Help Your Child Build an Indestructible Work Ethic

I was a very high achieving kid in school. I made it through the K-12 educational system earning A’s in each grade level until earning my first B+ at the end of 12th grade physics. Everyone around me kept telling me how smart a kid I was, and of course I believed them.

But things changed as soon as I entered college. The grades in the history, science, math, and engineering courses didn’t come as easily as I assumed they would. The strategies I used to win the K-12 game had no effect in college courses. For the first time in my academic life, I had to work hard. But there was a big problem.

I didn’t know how to work hard.

I actually made it through high school with poor study habits, and those poor habits were affecting me in college. I would sometimes sit with an open textbook for 20 or 30 minutes until I got bored and wandered around the campus looking for something to do. Studying my lecture notes was useless because I wasn’t really sharp enough to take great notes during lectures. And because I used to buy into everyone’s praise on how smart I was in high school, I never developed the habit of asking other people for help.

In short, I had no work ethic.

After four semesters of drastically declining grades, I finally did something about it. I changed my college major and got the help I needed. As an adult, I had to learn how to deliberately and gradually build my work ethic. But even though things turned out fine for me, I sometimes wish there was something different I could’ve done to develop that work ethic in me as a child.

So what can you do to help your child build an indestructible work ethic?

A writer and computer programmer named Scott Young has written hundreds of articles on improving productivity, and his take on developing a stronger work ethic is the best I’ve seen yet. The main idea is that work ethic is a large concept that is actually a collection of four smaller habits. Those four smaller habits are focus, persistence, immediacy, and professionalism. The key is finding ways to turn these smaller habits into values by which students live their lives. (At the end, I provide a bonus fifth habit that’s specifically for you as a parent.) Your goal as a parent is to find a way to customize any (or all) of the strategies below to fit your child’s personality.

Strategy #1: Help Your Child Focus

Focus means directing all attention at any given moment toward one specific goal. Focusing on a homework assignment means directing the mind and body toward a given task at a particular moment. There are two things you need to do for your child to help him develop focus. First, remove any physical distractions. Focus is a lot easier without the constant temptation of laptops, smartphones, video games, and tablets. Second, ask your child how much time he thinks he’ll need for the homework. Then let him know you’ve set a timer for 90% of whatever time period he gives you. For example, if your son says that he needs a solid 60 minutes to finish a homework assignment, set a timer instead for exactly 54 minutes. The shortened deadline will add just enough pressure to help increase his level of focus toward the task.

Strategy #2: Help Your Child Become Persistent

Persistence is just one part of a person’s work ethic, but it is definitely a major part. Persistence is a student’s level of grit and tenacity; it’s the ability to hold on and endure. Persistence has to do with the ability to continue doing something when the task gets gradually more tiresome or difficult. Becoming a persistent person happens over time. The way to strengthen your child’s persistence is by using a strategy called Commit 10%. For example, if you usually find your daughter shutting down after 20 minutes of homework, the next day she sits down for homework, have her commit to an extra two minutes, and from then on, set a timer for 22 minutes each day she has homework. Now 22 minutes becomes the new baseline. You’ve helped her extend her persistence limit. Later, when that plateau becomes stale, commit to another 10%. Over time, she will have built up her level of work tolerance.

Strategy #3: Help Your Child Develop a Sense of Immediacy

Part of developing a strong work ethic involves building the habit of doing things right away. The problem is that avoiding procrastination is easier said than done. The key for overcoming procrastination is setting birthlines instead of deadlines. (Remember, procrastinators don’t have problems finishing tasks; they have problems starting tasks.) If your son has an important project to complete, have him use a calendar (physical calendar or a smartphone calendar app) to schedule the time to begin working on the project. Once your child starts working on the assignment, give him a rubber band to wear on his wrist. Let him know that he needs to snap the rubber band anytime he finds his mind wandering off task. It’s a way of mentally training him to remain in the present moment. (A bit harsh, but highly effective!)

Strategy #4: Help Your Child Develop a Sense of Professionalism

What’s the point of developing a strong work ethic if your child produces sloppy work? Professionalism is a by-product of integrity, and it’s reflected in one’s ability to produce high quality results. It’s not about becoming a perfectionist. It’s about setting minimum standards on what “good work” looks like, and meeting (or exceeding) those minimum standards. A business owner with a strong work ethic makes sure to provide a client with the expected results by an agreed upon deadline. As a writer, my own work ethic includes reviewing my work for errors in spelling, grammar, and coherence. To strengthen your child’s level of professionalism, try setting two deadlines, one deadline that represents when she will finish the task, and the other deadline for her to polish and review her work. That way she gives herself a chance to view the results from the teacher’s perspective before the work is actually submitted.

Bonus Strategy #5: Watch Your Language

As a parent, you want to praise and compliment your children. You want them to develop a strong self-esteem that protects them from the harshness and criticism of adulthood. Continue building your children’s self-esteem, but be mindful of the types of compliments you heap upon your children. If, for example, your daughter earns an A+ on a math test, be careful about complimenting her on how smart she is. If you constantly say things like “You got an A+. You’re really smart,” then you’re leading her to believe that the A+ was a result of something she was born with (which is outside of her control) rather than a result of something she actually did (which is within her control). You do not want her to believe that her success is a result of DNA rather than hard work. This might cause a problem later when she faces more difficult challenges because when she receives poor grades, she may attach those poor grades to her identity, leading her to doubt that she was ever smart to begin with.

Instead of praising the results, learn how to praise a child’s work and effort that led to the results.

Instead of praising the results, learn how to praise a child’s work and effort that led to the results. Use phrases like “You got an A+. Good work. All that studying you did earlier really paid off.” That way you’re letting your child know that it was hard work and effort that earned the high grades. When that child faces more difficult challenges in the future, she will attribute low achievement with poor work habits and she’ll attribute success with good work habits.


Feature image adapted from image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.

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