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By "Today" contributor
updated 3/31/2005 8:06:47 PM ET 2005-04-01T01:06:47

Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

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Law #25:
Teach the Work Ethic

If you believe that kids just naturally grow up demonstrating good frustration tolerance, perseverance, and self-discipline, think again. All of these character traits are learned — and must be taught by their parents. Want to guarantee that your kid will develop a good work ethic and not cut and run when the going gets tough? Here’s how to lead your child’s development into a responsible, self-sufficient adult.

***

Remember, perhaps not long ago, when you were anticipating your child’s birth? All the good thoughts poured in — how cute he would be, the selection of not-overused-yet-not-too-weird names you were considering, and how brilliant this offspring was destined to be. Okay, the baby is born, the nursery is decorated, you’ve finally figured out how to work the Diaper Genie, and little by little you even rediscover what sleep is. As brand-new parents, you probably faced some child-rearing issues, such as whether the baby will be allowed to cuddle in your bed if he awakens and cries during the night, or maybe you talked over toilet training or preschool choices in your early parenting discussions. So far, so good, but did the issue of how to foster your child’s work ethic happen to come up? You’re probably thinking “What, are you nuts? Let’s just get through this baby and toddler thing before we tackle that!”

Most parents are so absorbed with getting through the day sane and in one piece that it’s difficult to focus on something as nebulous as the work ethic. The fact is, many folks either assume that the kid will naturally develop the ability to work hard, tolerate frustrating circumstances, and develop adequate self-control, or they flat-out don’t even think about it.

But I can’t be emphatic enough — don’t put this off any longer!

Daily in my clinical practice I see parents who have made the mistake of not taking the time and attention to teach their children to be workers and achievers. These kids have learned to settle for less rather than to face and challenge adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success. This is seen in their shoddy schoolwork, inconsistent chore and task completion, and general irresponsibility. Trying to get Junior to complete his homework or to clean up his room becomes a major hassle, often resulting in a daily family drama including Mom’s nagging and Dad’s reprimands. “Where did we go wrong?” is heard as a chorus of laments when folks finally realize that their kids’ ability to tackle adversity, to postpone immediate gratification, and to work hard for what they desire has not occurred. Sadly, these are kids who often equate wanting with getting.

How to avoid this dilemma (or reverse it if it has already become habit) revolves around your own attitude toward work and issues of reward and entitlement. If your folks tended to give to you unconditionally (you didn’t have to earn your privileges or unnecessary possessions), then perhaps you’re raising your kids in the same manner. On the other hand, perhaps you grew up in a home where money was tight and you had to make do with very little. Often parents who felt deprived as children themselves vow to give their own kids as much as they can, not wanting them to be teased by peers for worn or out-of-style clothes. Not only does your son feel on top of the world when you purchase his first car for him, but you’re proud that you’ve provided for him in a way that even your own folks couldn’t. At least he won’t be riding the bus to school, having to sit with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores during his senior year!

Although your intentions may be noble, the result is often disastrous. And it’s often the kid who is the one who pays in the long run. Children who are raised with a feeling of entitlement — that the world revolves around them and that they are exempt from doing chores and taking responsibility — often grow to be adults who are bitter and resentful. Why? Didn’t their parents provide everything for them? Yes and no. They provided and gave too much in one sense — too many freedoms, privileges, and things. Yet they didn’t provide enough of the building blocks of the work ethic — teaching the child to postpone gratification by saving up her own money, confirming that wanting is different from needing, and that success and achievement are based on facing challenges and persevering.

You have to realize that even if you keep catering to your child’s whims, the real world certainly isn’t going to. And he’ll begin to feel the sting of that reality as he butts heads with peers who won’t cave in to his tantrums on the playground, or teachers who can’t be talked into forgiving incomplete homework just because of his adorable dimples. Your home truly is the training ground for the playground, the classroom, and the workplace. The expectations that you demand will set the stage for how well your child adjusts to the expectations outside of the home. By teaching your kids to deal with frustrations appropriately, perhaps by having them share the financial responsibility for buying sneakers that are beyond your means or your good judgment, they learn that they must contribute in order to receive. That’s the essence of the behavior-consequence connection (Law #5), the lesson that you get what you earn. Treating a kid to unnecessarily expensive sneakers without the child chipping in (even if you can afford them) sends the wrong message — that what you want, you get, even if what you want is unreasonable or even if you haven’t earned it.

