Cultivating a work ethic

pickleWhen it comes to academics, I’ve been thinking about where to set the bar for my kids, and about the topic in general.

A reader commented:  “One thing that’s tough for me and my husband is that neither of our kids seems to have much of a work ethic.  We rarely see them study.  My Daughter does her homework on the school bus.  If we let them, my daughter and son would watch movies, play video games and be on-line 24/7.  We restrict our son’s electronics use (to about an hour and a half a day) more than our daughter’s because of the age difference. I believe that, unless she gets low grades, we probably should let her choose her own study habits, but it’s hard to stay back and let her live her life differently than I would.  Next year when she starts high school and grades go on her permanent transcript, I think my husband and I will have a hard time.”

Another reader sent me a link to Obama talking off the cuff about his daughter (see link:  In essence he says she came home with a 75 on a test and thought it was pretty good.  He explained that the bar in their family was 90.  Later he noticed her trying harder and getting a score in the mid 90’s.

Now on the one hand, setting the bar high (within respect for our child’s ability level, learning differences, etc.) is a good way to cultivate achievement, but on the other hand there are studies that suggest that an emphasis on academic achievement, at least at the preschool level, seems to correlate with no difference in academic achievement in early elementary school, but it did correlate with increased anxiety.

Many times kids who fail to show much engagement with their schoolwork are actually bored.  In my view any subject is interesting if taught by a teacher who truly understands and has some passion about it (and a modicum of humor helps enormously).  Other times kids will feign disinterest when in fact the work makes them feel inadequate due to a learning difference or gap in abilities.

School refusal, or falling grades can also be symptoms of self-esteem issues, bullying, anxiety or depression.  To optimally support our children we need to understand them.  If they struggle, we want to know more about that struggle; if they’re bored we need to at least understand the way they feel.  We also need to differentiate our own ambitions from those of our children—even if we’re the president.

Recently my middle-schooler was studying for a test and said he just wanted to get a B.  I told him about what Obama said and he asked, “So is that going to be the bar in our house?”  I replied that I wasn’t sure; that what I really looked for was effort, but if we shoot for 90 and fall short we’ve still got a solid B, while if we shoot for 80 and miss the mark that’s getting into territory below his ability level.  Obama’s family is a pretty high bar by any account, but then again we sometimes need to reach to exceed our grasp in order to grow… and still stay Zen in the process.

So, let’s dedicate today to giving some thought to our children’s level of motivation and engagement, asking ourselves if our kids feel truly understood by us in this area.  The goal would be more to open dialogue and deepen understanding.  As interested, non-critical, and non-judgmental parents we might best cultivate and enhance our children’s natural curiosities and work ethics through our authentically caring about what they think and feel as well as what grades they earn and what they might “be when they grow up.”

One last thing:  if we happen to be hard working and achieving parents and we want our kids to follow in our footsteps, we’d better make it look fun.  Kids are smart; why would they want to do as we do if we appear anxious, depressed or otherwise miserable.  If we’re not happy, the kids are unlikely to be happy, and the new learning that might be in order is how we might become happier—often through coming to want what is, what we already have, including kids who have the work ethic that they have right now.  Whether it’s our own unhappiness, or our kid’s lack of motivation, if truly accepted, these may become freer to change and evolve.

So, let’s think deeply, work pragmatically and try to find happiness through the radical embrace of parenting and whatever else may be on our plates today—done in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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4 Responses to “Cultivating a work ethic”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Wow, just had this conversation with my 10 year old son at his parent-teacher conference. His school has the kids come to the conference and his teacher was the one ‘splaining aiming higher than the middle. It was nice having it come out of someone else’s mouth.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This was brilliant. Straightforward, and right on the mark:

    Recently my middle-schooler was studying for a test and said he just wanted to get a B… I replied that … what I really looked for was effort, but if we shoot for 90 and fall short we’ve still got a solid B, while if we shoot for 80 and miss the mark that’s getting into territory below his ability level.

