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How to teach your child the value of work without making it a chore.

In a society where working for the weekend and trying to get rich quick is as American as apple pie, it's important to show your children that work can be its own reward.

Parents constantly negotiate between pitfalls, but instilling a work ethic makes us especially wary of either extreme. On one hand, we imagine a cruel Simon Legree whipping pale children, their skinny bodies contorted with fear and overwork. On the other, we picture our kids becoming slobs who will sponge off us forever.

If we praise the value of work, will our children turn out to be stodgy workaholics who never take time for contemplation and ignore the needs of their own families as they clamber up the corporate ladder? Can we find the middle ground between the pure Ignatian motto "AMDG" ("All for the greater glory of God") and the greedy "Make a buck at any cost" of some unethical businesspeople?

How can we integrate work with family and personal life, seeing the whole as holy? How do we convey our conviction that the workplace can be sacred space?

Translating these issues into a family context, many people use charts that reward children's chores and acknowledge their contributions to the household. Our family, however, has been notorious about follow through. Blame twilight-time exhaustion, but after several days of record keeping, we tend to fizzle. Maybe we lack the persistence to mark every bed made and every nickel earned, but those who stick with it find tangible success.

What works for us is less clear cut. We stress the fabric of need and fulfillment, the pleasures we all enjoy, and the work that pays the bills. Maybe the question becomes not so much how to bludgeon the little buggers into line, but how to model that work can bring joy. Knowing the concreteness of children's thinking, specifics mean more than lofty abstractions. So we explain: "Today's groceries kindly provided by an article written for U.S. Catholic; this house in which we live, compliments of Dad's school district; the new jacket without which you cannot survive, brought to you by a poem published in America."

While our children see us routinely paying bills, friends with older children say that despite the regularity of this process, it doesn't sink in fully until the kids become young adults footing the bills themselves. Then it hits: how fast earnings disappear into mortgages and electricity!

The same experiential-learning factor may be at work when young adults discover the drudgery of their first jobs. While the actual experience is the best teacher, we can still try to prepare them by talking honestly about work's downside: the failures, frustrations, dreary committee meetings, and stressful deadlines. Yet we show that, despite the drawbacks, we keep returning, day after day, anticipating the surprises, meeting the challenge. Our example shows that work has its rhythms: Monday energy and Friday fatigue, inspiration and boredom, crisis and calm, Wednesdays and weekends.

Children first learn the work ethic in their own arena, the school. They know firsthand the importance of precision, the need to turn work in on time, the rewards for incentive and quality.

On the home front, we can contribute to their learning. When a school project seems to have potential, we all get into the act: talking about the topic at dinner, seeking the creative angle, hunting for an approach that will both fulfill the assignment and reward the child. If the parameters allow it, we try to choose topics that intrigue - stressing the child's ultimate ownership.

A perfect example occurred recently. Driving along a Florida highway, we were startled by a sign: "Gator crossing." In Colorado, we're used to deer crossings, but this was a first. We laughed about the warning, but didn't think about it again until our youngest daughter, Katie, came home from fifth grade with a research project on an endangered species.

Her choice of animal was easy: she'd seen alligators at the wildlife refuge, and knew that some kinds were threatened by fashion's demand for purses and belts. Good library books and a conveniently timed television documentary educated the whole family. For the cover of her report, Katie proudly made a "Gator crossing" sign.

Not all assignments are so serendipitous, and our kids have waded through their share of uninspired drudgery. While there's no excuse for mediocre teaching, it gives them a preview of the work world where the boss can be rigid or the task mindless. Probably most of the adult workforce today learned endurance in the stale air of a monotonous classroom. A parent can make some lemonade from that lemon with a subtle remark such as, "I had to finish that deadly report today - but what a relief to have it done on time!"

School is also a fine place to discern where a child's talents lie. While the child may be bewildered by the plethora of subjects in which she is expected to succeed, the parent can see where she is happiest, where she puts the most energy, and where she gets the best grades. Too many students arrive at college not knowing what they do well and flail around until they find their niche. For an artistic son, we supply drawing materials and art contests. We encourage a scientific daughter with her own microscope, subscriptions to children's nature magazines, and a summer science camp. Who knows what seeds we may be sowing?

Another potent source for work-ethic education are role models beyond the family circle. Our children have the only pediatrician in town who will stay up all night at the hospital rocking a sick baby. He also came in one Christmas Eve to give Sean penicillin so his Christmas wouldn't be ruined by strep throat. His partner, Alicia, shows our daughters that women can be competent, caring physicians, too - without a word on gender equality.

Our children have also encountered teachers passionate about their subject matter, like the high-school history teacher who sought stimulating ways to provoke thought and prompt discussion. What motivated us to enter our careers? Probably we chose geology because a favorite aunt shared her excitement about the field; we went into music because a friend's enthusiasm was contagious.

A recent innovation that helps instill a work ethic is Take Your Daughter to Work Day. The daughters who spent the day at my publishing company saw the process evolve as they wrote their own mystery, designed illustrations, edited the manuscript, helped typeset it, and took orders (from easily coerced parents) for the final copy. They helped customer-service representatives file the orders and prepare the packing slips. Several girls visited our local bookstore to persuade the children's buyer to carry their book. Elation filled many homes when the final product arrived.

Some have argued that boys deserve parallel opportunities to observe their parents at work. Few of us live in a rural society where families work in the fields together and barter livestock for services. Children see us dress for work in the morning and use a piece of plastic to fill the car with gas in the evening, but what transpires in between is a mystery. Perhaps one solution is to share the times we all bring work home: as I sit at my computer, our son sits besides me at his. As my husband grades papers from his fifth-grade students, our daughter reads over his shoulder. We can all participate in delayed gratification: "We're done! Break out the ice cream!"

With the work ethic, as with most other skills, children learn it the way they learn to walk, to put food into their mouths, or to organize the day - by following our lead. Children imitate adult behavior - and if in doubt about the power of imitation, consider the influence of the first 13-year-old to wear his baseball cap backwards. When I held my first book in trembling hands and read its dedication to my daughters, the children must have noticed that the final product justified the grueling effort.

They're no fools - they, too, want the ability to provide for their own children the satisfaction beyond the bank account, and the welcome to good and faithful servants.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Coffey, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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