How to Raise A Hardworking Kid (But Not a Workaholic)

Kids need balance as much as they need ambition.

No parent wants a lazy kid. But getting kids to love and value hard work is incredibly difficult. The information economy has made this harder. Most kids don’t work the farm alongside their parents anymore. And this is all the more reason that parents need to consistently teach their kids be focused and self-starting. Unfortunately, those conversations tend to happen in the context of school and homeworking, which can be limiting. Life, after all, isn’t about turning in assignments. It’s about nailing them. It’s also about finding self-worth and a good relationship with work can help with that. Kids who know that they can work hard to achieve goals and successes have a higher sense of self esteem and, unsurprisingly, a higher chance of finding success.

Still, it’s essential to strike a balance — especially in the context of a very competitive culture. “There are times to be hardworking and times to be lazy,” says Dr. Laura Dabney, a psychotherapist who has been working with children and adults for 20 years. The key, she says, is to make sure that kids love the process of  — and take pride in — hard work. In fact, all lessons about being hardworking should be taught from this perspective.

Why Raising Hardworking Kids Matters
“Being hardworking is where kids get their self-esteem,” says Dr. Dabney. “Parents don’t realize that.” When a kid, say, struggles with his or her math homework and then pushes forth to finish it gets to bask in the sensation of completing a task that once felt impossible. This helps kids understand the pleasure of completing a task and also helps develop self-esteem. “It’s like sending off your first rent check to your first apartment,” says Dabney. “It’s really hard for some parents to realize that sometimes, pain leads to joy, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment.” Especially, she stresses, when it comes to their kids.

When Should Parents Begin Teaching Hard Work?
As soon as possible. Dr. Dabney stresses that when kids are born, parents can start modeling the qualities they wish their kids to develop. That said, complex lessons might be inappropriate for young kids. But habits are habits and showing your children that you get joy out of hard work, whether it’s through setting up a complicated battery-operated toy roller coaster with your child or by coming home after a long day of work and expressing pride, certainly isn’t going to hurt.  

How to Model Hard Work For Your Kids
For parents, modeling hard work requires, well, working hard. But it also means monitoring their own behavior and what they say about their own job in front of their kids to make it clear that work is a natural, healthy aspect of life. Here, with Dr. Dabney’s help, are some tips for doing just that.

  • Complain About Work As Little As Possible
    According to Dr. Dabney, although it might feel like the safest space to do so, home isn’t the place for parents to complain about work. Even if the work day was frustrating or tedious or in any way soul-crushing, parents should try at all costs to model a sense that work can be enjoyable and fulfilling.“You’re always modeling for your child,” Dr. Dabney says. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re saying to them. If you’re modeling something different, you’re causing a situation that’s very difficult for them to understand.”
  • Let Kids Struggle
    Swooping in at the sign of struggle when a kid is trying to climb the jungle gym or struggling to build a block tower is second nature to plenty of parents. But if parents want kids to experience the satisfaction of hard work in miniature, they should let their kids struggle a little bit and accomplish as much of the task as they can on their own. When their kid finishes the task they have begun, they should lay on praise and congratulate them for working through something that was difficult for them, says Dabney. The process, here, is key.
  • Never, Ever, Say “Because I Said So”
    While it might be convenient or easy for parents to tell their young school-aged kids they “have to do their homework” because mom and dad “said so”, relying on such empty platitudes will not serve kids in the long run.When kids are told to do hard work because their parents say so won’t allow children to adopt the hard work as readily or as joyfully as the ones whose parents say, ‘Well, this is your problem. We believe in you. You can solve this.’ Parents that let their child struggle with the hard work do so not because it’s easy, but because it will help kids believe in themselves when they crush something difficult. Dabney stresses that ‘have-to’s’ are limited. At some point, kids will largely be on their own, and if they haven’t internalized a satisfaction in working or need to worh once the reigns come off, they may struggle to adjust.
  • Respect Kids’ Personality
    Sometimes parents have a certain idea of what being hardworking is — and they have a very certain idea of what it should look like. That, per Dr. Dabney, doesn’t serve kids. Why? Because some kids have different interests and talents and proclivities. One might be totally fit to chase the A and work hard on traditional projects such school essays or math homework while another kid might find it more fulfilling to attack a LEGO city with vigor or enter a creative writing contest that is a little bit out of their league. Its about working with kids personalities. What matters to them? What do they want? Forcing them to work hard at what they don’t care about (to an extent) and not allowing them to chase their passions at the same time can lead to some serious unhappiness.
  • Help Out The Right Way
    Just because kids have to have a ‘go’ at working hard on their own, that doesn’t mean that they should be left to struggle without a sense of support behind them.Parents need to watch their kids’ frustration level vs. their level of satisfaction, says Dabney. “Your job as the parent is to step in when the frustration gets to be too much, or, when they get older, as it becomes dangerous,” she says. Kids who are older and work too hard without breaks can damage their own health mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Parents need to recognize that. Parents need to be aware of their kids’ development — and aware of when the levels of frustration of completing a task will outweigh the actual level of satisfaction of having done hard work.
  • Understand That It’s a Process
    “There are parents who are very authoritative. They start panicking if they think their child isn’t hardworking, not realizing that it’s a process. It’s a long process,” warns Dabney. “And just because they refuse to put their dishes in the dishwasher at age eight does not mean they are going to be out on the street without a job when they are 25.”In other words: chill out. Parenting is a world of give and take. Parents should check in with their kids, ask what’s going on, expect a lot from their kids, but not the world. A helpful idea, Dabney offers, is that if a kid is bad about putting dishes away, try switching tasks. Have them wipe down the table or take out the trash instead. Make the tasks more doable, and remember that in the process of doing more and more work, complicated tasks get easier.
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How to Teach Hard Work in the Real World
As kids get older, parents should feel more and more comfortable taking their foot off the gas and letting their kid lead the way in terms of making their own study plans, focusing hard on school, and learning from their mistakes. Of course, parents should be a guiding force. But helicoptering can make it hard for kids to take responsibility for their own success.

“As kids get older, you let them have their own problems. When they get to middle-school age, and they are struggling in a class, you just help them start thinking about solutions. You don’t give them orders or make them follow a script,” Dabney says. “But parents should ask: ‘Why do you want to do that? Why do you think doing this is better than doing that? Okay. Good luck!’ And then parents need to check back in periodically.”

Checking in on kids as they’ve created their own plan for success will help them feel supported, but in control of their own wellbeing. That’s paramount to raising well-adjusted adults who can push through any problem or project.

When Hard Work Becomes Overkill
Being a hard worker is a great attribute. But work can easily get in the way of other beautiful parts of life. Besides,  if a kid works themselves into exhaustion or burnout, they could damage their mental health. And without prioritizing times to be lazy — real, true laziness — kids will struggle to value time ‘off’ as a part of what makes them able to be ‘on.’

“Parents really have to get creative and realize: this picture that worked for me, maybe worked for my other kid, isn’t working for this kid.”

If it’s not working and parents realize that their kids are prioritizing work over everything else, parents need to consider what matters to them. Do they want a well-rounded and happy kid who sometimes makes a B+? Or do they want a kid that focuses so hard on grades that they fail to have meaningful friendships and outlets outside of working? Probably not. The satisfaction of being a hard worker won’t cut it for kids if their social lives falter.

“That’s where you have to talk about the hard work of making and maintaining friendships,” says Dabney. “Walk them through that. Lay off on the grade thing and start working with them.”