In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting, among other things, the minimum age at which a child can be gainfully employed. Before that, children as young as 6 years old labored for entire days in factories, fields, and various trades, earning little pay, no benefits, and (one would assume) barely a ‘thank you’ from their slave-master bosses. Children of poor families were often expected to work and help support themselves and their families. Of course this left little time for school and even less time for fun, but hey, nobody would argue that they didn’t have character and a work ethic, eh? Before you start thinking I’m pining for the days of Oliver Twist, I think we can all agree that child labor was taken just a bit too far back then. But the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that these days it’s hard to get kids to clean their rooms, much less hold down a fast-food job for a few hours a week!
From television to video games to music, toys, and fashion, kids are bombarded with distractions that cost money, except they usually have no concept of where that money comes from. Why? Because SOMEBODY ELSE pays for those distractions for them! Well-meaning parents want to give their kids ‘more than they had.’ They think they can win favor with their child by giving them things. Parents are just afraid to say that magic, two-letter word, the word that could literally change the world and end the generational decline to decadence we have been experiencing, that word of all words… NO! We don’t use the word ‘no’ enough because we want our kids to be happy, to think happy thoughts about us, to LIKE us, but we are hurting them as a result.
Does this mean we should deny our kids everything? Not at all! Does it mean there needs to be a healthy balance, a strong understanding by children that everything that costs money has to be PAID FOR by somebody’s energy – resulting in either a satisfaction in something earned by a job well done, or an extreme gratefulness to the person who has worked to provide that item for them? Yes! Today, many kids are neither satisfied nor are they grateful. Oftentimes they are spoiled to the extreme, and that has to change if we want to reject this decadent culture and raise our kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This starts by saying ‘no’ to spoiling our kids, and teaching them that good things come to those who WORK.
So, short of sending your 7 year old to the coal mines (tempting? yes… legal? unfortunately no…) how does a family teach a work ethic to their children when the entire culture abhors it? Our family is far from perfect regarding this, and for every finger (word, whatever) that might seem to be pointing out at others there are four others pointing back at us. We struggle with the same things everyone does. Here are some things that seem to have worked for us so far, along with some things we know WILL work when our kids get older.
1.) Learn to say NO. See above. Don’t give your children everything because they won’t appreciate it and it’ll just end up under the bed or broken or in the garage somewhere (yeah, been there, done that).
2.) As soon as your kids are old enough to clean up after themselves (put clothes and toys away, etc.) do NOT pick up after them. You are not their maid, you are their parent. When our kids change clothes they are expected to put their clothes in the dirty clothes bin. When they get a toy out and play with it they are expected to put it away before getting a new toy. Do they always do this? No. Often we have to remind them, but the hope is that these habits will be ingrained and it will be easier when they are teenagers (I know, parents of teenagers are rolling their eyes right now – stop, just stop and at least let us hope will ya?). It helps to have positive and negative consequences when training your child in this area.
3.) Explain basic economics to your child. You don’t have to get into supply side vs demand side, Keynesian vs Austrian, and Reaganomics just yet (although it might be a good topic around age 5 – and look into Austrian because it’s really the way to go), but your child should understand that everything, I mean EVERYTHING that comes to them comes because somebody had to expend energy – somebody had to WORK for it. Explain the cost of things versus how long and how hard people in different occupations have to work to be able to afford those things.
4.) Encourage a spirit of thankfulness in everything your child receives without having to work for it. Getting gifts is part of being a kid, but when they get those gifts they need to be truly thankful.
5.) Solidify your child’s understanding of the relationship between work and reward by giving your children chores around the house and rewarding them each week when they complete those chores to your satisfaction. Each of our older children have a ‘chore chart’ they complete each week by checking the box next to the chore for that day. Each chore is age appropriate – our oldest has among his chores the feeding of our dog and cat. Our 3 year old clears the table after dinner. You can adjust these as they get older. Obviously there is no magic money amount, but we give them 50 cents per chore. The kicker is at the end of the week they owe us 50 cents for each chore they did NOT complete (hey, somebody had to do it, right?). This encourages a spirit of diligence.
6.) Make your child do some chores simply because they have the privilege of living in your household. Cleaning their room, for example, should be expected not rewarded. We don’t get paid for everything WE do (like taking care of them!), but we still have to do those things. Sometimes life is just… hard.
7.) If possible, take your child to work with you and let them see what you do to make sure they have a place to live, food on the table, presents for Christmas, etc. Work is an honorable, noble thing, not something to be avoided. When a human is given work they are given dignity. When they are given a handout it’s something else entirely (yes, there are those who sometimes need a hand-up but this should be the exception, not the rule!).
8.) Make your child GIVE a portion of what he earns. Whether it’s tithing, a charity, or someone in need, encouraging a spirit of giving is critical to instilling Godly character in a child. The Bible says God loves a cheerful giver!
9.) Give them fun chores along with those that are not so fun. Let them help you bake a cake or build something cool in your workshop. Not all work is miserable but it’s all necessary! Encourage your child to find the fun in chores that might, on the surface, seem mundane.
10.) Be sure to give your child plenty of praise. A pat on the back for a job well done goes a long way, even for adults!
BONUS – Make plenty of time for play! All work and no play make pretty cranky kids (and parents!). Better yet, play WITH your kids. Work hard, play harder! When a family works and plays together, they are truly developing that cohesive family unit that God intended.
Developing a work ethic is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Unless you want a 40-year old living in your basement playing video games all day, you will do everything you can to make sure your child understands that WORK is the means God gives us to be happy and live well.