Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Five E's of Teaching Kids to Work

To You:

This post was in the works when I received an email from a dear cousin who had just returned from a service trip to Guatemala.  He commented in part, "Speaking for our country as a whole, I sometimes wish we could re-focus on the basic necessities of making sure mouths are fed and people clothed and that our kids are learning how to work and what they need to survive, rather than focusing on all the other hoopla."  I found it very interesting that he included in his very short list of basic necessities "that our kids are learning how to work."  It is arguably one of the most necessary and most beneficial traits we can nurture within our children: the ability to work hard.

There is very little that can prepare our children more effectively for real life.  The better they are at working, the more they will be able to delay gratification and aim for those things in life that are often most worthwhile, those things that take time and effort to achieve.  The ability to work hard is a skill.  We can learn it, and we can teach it.  It is easiest to start when the kids are young, but it is also never too late to start.  I am blessed to be surrounded by hard-workers, four of the greatest being my parents and in-laws, who exemplified a good work ethic and taught it to my husband and me.  I have thought about how I was taught, what I have seen in those who are good workers versus those who are not, and what I have learned from my own kids.  I have read and researched.  The result of all of this?  The Five E's of Teaching Kids to Work.

The Five E's of Teaching Kids to Work


My mom told me a short story one day.  She was outside when a neighbor pulled up to the house on her way down the street.  The neighbor complimented my mom on the yard and how beautiful and well-kept it looked.  Then she asked, "Who is your yard boy?"  My mom replied that it was my dad.  "No," the woman shook her head.  "The one who wears shorts and boots, who is that guy?"
"Yes, that's my husband!"

Whether he was wearing his shorts and boots or his paint-splattered, gray jumpsuit, Dad was always happy to work hard in the home or yard after putting in a full day or week at the office.  He also always said how lucky he felt that he enjoyed his job.

I don't think I ever realized growing up how much work my mom did because she never complained. She never played the "pity me" card because she was making breakfast for three shifts of people or because she was staying up late helping with homework and getting up early to get everyone out the door.  It always seemed like the laundry was done and a home-prepared meal was on the table.  She was cheerful about her days.

Then there are my in-laws.  My father-in-law would wake up early and go out to the farm to take care of the cattle before coming home and getting ready for his day at the dental office.  In his 70's, he built an addition onto their home.  My mother-in-law would spend full days in a hot kitchen canning fruit that we would all enjoy for at least the next year.  She scrubbed her floor on her hands and knees.  She spent hours preparing lessons to teach others.

All of these are perfect examples of Thomas Fuller's adage:  "A good example is the best sermon."

We all know the importance of setting a good example and it's no different when we are teaching our children to work.  Not only do our children need to see us do work, they also need to see, hear, and feel what we believe about work.  One small thing we do as a family is to call household tasks helper jobs instead of chores.  One definition of chore is "a difficult or disagreeable task."  Is living in a clean and tidy space really difficult or disagreeable?  Instead, by calling these tasks "helper jobs," I hope to teach my children that working together to maintain a nice life is a necessary and most often pleasant part of life.  We need to look at our own attitudes about work and our willingness to work hard.  We need to make conscious adjustments when necessary so that our children will be safe in doing as we do.

When thinking about the example we are setting, consider some of the following questions.
-Do my children often see me complete different kinds of work such as in the yard, at the home, with my mind, or in the service of others?
-How do I respond when extra or unforeseen work suddenly becomes necessary?
-Do I complain about how much work I need to do?
-Do I show by word and example that working is fulfilling and the means to great good?
-Do I often find joy in my work?
-Do I value work?

We often first notice our own attitudes about things when we see them reflected in our children.  What attitudes about work do you see reflecting in your own kids?

This is a great article about teaching work ethic and includes the importance of our own ideas about work.


Kids can do more than put their toys away.  Much more.  Expect that kids can do more.

