Can Work Ethic Be Learned?

Is work ethic always instilled -- by parents, in young children? Can it be learned later on or, in fact, even be inherent?
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Parents are told--among the many, many things modern parents are told--that it's important to instill in their children a strong work ethic. There are plenty of ideas for how to go about doing this. Some insist the kids take on chores or, later, summer jobs. Others make an effort to talk with their children about the value of work and the value of money. Some families may call on a reward system: allowance, or a new book or toy, for small tasks performed. Inspiring a solid work ethic in children can also be achieved through simple modeling. Many children will learn from their parents' own hard work, ambition, and commitment. No one way is necessarily "better" than the next, and efficacy often depends on the nature of the child at hand.

Which begs the questions: Is work ethic always instilled--by parents, in young children? Can it be learned later on or, in fact, even be inherent?

Surely, instilling work ethic in children is not always easy to do. Families these days are busy. In many cases--most cases, I'd argue--it's far less complicated to take out the trash or feed the dog yourself than to have the kids do it, given such an undertaking might include reminding the child, showing him how to do it (again), reminding him (again), and then cleaning up the spills that occur as a result of his "helping." And so parents do exactly that--perform the tasks themselves--a phenomenon discussed in a 2012 New Yorker piece called "Spoiled Rotten" that presented American kids as the most indulged set of young people in the history of the world.

There is reason to believe, however, that work ethic can be learned among older adults. Take the Protestants, for example, for whom work ethic was something akin to belief: a value attached to hard work and frugality as a path to eternal salvation. More recently, schools have begun emphasizing "work ethic" within their standard curriculum. One school district in Kentucky implemented such a program, in which students are taught the basics of being a good employees: not just how to get a job, but how to keep the job by showing up on time, doing good work, and exceeding employer expectations.

There is also good reason to believe that work ethic is inherent, something we're born with, like a talent for piano or a natural sense of humor. Some kids are just more interested in working. When my son was small, he displayed a work ethic that surprised even me. By all accounts, he was raised in comfort. He went to very good schools, and had nice things. He didn't need to work, certainly not as a 9 year old. He'd had some good examples to look up to: His father and I were both successful professionals. We'd always hoped our shared work ethic would be passed on to our children. But we didn't go about "instilling," necessarily.

But turns out we didn't really need to. Alex was always the lemonade stand sort of kid, ever looking for a way to do work. Starting at a young age, he would go to work with his father and help out with small, age-appropriate tasks. Once when he had a dentist appointment, and I was working, I arranged to have him picked up. Alex got mad. "Businessmen don't have babysitters," he told me. He was six. At 9, he launched a business called "Household Help," designing and posting flyers around our San Francisco neighborhood advertising in-home assistance with various odd jobs like feeding pets and picking up the mail. In the 8 grade, he got a job selling jeans at a clothing store called American Rag where, family legend has it, he outsold some of the more seasoned sales staff (I'm sure this was at least in part because people got a kick out of buying denim from a kid). As teenagers, he and a friend created a cable access show called Eye on the Bay. There was always something cooking.

I'm not sure money was the real motivator for him, though surely he felt pride in the money he earned. More, I think it was the satisfaction he felt in having something of his own--an idea, a profession--of working towards something larger than himself. Through watching us, our children knew that hard work and determination took you places. But their understanding of the psychological place of work--their ability to recognize work as something whose value extended far beyond the ability to buy nice clothes or take vacations, or simply pay the bills--seemed more instinctive.

And it proved to be long lasting. My son has long been in the workforce, testing out a number of careers in his 20s and 30s before eventually settling on fashion and, now, owning his own business, Alex Mill, a clothing line for men and boys. There were times he might have decided to settle for a job that he liked, if not loved, knowing that he had the security of his family to fall back on and yet he never did. And there were times, I'll admit, that I was concerned he'd never find the career that truly made him happy. But then I'd think back to his early desire to work--work he performed to satisfy himself, and not his parents--and I'd step back. He would be just fine without my input.

And surely he's not an anomaly. Though we tend to talk about Millennials and Generation X as an entitled group, the truth is that these are the men and women making much of the difference in the world. Some may have gotten that drive from their parents. But I think many more have gotten it, learned it, from each other, or never even had to learn it at all. It was just how they were made.

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