5. Give them work to do. Before our children can love to work, they have to be given some of it. We must, as parents and educators, not shy away from the important task we have of giving our children the gift of work, and we must see it that way. Good work is a gift, and good work given to our children is a gift we bestow upon them. Indeed, it is a burden, but all good gifts are burdens. They are weighty. They require effort. They make us uncomfortable. They cause us to be conformed to something outside of ourselves. If we want our children to love work, we must be purposeful in giving it to them, at every age and in every area of their lives. A two-year old can grow in their work ethic, and they have work to do. A five year old can grow in their work ethic, and they have work to do. This is true all the way up, and we must identify and be ready to hand the plow to the children if we intend for them to love plowing.
4. Give them task-oriented tasks. A task-oriented task is one where the completion of work is not based on time but amount and quality of work. One contrast to this would be “time-oriented tasks.” A time oriented task is where you tell a child to do something for a certain amount of time, and when that time is up, their work is complete. A task-oriented task is where a child’s work is complete when they’ve complete their work with a certain quantity and quality. For example, it is better to ask a child to make sure all their toys are neatly on their shelf, rather than instruct them they have ten minutes to pick up their room. In an interview with Plough Publishing, Joel Salatin says, “Never say ‘go pick beans for thirty minutes,’ because there is no incentive to do it efficiently, to do it well, just you’ve got to pick beans for thirty minutes. But if you say ‘pick from here to here,’ so you give a task instead of time, ‘here to here, and when you get done I’ll read you a story, we’ll go for a walk,’ whatever the reward is, when it’s task oriented, then you teach efficiency and faithfulness.”
3. Teach that sloppiness and laziness have consequences. If we give our children work, and they do it sloppily or lazily, it is important they learn that these have consequences. Sometimes these consequences could be imposed by the parent: “The kitchen was not properly cleaned as we asked, and so you may not go to the movies tomorrow with your friends.” Sometimes these consequences can be natural consequences, like a young man not washing his athletic clothes and now having to wear smelly and dirty athletic clothes to practice. One of my favorite childhood stories to tell my students, and my children, is the time when my mother (a single mom with four children), took the kind and rare step of folding my clothes for me. My room was in the basement, and she had placed three stacks of clothes at the bottom of the stairs, for me to bring to my room and put in my drawers. Day after day passed. I would pick out the clothes I wanted from the pile and keep the pile at the bottom of the stairs. Day after day she reminded me to bring the clothes to my room. About the fourth day I returned from school in the afternoon. I needed a shirt. I went to the pile. The piles were gone. “No…she put them up for me?!” I said with a surprised, but hesitant, grin. I went to my drawers. The clothes were not there. I walked upstairs from the basement, into the kitchen. My mom was making spaghetti. She was stirring and looking pleasant. “Hey, mom, do you know where those clothes went? I’m looking for a shirt.” She looked up from the pot. She grinned. She was at peace. She was too much at peace. “You should go look in the back yard.” I walked to the back porch, which overlooked a steep and wooded back yard. I opened the door and walked on the deck. There were my clothes, strewn through the woods, in trees, on limbs, tossed. I turned around, shocked and somewhat impressed. My mom was standing behind me in the doorway. “Brian,” she began, with a nurturing voice, “it was just so freeing to pick up that pile of clothes and toss them off the porch. Next time you should put your clothes away. You can go get them if you'd like.” I laughed, because the poetic justice was loud. And my mom’s loving intention and warmth coated the whole thing. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t crazy. She didn’t lose her mind. I was seventeen at the time, and that was exactly what needed to happen to a young man. Our children must know and feel—in their school work, their chores, at church, with their cars—that a sloppy and lazy laborer will know and feel the consequences of a poor work ethic. And we should be most loving in ensuring they learn those lessons early and often in their childhood. When they learn that bad work is not pleasant, they will learn to love its opposite: good work. They will then delight in good work, for with it comes blessings, and they will be happy to have avoided the curses, however small, of being a bad laborer.
2. Reward work ethic virtues, even when they are not working. One piece of advice I have heard time and again in recent years is that when you compliment your child in something, they will want to do or be more of whatever that compliment was. If you compliment and reward your child (even with a laugh or slight word of affirmation) for being pretty or smart or witty, they will seek ways to look pretty or smart or witty. And if you compliment your child for persevering, being thoughtful, efficient, focused, diligent, they will likewise seek to be that more often, to earn your approval and affirmation. Affirm those things in your child that correspond with being a virtuous laborer. This must happen when they work and when they are not working. If your child colors a picture, and they show you, instead of saying “That is such a pretty picture!” it is better to say, “Well done staying focused and choosing good colors!” When your child cleans up their toys in the living room and comes to let you know, instead of saying “Okay, it’s done, great job getting it all done,” you should rather say, “I appreciate how faithfully you worked.” When a child decides to not just pick up their plate from the table but also take their sibling’s plate and mom and dad’s plates, then don’t say, “Thank you for picking up the plates and helping clean,” rather say, “Thank you for being considerate of others and working hard at a task without us asking you.” When your child struggles well through their schoolwork or a difficult math problem, say to them, “I am proud of you for persevering and diligently working to be a good problem solver.” These kinds of virtues will stick in their imagination, and it will create a mosaic for what a hard working person looks like.
1. You must love work. The golden rule of raising a child is that children learn by imitation. Period. Children learn first and most fully by imitation, in everything: language, facial expressions, emotions, tone, posture, intellectual insight, piety, technology, art, virtue. If we want our children to love work, we must be people who exude in our homes and churches and city and schools a love for work. We cannot malign our country and expect our children to be patriots. We cannot blaspheme our God and expect our children to be pious. Likewise, we cannot be bitter about our work or grumble about our work or be sloppy in our work and expect to raise diligent, joyful, and creative laborers. Joel Salatin is again helpful, “First of all, you have to like to work. And when the children are around mom and dad who are complaining like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go out and, you know, sweep the porch' or whatever, when we’re complaining about our chores and our jobs, when we have no sacredness to the things that we do, well the kids are going to pick that up. So part of that for us as parents, we have to appreciate that all that we’re doing, from cleaning the toilet to planting the tomato plant; that is all sacred. It is sacred stuff. It is an extension of God’s participatory hand in life.”
There is a handful of things that are so central to our children’s humanity that we must take the utmost care in ensuring those core human virtues are as healthy as we as parents can make them, by God’s faithfulness and own love toward our children. Raising our children to have a biblical and contagious work ethic is one of those. Though we were not wealthy and had plenty of difficulties to endure in our family, my parents gave me a lot of things, a lot of good and immaterial things. One of those, for which I will ever be grateful, is that they were and are hard workers.