Let Them Contribute with Chores
Children, even as young as 3 or 4, can do such chores as feeding the pet, watering plants, or emptying the dishwasher. Parents shouldn't feel they are burdening kids or robbing them of playtime. Children want to contribute and do things that make them feel valuable. Chores plant the idea that service is expected in the family. If we don't invite them to help, we miss an opportunity. They want to contribute.
Make Work Fun
If parents can tell, or show, kids how work contributes to the family's well-being, children will be more positive about chores. Some parents make a to-do list of daily or weekly household jobs and post it on the refrigerator, offering kids tasks to choose from (putting tasks in a job jar and letting kids pull from the jar also works). Do what works, but don't let the kids opt out. Giving kids a choice helps make work more tolerable, but adding incentives can sometimes make work actually fun. Contests -- say, for Fastest Room-Cleaner or Best Vacuumer -- get kids more involved, as do rewards. Going out to a favorite park or restaurant, renting a movie, or inviting friends for sleepovers are just a few ways that parents can reward hard work.
Let Them Learn from Failure
Don't expect kids to always do their tasks well. What's important is the effort. Resist the urge to step in and take over. If the child fails to water the plant, let it wilt or die. If teenagers have trouble on a job -- or even get fired -- because they fail to show up on time or do the job correctly, don't make excuses for them. Let them learn that their actions or inactions have consequences. Talk about what happened and ask them what they can do to keep from repeating their mistake. Don't rub it in, but don't let them shrug off what happened either.
Talk About the "Why" of Work
As children get older, it's important for parents to discuss the meaning and purpose of work. This is the time to make it clear that jobs are not done for drudgery's sake but to create value, make products, or serve people or even a greater good. A young person needs to learn that there is a purpose to all of this -- that doing a job well makes you a better person and enhances character and self-esteem. One way parents can start this discussion with their kids is by sharing their own work experiences -- good and bad -- and talk about the lessons they learned and how they were shaped by those experiences.
In real life, work isn't always fun -- sometimes the boss isn't fair, customers are rude, and hours at work seem to drag by. Expect teens to complain about their jobs. Let them vent -- in fact, encourage it. After all, adults sometimes gripe about their jobs too. But where kids are concerned, parents should be ready to offer encouragement.
Model the Ethic
Kids learn good work habits when their parents walk the walk. That means showing kids that work is important and that it's part of a balanced life. For example, the three children in the Judge family in Skaneateles, New York, have seen their parents make such choices -- doing extra work to get ahead and choosing family over a job. Although Sheila and Joe are now a full-time working couple, Sheila left a job two years ago because it interfered with family life. Joe recently became a principal at a middle school after taking college night classes for nearly 10 years to earn a graduate degree and certification to become an administrator. "We want them to put work in perspective," Sheila says. "It's not about earning a lot of money and buying things. It's about improving your life and doing something you like."