What one issue is most likely to keep parents awake worrying at night? Ask around. The answer likely goes something like this: “How can I help my children, who have grown up with everything they need, to understand the importance of hard work and the joy that can come from it?”
Instilling an appreciation of work wasn’t something my parents had to think about much: Our financial situation was such that my sisters and I were simply expected to contribute to the family. I had a job from the time I could safely ride my bicycle around town and deliver newspapers.
Later I took other jobs — working at a garden center, managing an apartment complex, refinishing antiques — that allowed me to (mostly) pay my way through college. My wife also worked her own way through college, but we both graduated with debt.
Value and joy through work.
Is it unrealistic for successful business leaders to expect children who have grown up in more comfortable circumstances to feel that same urgency? Perhaps. But there are few lessons more fundamental to communicate to children than the value of hard work and the satisfactions it brings.
When we talk about our children “reaching their potential” or “being themselves,” this is key. Whether they are investment bankers or poets or carpenters, they will only find value and joy in the labor that fills up so much of their lives if they learn the benefits of applying themselves to a task they care passionately about and of being driven forward by the desire to better themselves and perfect their skills.
So how can we as parents instill a love of work in our children?
Teach responsibility early.
The paper route I had as a kid was a revelation. Sure, I learned to show up every day whether I felt like it or not, which was important. But I’d expected that. The bigger thing was that I had to go collect the money from my clients and turn it over to the person who organized the paper routes. And there was always a problem with somebody paying late, or somebody I just had to keep going back to again and again in order to persuade them to pay their 25 cents.
I learned about tenacity and follow through and being assertive with people who had more power — grownups. And I learned that some people really hate to part with money. Those weren’t lessons I was getting in my eighth grade classroom.
Let kids fail.
This cannot be overstated in a time when “helicopter parenting” is a best practice in many households. Yes, it’s hard to watch our kids stumble and fumble. And parents who live and breathe a culture of winning and performance at work may find this especially hard.
But allowing kids of all ages to make mistakes and learn from them teaches them to weather tough situations, reflect upon them, bounce back — and, yes, win. As parents we really should practice standing back more often than stepping in — from the playgrounds and the playing fields to the classroom.
Encourage college work that is aligned with studies.
Every parent has to decide on the value of summer jobs for their kids in high school. My wife and I pretty much left the job decision up to them when they were younger — Lifeguard? Ice cream scooper? Landscaper? Fine by us! But by the time college rolls around, college students should be strategic in shaping their summer work choices and matching them to their college major — already an area of interest.
Is your daughter going to major in political science? Perhaps she can work at a non-profit. Does your son want to break into marketing? Encourage him to find an internship at a marketing firm or advertising agency. It’s valuable for kids to get a glimpse at life in their chosen fields. It might just stoke their ambition while they start building a resume.
Ask young adults to open their wallets.
Who foots the bill for college is a highly personal decision for families. Partly because of what my wife and I went through, and the student debt we carried in our 20s, we haven’t asked our kids to shoulder that responsibility. We are also incredibly fortunate, and don’t take that lightly. But I can tell you from experience that paying for college yourself magically sharpens your focus on your school work and the decisions you make.
Perhaps you ask your child to pay some of the cost — books, room and board, study abroad expenses or something along those lines. Or you can decide they will be the one footing the bill for those late night pizzas and off-campus meals. That used book or night out may be cherished by a student paying for it with her hard-earned money!
Adjust expectations of success.
Ok, so perhaps you always hoped your daughter would be a doctor or join the family business. Your son may have yearned to be a newspaper reporter. But these dreams don’t always work out in the face of experience. Sometimes igniting an ambition means being flexible enough to change direction. An internship I had in commercial banking in college was a coup for me to get. I applied myself to the work and absorbed everything I could. As part of my training I worked in all different aspects of the bank, and I was grateful for the opportunities it presented to me.
But at a certain point I realized I was far more fascinated in how businesses worked than in how to lend money to them. I gave myself permission to switch tracks, and never looked back. That child you observe dawdling his way through law school might actually shine as an entrepreneur or a salesman or — who knows? — a commercial fisherman. You need to enlarge your vision of your children’s possibilities, and help them enlarge theirs, too.
Having conversations with our kids about our expectations for them isn’t always comfortable. On top of that, framing those talks so they actually engage and absorb this guidance can prove challenging for parents. However, watching a child blossom, seeing him or her reaping the personal rewards that come from success –however it is measured — is excellent for them and one of parenthood’s greatest satisfactions.