All I Do Is Work, Work, Work, Work, Work: Encouraging Work Ethic in Your Children

March 7, 2019

By Jessica Eyre

A few days into school after the winter holiday break, both my kids had a spelling bee. This wasn’t a surprise, of course. A list of words was sent home, along with emails, newsletters, and Class Dojo notifications. The list of words sat out on our kitchen counter for at least a couple of weeks over the holidays just waiting to be practiced. But it never happened.

On Monday morning, when we all realized the day had arrived, there was some frantic reading and spelling out loud over bowls of cereal and Eggo waffles. And things were getting tense. But then I made an announcement.

“I don’t want anyone to be mad at not winning the spelling bee because you didn’t spend any time practicing.”

At first, there was confusion. But then disappointment because they knew they weren’t going to do as well as they might have if they’d studied. And then almost a sense of relief. It was an emotional breakfast.

In a society that pushes excellence, even perfection, it can be hard to keep up, especially if you’re an average, working mom like myself.

Sure, it’s my job as their mother to make sure they brush their teeth and take a shower on a semi-regular basis. Just this week on two different occasions, I had to tell 10-year-old Caleb to change his outfit because he’d worn it the previous day. (Which makes me nervous that he’s not changing the clothing I can’t see, if you know what I mean.)

But being a parent doesn’t mean we need to beg, plead, cajole, and require them to participate in every single school responsibility that comes their way. Sometimes it has to be up to them. So when do we push and when do we sit back and watch? When do we nag and how do we inspire motivation in our kids?

When to Push

There are lots of things kids need or have to do that they may not want to. Chores and homework come to mind, but even things we think might be fun—like participating in family game night or playing on a community recreation sports team—may require some encouragement.

If your child has a habit of trying and quitting, once they are old enough to make commitments, they need to be held responsible for keeping them.

Hilary Levey Friedman, a Harvard University sociologist, said, “Kids need to learn that when they make a commitment, this matters for others—if you are on a team—or for financial reasons—if Mom or Dad committed to paying for music lessons for a semester.”

When to Let Go

Knowing when to let something go—even if it’s good—is something that can be hard to do as parents.

My sister-in-law put all three of her kids in piano lessons. She felt like it was a valuable skill to have, and she always regretted not keeping at it herself. But after a year of lessons for her youngest, fighting to get him to practice and listening to constant complaining, she decided that the value in pushing him was being overshadowed by the friction it was causing in their household.

Sometimes a simple compromise can re-energize their enthusiasm in an activity. For example, 7-year-old Lucy was progressively becoming more resistant to attending a dance class. It seemed out of character for her to not want to go, but when I really listened to her reasons, it made perfect sense. The class started 20 minutes after school let out. So by the time she got home, she was having to change her clothes and be out the door. What she really needed to do at that time, was have a snack and take a breather to unwind from the school day. I spoke to the dance school and moved her to a class that was an hour later. Once she got her “me time” in after school, she was happy and excited to go to class again.

When to Give Some of the Responsibility to Them

It makes no difference to me if my kids win an elementary school spelling bee. That morning Lucy experienced something far more meaningful in the long run: personal disappointment. I saw a look of realization on her face that because she hadn’t studied, she wasn’t prepared to compete. And the only person she could blame was herself.  

Learning this lesson with something inconsequential early on, like a class spelling bee, instead of when it can have more lasting consequences like the SAT test in high school, is more important to me than forcing them into doing something that’s going to make us both miserable.

It’s important to give kids some type of control over their own destiny.

When we are asking our kids to do stuff they don’t want to do, we can help them understand that they don’t have to, but that there will be consequences. This can apply to cleaning their room, doing homework, or participating in an activity.

Google recently announced their Doodle 4 Google contest, where kids and adults alike can enter a Google doodle that follows their theme, and winners will be featured on the site for a day. When I found out about the contest, I suggested that Caleb, who loves to draw, should enter. He sat down and started drawing for a few minutes and declared it was done. The next day when he came home from school, he said his technology teacher talked about the contest, too. And he realized there would be millions of entries to compete against.

“I’m going to go add some more to mine. The ‘G’ definitely needs some work,” he said as he disappeared to his room.

The power of hard work is worth far more than simply entering a contest. Being willing to do what others won’t (like using your free time to work on your doodle or study words for a spelling bee), can have long-lasting benefits on work ethic as adults.

If I had said he needed to spend more than 10 minutes on it, it would have turned it into a “have-to” assignment. But by allowing him to realize what it was worth to him, he took the responsibility to put in more effort and be proud of his work. It will be an accomplishment, not something his mom asked him to do. And that is at least the beginnings of what is known as “grit.”

When a ‘have-to’ becomes a ‘want-to’

Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has studied grit: passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. In her studies to find out who is successful in a variety of settings and why, she found that effort meant much more than natural talent. And she saw this in high-performing arenas ranging from the West Point Military Academy to the Chicago public school system as it related to students at risk of dropping out.

How to build that grit in our kids is still a mystery. In a society focused on talent, there is little we know about instilling that motivation and drive. Duckworth says “we need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

Teaching kids life skills like commitment, responsibility, and follow-through have to be balanced with letting kids decide what activities they want to be involved in and taking responsibility for their actions (or inactions). And hopefully what you end up with is hard-working kids that turn into hard-working adults.


Jessica Eyre is a writer and marketing strategist. She loves movies, going to see live music, and has a firm belief that most any life situation can be related to an episode of “Seinfeld.” She is a mother who does her best “I’m interested” face when hearing about the latest YouTube video her kids want to re-enact for her, and yet, at the same time, finds them to be the most interesting people she knows.


Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

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