    I have two teens close in age, remarkably different. One was hungry to learn from the age of two (and voiced it). A self starter, a talker, ambitious and constantly seeking challenge.

    His younger brother has been a conundrum. Less verbal, gifted in the arts, and for years (when it came to academics), coasting (and I suspect a little bored). But he was happy to coast, and make art. “The art kid.” Every school has one. He’s it. Lower maintenance (for me), and strangely, more worrisome. (Perhaps because less verbal.)

    By middle school, he was satisfied with the Bs, but I let him know that I was not. So I challenged him. You’re coasting, and we both know it. You can do better, I’d say, and I’d get the little grin from him. So how about you show me what you can really do, just for one semester. Just one. Show me. I want straight As. I suspect you can do that.)

    He did.

    And he liked it. Okay, I said. Feels good, doesn’t it. Why don’t you show me that again.

    He just smiled. He wasn’t fooled, but he began to exhibit a work ethic which kicked up about 10 notches when he hit 10th grade. And another few notches since hitting Junior year. I monitor, still (I’m the “support staff”), but he doesn’t need much really. He knows what he wants, and what it will take. And he still gets unstructured kid time. And I think that’s essential.

  3. SRA Says:

    This also resonated with me. I agree, it’s not just the grade, but the effort. If my son does his best work, and it’s a “c” then so be it. But if he “coasts” and it’s a “B” than we like to challenge him more. I also agree with aiming a bit higher… because when we end up achieving the higher mark, whether it’s merely a grade, or higher level position on a sports team, or even a high ranking job title we thought we couldn’t do, the inherent feeling makes the extra effort so worth it. (It beats any drug or alchohol thrill for sure!)

  4. A.N. Says:

    Thank you Bruce for all the poignant, inspirited offerings you gift us with,
    The fallowing came through an e-mail our school sends weekly out to let us know what certain grades are up to that week….and it begins with a little message from the principal:

    Dear Parents,

    I was reminded recently of one of my favorite memories from my first grade year. I went to public school in Oklahoma at that time. My first grade was in an old wooden portable building behind the main school building. It had a ‘coat room’ that I remember as a huge closet for our coats and boots! On nice days, our teacher, Mrs. Woodson, would go out to recess with us and we would sit under the big pecan tree, cracking and eating pecans and talking with the teacher.

    Ironically, as a principal in Los Angeles in 2009, all I think now when I have that memory is, “What was she thinking! What about nut allergies!?!” My how times change.

    However, when I walk around our campus my favorite thing is finding students enjoying the little things, and the conversations and interests they share when they are thinking their serious thoughts.

    Last week a Kindergartner went to great pains to show me the exact radish that he had planted in the garden. Another delighted to show her mother that the broccoli plant was flowering.

    Yesterday, I found 3 first grade boys concentrating like mad on gluing seeds and beans to a large mural for the garden during the After School SPA program. They were so proud to show me what they were doing and so focused in their efforts.

    Having lunch with the second graders on Wednesday, I talked with a student whose father had visited the class to make a presentation about his work. She smiled and told me, “All the kids think my dad is Indiana Jones!”

    On Thursday, I talked to one of the first graders about the two different architectural styles of igloos that came from the two classrooms. He was thoughtful about the fact that one approach was more structurally sound while the other was more true to the style of a real igloo.

    When I was parking on the street one day this week, I was greeted by little voices yelling out, “Kristin! Kristin! We’re wearing your shirts!” A group of first graders was painting signs in the garden with Brenna wearing the old T-shirts I donated like long dresses.

    In this fast-paced, busy world that is Los Angeles in 2009, nothing could feel more natural than to provide children with a school where it is safe to slow down, take your time, enjoy the wonders of childhood, and share it all with the adults around you who care.

    Thank you all for sharing your children with us. They are a tremendous joy.


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