No one is born with the work ethic. Study after study has shown that perseverance, self-discipline, and frustration tolerance — the bases of a solid work ethic — are learned, not innate. There’s no passing the buck here, blaming your child’s procrastination or feeling of entitlement on your partner’s or Grandma’s genetic makeup just won’t cut it. It’s up to you, the parent, to instill the difference between wanting and getting, and to teach your child to postpone gratification in order to accomplish and succeed later as an adult.

Reasonable Expectations by Developmental Stage
Here’s how to grow these expectations with your child.

Two-Year-Olds
Between 24 and 36 months of age, your child develops the ability to handle many behavioral responsibilities. Use a timer to motivate your child to clean up specific toys and put them back in their proper place before the buzzer goes off. Make chore completion fun and be sure to help out, modeling the good behavior yourself. Be careful at the grocery store that you don’t cave in and buy a toy that your little one puts into the cart — that’s an easy habit to start and a difficult one to get rid of!

Three-Year-Olds
Between 3 and 4 years of age children are able to perform daily chores such as putting dirty clothes in a hamper (you may want to play beat-the-buzzer or dunk-the-basketball to get them moving on this) and helping you to make their beds. Threes can fill pet bowls, pull up their own elastic-waist pants and skirts, and brush their teeth with your guidance. Praise your child for a good effort — little ones thrive on positive attention, and they don’t need constant treats to motivate a good performance.

Four-Year-Olds
Fours continue to be able to complete chore responsibilities such as putting their dirty dishes on the counter or clothes in the hamper, giving the dog water or food, washing themselves in the bath with your supervision, brushing their teeth with your guidance, and picking out their clothes for the next day. Remember to thank them for their help and note that because the child was quick to get ready in the morning, there’s now time to play a word game before leaving for preschool.

Early Grade Schoolers
Fives can prepare themselves for kindergarten in the morning (getting clothes out, etc.) and work 15 minutes at a time on letters, dot-to-dots, and other pre-academic tasks. Fives are able to help to make their own simple lunches, dress themselves, and begin to learn to tie their shoes. They can also begin to help younger siblings with dressing and other tasks. These children can help clean up after their baths (hanging up the towel, putting dirty clothes in the hamper), as well as making their own beds.

Six- and 7-year-olds can work cooperatively with you on homework as well as doing some of it themselves. They can put their clean clothes in the correct drawers or hang them up in the closet, pick up their bedroom daily, and meet deadlines for baths and bedtime. Early grade schoolers can be expected to brush their teeth by themselves, answer the telephone, and respond politely when spoken to. They can help with dinner chores and take out their own articles from the car each day and put them away. Many early grade schoolers can set their alarm clocks (with adult supervision) and wake up by the alarm in the morning (again, with your guidance).

Be careful not to buy on impulse or demand for your early grade schooler. Begin an allowance system and teach them to have goals. Let them see how close they are to earning a new action figure or video game. Encourage waiting and saving.

Older Grade Schoolers
Eight-, 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds can continue with self-hygiene chores and be totally responsible for getting ready for school. Although they will need help and guidance with homework, they can do much of it on their own. These kids can bring in the mail and take out and bring in the trashcans. They can be expected to keep their rooms clean and to help out with family chores such as dusting, straightening the family and play rooms, and helping to put away laundry other than their own. Setting and clearing the table are appropriate responsibilities, as are pet chores.

Instead of giving these kids toys, treats, or possessions when demanded, have them learn to save their allowances for purchases. Teach them to buy on sale and to budget. Have them wait a few days before impulsively making a purchase — let them see that they may change their mind and be glad that they saved their money. Have them contribute at times to the rental fee for a video game or movie. Start a bank account and show them how to balance it each month.

Middle Schoolers
Twelve-, 13- and 14-year-olds are quite capable of helping out with just about everything around the house. They can cook, help clean, do yard work, and wash the car. They can be totally responsible for doing their own laundry. Encourage babysitting younger siblings and doing pet chores. Watch out that you are not doing too much for them, as they will continue to be “helpless” if you allow that. Self-esteem is largely based in accomplishment, and kids who “do” feel good about themselves.

Encourage an allowance system for purchases such as CDs, video games, and movies. Kids this age can be placed on a clothing allowance system — which teaches budgeting and planning ahead. They’ll learn that “wanting” doesn’t always lead to “getting” — a great lesson to learn at this time in life.

