Teaching Boys to Work

The word discipline connotes not only the shaping of a child's behavior and attitudes but also giving him a measure of self-control and the ability to postpone gratification. Teaching a child to work is one of the primary mechanisms by which this self-discipline is acquired. But as we all know, most young boys have a great aversion to work. They can sit and stare at it for hours. It is such a struggle to get them to move that many parents give up. It appears much easier to do everything for them. "Life is hard enough," they say, "without making children do what is unpleasant for them." That is a serious mistake. Those who know how to work are usually better able to control their impulses, to stay on task until an assignment is completed, to overcome flightiness and immaturity, to recognize the connection between effort and opportunity, and to learn to manage money. It also serves as a preparation for life in the adult world to come. Unfortunately, one of the common complaints made by the business community is that too many kids won't work, or even if they will, they don't know how to work. That must be true, because a high percentage of teens seem to founder when placed on a job for the first time.

There is another factor to consider. It concerns the direct linkage between the self-concept and meaningful work. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote, "If you want to utterly crush a man, just give him work that's of a completely senseless, irrational nature." It is true.

In a concentration camp outside Hungary during World War II, Jewish prisoners were forced to move a mountain of dirt from one end of the compound to the other. The next day, they were told to move it back again. This went on for weeks until one day, an old man began sobbing uncontrollably. He was led away by his captors to be executed. Days later, another man who had survived three years in the camp suddenly darted away from the group and threw himself on an electrified fence. In the weeks to come, dozens of prisoners went mad, running from their work and eventually being shot by the guards. Only later was it learned that the wasteful activity had been ordered by a cruel commandant as an experiment in "mental health." He wanted to see what would happen when people were forced to do utterly meaningless tasks. The results illustrated the relationship between work and emotional stability within the tragic confines of a concentration camp.

That linkage is relevant to the rest of humanity too. Work gives significance and meaning to our existence. Those who are good at what they do usually feel good about who they are. They draw satisfaction in knowing that they have handled difficult assignments in a superior manner. Conversely, people who fail professionally often struggle in their families and in other areas of their lives. I remember one summer years ago when Shirley and I decided to take a two-week vacation to stay home and rest. We had been moving at a frantic pace and thought it would be fun to sleep late every day and just "dink around." What a disappointment. Both of us nearly went crazy. We had the "blahs" and walked around wondering what to do next. I even spent several dreary afternoons watching daytime television. That will drive anyone bonkers. I realized from that experience that work is integrally related to my sense of well-being and that doing nothing wasn't nearly as fun as I expected.

If work is something to be valued, how do parents teach their boys and girls how to perform it? I think they should begin requiring small tasks to be done when they are very young, such as picking up their blocks or bringing the dinner plates to the kitchen. Then at about four or five, every youngster should carry out simple household responsibilities, from helping to wash the dishes to taking out the trash. The amount of work required should be reasonable and age-appropriate, remembering that the primary activity of young children is play. The older they get, the more chores can be assigned for which they receive nothing in return but appreciation. Children are, after all, functioning members of the family and should help shoulder the load to keep it running.

Here's a related recommendation that is somewhat controversial. You might disagree with it. I believe children should be compensated when the amount of work they perform goes beyond the call of duty, such as spending all day Saturday helping Dad clean the garage, washing the car, or painting the fence. Many parents object strenuously to that idea. They call it bribery. I disagree. It is the way the world is set up. Most of us go to work each morning and receive a paycheck every two weeks. Paying a child when he is asked to invest "sweat equity" is not only fair, it acquaints him with the connection between effort and reward. It also makes work less miserable for the hard-core flake.

Another suggestion: Because children learn by imitation, hands-on instruction is helpful. Instead of saying, "Go make your bed," try completing the task with the child. Working with an adult is the most enriching form of play for a child, if it's handled right. Make it fun. Find things to laugh about. If you nag and criticize your child incessantly, he'll begin to develop bad attitudes toward work. Transform it into a game, which makes life easier for everyone.

Let me pass along yet another idea that was presented in the May 1992 issue of Parenting magazine. It suggested that children be introduced to work by helping them to become little entrepreneurs. The author told about a fourteen-year-old boy who actually assembled personal computers and sold them for upwards of one thousand dollars apiece.4 Your child may not do anything that impressive, but there are definite benefits to letting him get some experience in the world of business. In fact, kids who make and manage money are much more likely to succeed as adults. Running a business enterprise can help them learn practical math applications, skills in relating to other people, and perhaps most important, the rewards of hard work. The options are many. Younger children can do extra chores around the house to earn money. By age nine or ten, most of them are ready to pick up odd jobs around the neighborhood. The possibilities include running a pet-sitting service, running errands for neighbors, collecting bottles and cans for recycling centers, baby-sitting, mowing lawns, and many more. It's important that jobs not consume too much time during childhood, when there is so much else to be accomplished.

You should also take your boy to work with you occasionally. Many kids have no idea how their parents earn a living. In fact, I've heard (although I haven't been able to substantiate this statistic) that only 6 percent of fathers ever take their sons to their places of employment. If that is true, it is unfortunate. A century ago, children not only knew what their parents did for a living, they typically worked alongside them—with boys learning their dads' occupations and girls identifying with their mothers. Now kids have no idea what happens each day at IBM, AT&T, or Ralph's Fine Eatery.

One more thought: Radio host and author Dennis Prager said that teaching boys to work is essential to preparing them for manhood. During one of his radio programs, he asked a number of women what characteristics came to mind when they thought about mature masculinity. Almost all of them mentioned "responsibility" in their replies. Prager agreed but said it wasn't enough. Some men hold good jobs but remain immature. Their willingness to work must be combined with a devotion to a cause, to something greater than themselves. Those two traits—the ability to live responsibly and have a sense of mission—help boys overcome their self-centeredness and begin to see themselves as men. As a parent, then, our job is not only to teach kids to work but to introduce them to the meaning that is associated with it. For boys, that comes right back to the idea of providing for and protecting their families, for which you are helping them prepare. It all fits together.

Your purpose in teaching your children to work is to give them a taste of the real world. By all means, do not let your boys sit in front of a television set or play mindless video games year after year. Get 'em going. Get 'em organized. Get 'em working.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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