One day my teenage twin sons decided they didn't want to help around the house. One said, "All we do is work! We go to school, then to practice. We come home and have dinner, then do homework."
"We don't have time to do chores," said the other.
"I understand," I told them. "You are busy, but we are a family. We live together as a community. If you don't want to work cooperatively, we can all take care of ourselves."
My wife added, "You can do your own laundry, make your own meals and do your own grocery shopping. And Dad and I will do ours."
"I'll share my money with Mom," I concluded, "but you can pay for your own food and clothes."
They quickly realized that they could do chores, and their work rebellion lasted about 10 minutes. As parents, we must prepare our children to be able to function in the working world. Part of this preparation is teaching our kids to have a good work ethic.
Training teens to work
As I work with companies, I hear their many complaints about millennials not having a well-developed work ethic. This seems partially due to the fact that younger employees often have less work experience than young adults had in past generations. Some don't have their first real job until after college, whereas past generations started working at a much younger age.
I wish there were a video game that taught teens how to perform quality work diligently, but there isn't. Just as those who came before them, teens will learn how to work by working. Fortunately, work doesn't have to mean a paying job.
Work can start early in life with simple daily tasks such as picking up toys and helping clear the table of dishes. That should grow into doing chores around the house: taking out the trash, making a bed, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, loading the dishwasher or helping fold the laundry. By the teen years, adolescents should be helping with yard work and assisting in preparing meals.
Of course, if you are just starting to ask your children to do chores during the teen years, be ready for pushback. You may need to employ the strategy of giving them the choice to do the work or pay you or a younger sibling to do their chores. (This reflects real life — you can do a task or pay someone to do it.)
Giving them a foundation
Our culture's misguided goal of giving children a "happy childhood" — mistakenly defined as having no responsibilities — has led us down the wrong path. For our teens to become functional working adults, they must learn three key concepts:
Work comes before play. Most adults, whether we work inside or outside the home, must complete certain daily responsibilities before we do things we want to do. This is a critical habit to teach teens as they mature — complete your chores before you play; finish your homework before you watch TV; mow the lawn before you go to a friend's house.
Demonstrated responsibility precedes earned privileges. Our culture tells kids: "When you are 16, you can drive;" and "When you are in middle school, you can go to the mall with your friends on your own." Inadvertently, our children are being taught that privileges are related to age or grade, so all you have to do is stay alive and you get more freedom.
But in the working world, increased privileges, such as working from home or supervising others, are earned through demonstrated ability and responsibility. So the message should be: "You can drive alone when I see you drive safely" and "You can go to the mall alone when you have demonstrated enough maturity."
Quality work matters. The goal of teens may be to complete tasks with the least amount of effort possible. But in the working world, the customer wants the job completed in a reasonable timeframe and at an acceptable quality level (which is defined by the customer, not the teen). If you, their customer, do not deem a job done well, then it is your responsibility to "complain" until the task is completed to your satisfaction.
As with other areas of life, teens learn best when we, as parents, do tasks with them, modeling and instructing along the way. Then we need to give them opportunities to practice working — at home, at church or in the community. Just telling them to "work hard" doesn't typically get it done.
What is a good work ethic? Supervisors and employers describe it as:
- Showing up (regularly)
- Arriving on time, ready to work
- Listening to and following instructions
- Staying on task
- Putting forth consistent, good effort
- Performing quality work (vs. "going through the motions")
- Completing each task in a timely fashion