I have seen many households where the expectations of the children's role in the home are very low.  Taking out the garbage is important, but not enough.  If Mom is feeling overworked, what real jobs can the children learn to be viable helpers?  Kids will feel more confident as they realize that their work is actually important in helping the household function.  Kids can do laundry, make lunches, clean floors, and of course put their toys away.  At first, tasks will be done side by side with a parent or older sibling, but before you know it, kids will be able to do jobs and do them well.  Just this week I went downstairs and my four-year-old was pulling laundry out of the washer and putting it in the dryer.  I didn't even know the wash was done yet.  He was beaming when he saw how pleased I was with the surprise, and I was beaming as the proud mother.  ;)  While every child is different, most kids can learn to complete all common household jobs by the time they are eight years old.

This is a simple list of age appropriate tasks for kids to do around the house.  Many families use chore charts like the examples here to make daily or weekly expectations clear.  Our family used a job wheel and turned it each week.  I like the example wheel posted here by Single Dad Brad.  Sometimes we also make a list and let the kids choose their own jobs.

Expect that children will actually complete their assigned tasks.  Although it really is easier and quicker many times, resist the urge to just do the task for them.  By way of simple example, a shower is not complete at our house until the towel is hung and the dirty clothes put away.  The times are countless that I have to remind and encourage some kids to do this.  It would usually be easier to just complete the quick task on my own.  However, by expecting the kids to do it on their own, two of the three no longer need reminding, and I am convinced that the third must be getting there!  :)  Some kids resist helping out, but the none optional expectation can be enforced by such things as no screen time until it's done or missing out on fun activities or playdates that will be happening after the work is complete.  Follow-through and be strong when kids push the boundary.  Most kids will eventually learn that it's easier to just get the job done quickly and move on with other parts of life.  A friend's favorite quote is true for kids learning to work as well as parents patiently teaching them to work:  "That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do–not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased."

Expect that part of living in a home and family is caring for family needs.  My personal opinion is that kids do not need rewards or allowance on a regular basis for helping around the house.  The reward for household help is the natural consequence of living in a clean and harmonious home.

Expect that kids can help out just because.  Teach kids to see what needs to be done and do it.  Helping around the house does not need to be restricted to listed chores.


This is where patience comes in.  This is where our work as parents really lies.  Yes, the job takes longer.  Yes, the job is not always done as well as you could have done it.  Yes, sometimes it takes cajoling and creative motivation.  And YES, in the end it does pay off.

I have found that the best education is simply doing the work together.  Start as soon as your toddler can follow you around.  Talk about how the job should be done.  Tell and show what it means to finish the job.  Be patient as children learn.

Through conversation and life experience we can also help our children see the big picture.  What work is needed to get that carrot onto our table?  What kind of work does it take to become an astronaut or professional ballerina?  How much work do children in Africa have to do to survive?  How much work do Daddy and Mommy do?  You cleaning the toilet is only a very small piece of a very big picture.

We recently had the privilege of having a teenage niece and nephew come stay in our home.  It was a joy to have them here.  Among other impressive traits, these two know how to work.  They didn't just take their dishes over after a meal.  They cleared the table, washed the dishes, wiped the counter clean, and hung the dish towel to dry.  It was evident to me that they have been taught how to do a job and do it well.


Let it be enough...
The bedspread might be lopsided, the dish may still have some soap on it, and the floor will definitely remain sticky in a few places.  Let it be enough.  IF your child has put forth effort and ability equivalent to their age and circumstance, do nothing but praise that effort and show them your appreciation for their help in keeping the home running smoothly.  I find this to especially be the case when my four-year-old surprises me by doing the dishes all on his own!  (IE, there are bubbles and water everywhere!)  Show your kids you value their work by resisting the urge to complete the task or redo the chore for them.  

If you recognize that a job has not been done well, praise the effort and work together to fix it.  "Let's finish this together."  "You've done a great job so far.  Please finish it off by..."  "I really appreciate your effort.  Have I shown you how we like to do this?"

If your child knows better and is capable, refer back to expectations. :)

Don't teach your kids that they can do a lazy job because you will just redo it anyway.


