Encouraging a work ethic in your very young child may be more possible than you think. You can educate them in small ways about hard work, what the rewards are, and how to love their jobs. If you start small, you will be better able to parent them through the tougher financial questions later in life. Read more about it in Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not).
Doing chores and hard work is part of life. Back in the days when most families lived on farms, chores weren’t negotiable—the work had to get done, and there was no one else to do it. But today, research shows, most American kids aren’t expected to do much housework. Blame technology, fast-food culture, longer school days, overindulged children in tiaras—pick your theory. Before you decide it’s not worth your kid’s time to have him bring his plate to the sink, consider this: A University of Minnesota study that tracked kids from preschool age through their midtwenties showed that one predictor of achieving important milestones, including getting a degree and starting a career, was whether they participated in household chores when they were small.
The good news: It’s easy to get kids as young as 18 months to do simple chores. If you’ve ever washed the dishes or dusted in front of a toddler, you’ve no doubt seen him try to join in on the “fun.” Take advantage of this (sadly) fleeting attitude. Assign him a simple task like putting away his shoes or hanging up his coat (place the hooks low enough), make sure he sticks to it every day, and praise him when he does it without prompting. When possible, invite him to help you with harder tasks, such as drying a few (plastic) dishes or helping to sort the recycling. Be okay with imperfection. The goal here is to make the chores part of his routine, not to have a spotless house.
You make money by working. When my friend Melinda was little, she thought her dad’s job was to read the newspaper, since he left for work every morning carrying one under his arm. (He was a middle school guidance counselor.) Small children don’t understand intuitively what a job is, or the connection between going to work and earning money. And though you might tell your kid that you are paid to work—and say that your job brings home the bacon to buy all the stuff he has—it’s more effective if you can show him.
If possible, take your child to work one day, or even just swing by your workplace over the weekend and show your kid your office/desk/workroom. Let him play with the tape dispenser and twirl in a swivel chair. Give him a clear, simple explanation of your job, tell him that you receive money to do it, and repeat the message that your work allows you to pay for his home, food, and toys. Most very young children can understand complicated jobs if you explain them at the proper level. I know a mom who’s an online community manager for big companies, helping to ensure that customer talk on message boards is civil and that representatives reach out to customers with support issues. When asked what his mother does for a living, her four-year-old son says, “My mom takes bad words off the Internet!”
It’s good to have a job and even better to have a job you love. One of the best pieces of advice I got when my son was really little was from his nursery school teacher, who told parents to pretend that we liked bugs and worms. The reason: My son’s class was doing an earth science unit, and she had found that almost all kids love to dig and play with the dirt. That is, until, at pickup time, their parents scream, “Ewwwww, worms are gross!”—which often squashes their interest in biology.
Kids get many of their early ideas and prejudices from us. So how you feel about your own hard work — and how you talk about it in front of your kid—affects how she views work in general. If you enjoy your job, say so. Even if you don’t love your job, you can probably say that you love having one. It’s important to relay the idea that a job is something to take pride in.
Encouraging hard work and financial independence should be a running theme throughout the life of your child. Before you know it, it’s time to talk to them about paying for college.