I had never spoken to him before, but he apparently knew me and my personal challenge. He grabbed me pretty hard by the shoulder and said, “Hey—we’ve all been talking about you. You need to slow down. You’re making us all look bad!” I laughed; he just stared back at me. Message received. Dial it down a bit, Turbo.

Something changed in me that day that I still look back on as a central turning point in my life. It was the sense of fulfillment you feel with a diligent work ethic. It felt better than mailing it in. I was proud of myself. I learned that it was better to give something your all, even if it wasn’t personally meaningful to you.

Crucial note: I didn’t work hard because my parents pressured me to. I worked hard because I WANTED to. That’s the key difference. I had to figure it out for myself.

Teenagers yearn for autonomy, which researchers are quick to note is one of the three foundational psychological needs we all have. They don’t want to be directed or told what to do—they want to ordain their own steps. You might coerce them to work hard for a little while with an incentive or threat of punishment, but they won’t sustain that effort for very long, nor will it be fulfilling to them. You have to let them choose hard work on their own.

Looking back, it was never a fair critique to say I didn’t have a strong work ethic. I got decent grades, but I didn’t give academics my all. If I'm being honest, I never found it personally relevant. I felt like I was measured against my older sister, who had a freakishly high GPA and commitment to school. Compared to her, it looked like I was mailing it in.

But outside of school, I always tried hard at things I cared about—activities like collecting baseball cards, practicing golf, and reading voraciously.

Parents and teenagers almost always have different standards for success and important responsibilities. This has always been a source of tension, and it will always be.

Will your kid learn that same lesson and become a hard worker? Maybe. I certainly hope so. But I’m sure you know people you grew up with or relatives who never found that extra gear. What can parents do, then?

Teaching your kid to have a proper work ethic involves a combination of modeling behavior, setting clear expectations, providing guidance, and cultivating an environment that values hard work and responsibility. Here are some strategies to consider—see if one or two of them stick out to you as especially practical:
 

1. Lead by Example

  • Model the Behavior: Demonstrate a strong work ethic in your own actions. Show your commitment to responsibilities, punctuality, and perseverance.
  • Share Your Experiences: Talk about your own work experiences, challenges, and the rewards of hard work.

2. Set Clear Expectations

  • Define Responsibilities: Clearly outline what is expected of them regarding chores, schoolwork, and other responsibilities.
  • Set Goals: Help them set achievable goals and create a plan to reach them.

3. Encourage Responsibility and Independence

  • Assign Chores: Give them regular chores and responsibilities around the house to instill a sense of accountability.
  • Promote Problem-Solving: Encourage them to solve problems independently before stepping in to help.

It feels better to own your responsibilities and work hard, especially when you choose to buckle down. It’s the foundation for proper self-esteem. Take another look at your kid—sure, they might not follow your study skills tips, but chances are, they’re all in on something. Celebrate and praise that, and see what blossoms.


 

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For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

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