Some of my earliest memories are working in the garden both in my own backyard and at my grandparents' house.  I can still feel the hard ground under my knees and the soil in my nails as I weed.  I can hear the voices of people I love.  I can smell the fruits of our labors, especially the tomatoes.  Every year the tomatoes.  Weeding and gardening may feel like work to some, but for me, they are nostalgic childhood memories and activities I enjoy to this day.  And that I believe is the difference...they are "activities I enjoy" to this day.  

While it is important to help our kids learn that they can do hard things and that they can and should do things they don't want to do but ought to do, it is equally important to help them enjoy work too.  Listed are several ideas for helping kids enjoy work.
  • Do it together.
  • Turn up the music.
    • Turn this on as loud as your speakers can handle it.  Try not to clean with style.  Try it.  I dare you.
  • Work hard, play hard.
    • Every morning during our annual trips to Grandpa and Grandma Mac's house we would work for a few hours.  What followed was pure enjoyment...swimming in the pool, feeding the neighbor's cows, going for walks, reading on the grass, feasting on big meals.  I am sure the work got done faster as we all knew what came after and looked forward to it eagerly.   
    • The same was true on Saturdays.  When we didn't have sports, we would work in the morning.  Afterward, we would go out on the boat, play basketball, or do other fun activities together as a family or with friends.  We knew we were going to work hard, but we knew we were also going to play hard.
    • When my big sister was babysitting, cleaning up the toys was never a chore.  After we cleaned, the Tickle Monster would feverishly pursue and giggles would ensue.  If it wasn't the Tickle Monster, it was the Finger Chair.  After a successful clean-up, we each got a turn to sit on her lap while she held out her ten fingers.  We got to push her fingers down one at at time.  Each finger produced a drop or a tickle or a silly song.  We looked forward with anticipation to what each finger might hold.  These games were simple and silly, but obviously they were effective if I remember them decades later!
  • Make it a game.  
    • Roll a die and choose jobs from highest number to lowest.
    • Pretend to be Orphan Annie or maids in a mansion or any other scenario you can imagine.
  • Occasionally let the dishes turn into a water fight or towel whipping contest.  Granted my parents were much better at this than I am.  :)
  • Make it a surprise for Dad or Mom or whoever is not there at the moment.
  • Race the clock...or Nona!
    • One day my mom called to chat and when my youngest told her he was supposed to be cleaning up the basement, she suggested they have a race.  She would complete her errand and call him back.  I don't think the basement has ever been cleaned so fast.  
  • Give choices.
    • Let kids choose their own job out of a list or from what they think needs to be done.  Let them choose in what order they want to complete their tasks (jobs, homework, instrument practice, etc.)
  • Talk or tell stories while you work.
  • Do work that is a service for others such as neighbors or other family members.
In writing this post, I do not claim that my children are perfect workers...or us for that matter!   We all have room for growth.  However, I am so grateful for the work ethic that my parents instilled in me and for my husband who was raised the same way.  The ability to work hard, to see a task through to its completion, to put in long hours when necessary, and to enjoy work and the fruits of our labors has infinitely blessed our lives.

I have found the following to be true:  "Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities" (The Family: A Proclamation to the World).  Work is a vital part of that list.

Love, Marielle


  1. So true and great ideas! I can't wait to try some of these tactics when my little guy is a little older!

    1. And I can't wait to see him at work! Love that boy!

  2. Love this Mars! You are such an amazing mom and I so admire you ! Xoxo henry

  3. These are some really good ideas and principles!

  4. What?? Your older sister only used the tickle monster on me, I never experienced the Finger Chair! The garden nostalgia is so true. That's one of my goals-- have a garden to work in. A big lawn is also a good icon of your message: great work opportunity with mowing, but having something to enjoy and play on. Thanks for compiling this!

    1. I love the lawn example too! What a great thought. And I can't believe you never experienced the Finger Chair! Sorry you missed out on that joy.


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