High Schoolers
Teens can be very self-sufficient — taking care of their own laundry, ironing, helping with dinner preparation and clearing, as well as watching younger siblings. If your teen is driving a car, have her chip in for auto insurance or gas, especially if she has a paying job. Encourage her to volunteer and to help with family chores, not just her own.

If she has a paying job, eliminate the allowance, but you may still have to chip in for clothing purchases. Set a limit on what you think is reasonable, and if she has extravagant tastes, let her take up the slack and put in the difference from her own savings. Don’t cave in and allow privileges or freedoms that you feel uncomfortable with just because she nags you — stand your ground if you feel that her requests are inappropriate. Remember, she’s learning the work ethic and frustration tolerance — skills that will serve her well as an adult!

Living the Law
How do you set the scene for building a good work ethic? Consider the following suggestions.

Don’t be a peace-at-any-price parent. Giving in to your child’s whines and fusses just to keep the complaining down to a dull roar only hurts both of you. Ask yourself, “If I give in and let my preschooler get away with neglecting to feed the cat, what am I teaching him?” Remember — not doing something about inappropriate behavior is still making a statement, perhaps a lesson that you don’t really mean to teach.

Set up expectations for each of your children. Make them clear and reasonable, and check to be sure that the kids follow through. If they don’t, set up consistent consequences that matter to your kids so that they are more apt to complete the chores or expectations in the future.

Raise the bar. As your kids mature, expect more. Most parents don’t realize how much kids can really do, especially little ones. We tend to think of our children as helpless, and, believe me, they will not try to change that perception! Preschoolers who have the dexterity and strength to pull toys out of toy boxes have the ability to put the toys back in. They just may not have the motivation to do so! And that’s where you come in — by modeling the toy cleanup process, playing beat-the-buzzer to complete a chore in a fun way, or holding off on a treat until the toys are back in the box. Your kid will soon get the message if you stick to your guns. And expect more initiative and quality as your children grow. You shouldn’t have to remind your daughter at 8 years of age to make her bed — she knows that it has to be accomplished before coming to breakfast, but again, only if you set the rule and stick to it. By the teen years, kids can do just about any job that you can around the house, plus they have more time and energy. Expect more and you’ll get more!

Consider schoolwork and homework as part of the foundation for a good work ethic. Sure, your son may not be enthralled with his math homework, but he should do it without a hassle, in a timely manner, and correctly. I’m not suggesting perfection by any means, but a good, solid effort and organization are reasonable to expect when it comes to school responsibilities.

Be especially careful with a smart kid who gets by easily. Often children who are very bright find that they can succeed in school with very little effort. Challenge such a child by placing him in advanced programs if possible, or provide creative work for him yourself. Gifted, unmotivated children often find it difficult to rise to the occasion when they find themselves in truly challenging situations later in life. And because they haven’t had to work hard for their accomplishments, they often give up easily when frustrated.

Start chores and responsibilities early in life. It’s much easier to begin a good habit with a 3-year-old than to break a bad habit with a 13-year-old. Decide whether your child should receive an allowance for performing his chores. Should the allowance be given for completing everyday items (picking up his room, putting away his laundry) or should it be for “extras” such as washing the car or the windows? This is an individual family decision that should be based upon what you believe teaches the best lessons to your kids.

Encourage volunteering. Studies resoundingly confirm that helping others — reading to the elderly in a nursing home, babysitting children at Sunday school, or serving food at a local soup kitchen — not only benefits others but develops a sense of pride in the volunteer.

Help your teen to land a paying job when the time is right. In considering jobs, be sure that the workplace is a safe environment and that the job doesn’t interfere with his school or homework responsibilities. Discuss how he is to handle his salary — putting some away for future purchases or responsibilities (car insurance), while keeping some for weekly spending money. When a teen receives a salary, the allowance is usually no longer necessary.

Model a positive work attitude yourself. If you work within the home, show pride in your accomplishments and how you provide a nice environment for your family. If you work outside the home, share your experiences, opportunities, and insights with your kids. Let them see that a career is not just work, it’s an opportunity to grow, to access financial stability, to meet and make friends, and is an interesting place to be.

Let your kids see that just because you want something, you don’t necessarily get it. Share with them the pros and cons about buying something on credit versus saving and purchasing it with cash in the future. Learn to tolerate the frustration of postponing your own gratification, and your kids will follow suit.

NEXT WEEK: Yes, there are happy endings

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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