Teaching Our Children to do Hard Things

My last blog was about doing hard things. Any success requires that we develop the discipline to do hard things rather than procrastinating, avoiding, or taking the path of least resistance.

In this blog I want to talk about how to teach our children to do hard things. I’ve heard a consistent message from leaders of youth, such as employers, teachers, student advisors, and administrators of universities. Many youth have led an easy life and lack discipline and a good work ethic. They don’t know how to do hard things. And yet their long-term success depends on learning this lesson, which they’ll not learn on their own. We have to teach them.

Of course, this was much easier a few generations ago. For example, my father got up early in the morning to do chores, such as milking cows, before school. Then he’d round up the cows and milk them again every evening. It was not an option not to do so. The entire family depended on him. Serious consequences followed if he neglected his duties. So he learned to work. He learned about the cause-effect relationship between his efforts and the survival of the family.

Well, society has changed in so many ways. We have a more affluent lifestyle than ever before. So much is available to make life easy and convenient that didn’t exist in past generations. Plus the incredible rise of technology puts information and entertainment at our fingertips. These two facts bless us and yet bring unintended consequences. Children and youth not only don’t have to work for what they get but there is also a never-ending stream of distractions and entertainment available to them. So they don’t learn to wait. They don’t experience as much delay of gratification as past generations. They don’t value the connection between their own hard-earned efforts and rewards.

So what can we do so our children develop discipline and learn the value of work and doing hard things? I’d like to offer a few suggestions.

  1. Be an example. It’s not likely that your children will do hard things if you lack discipline to do hard things, like cleaning up after yourself, slacking on your commitments, or not caring for your house or yard. The culture begins with you, as parent. You have to work hard if you want your kids to work hard.
  2. Limit how much you give your children materially. I’ve worked with a number of wealthy families and have seen the harm caused in children who do not learn to work for what they get. It ruins their discipline and ambition. I spoke at a conference a few years back and remember talking, afterward, to the son of Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men on the planet. His son shared that he was blessed because his father expected him to make it on his own rather than giving him his wealth. Because we can afford to give our children lots does not mean we should. It is not good for them. We weaken our children when we give them too much instead of letting them earn their way and make it on their own.
  3. Don’t let your children get hooked on video games. I don’t mean we can or should prevent them from ever playing them, an impossibility and perhaps even undesirable in our modern world. However these games are incredibly addicting and easily become an escape from boredom, frustration, or anything that is difficult or challenging. They sap your children’s motivation to face their problems or become engaged in more worthwhile activities. If your kids already spend lots of time on them then you can limit this time. Make these games a privilege and not a right, something they get to do when other chores or responsibilities have been completed.
  4. Make sure your children participate in “real” activities. I’m talking about all kinds of things—sports, martial arts, scouting, or extracurricular activities in which they have to interact with other people, set goals, make commitments, and do challenging things. Such participation teaches them how the world really works. It helps them experience the rewards that come from hard work and see the relationship between what they put out and what comes back.
  5. Have expectations and set standards. Consciously or unconsciously you set standards for your children around etiquette and respect, grades and school work, participation and involvement, reliability and self-responsibility, and so on. Whether expressed explicitly or not, these expectations help define the culture and uniqueness of your family. I recall a friend who shared at one time that “The Jeffers don’t walk.” In other words, they keep their commitments. They do what they say they’ll do even when difficult. This standard became a source of pride in their family. Your expectations might be, “We apply ourselves in our school work.” Or, “We are polite and thoughtful of others.” It is important that you become aware of your expectations (standards, values) and teach them verbally and nonverbally. In this way, your children will learn to do things which are worthwhile and yet may not be convenient or easy.
  6. Give your children chores. It takes a lot of work to keep up a household and parents should not shoulder all of this responsibility. Children need to do their part. You can make a list of chores or even sit with your children to make a list of everything that needs to happen for your household to function successfully. Then divide up the chores so everyone has to do their share. Participating isn’t a choice, it’s a non-negotiable. Start young. Little children love to be helpers. They enjoy working alongside you whether it be preparing or cleaning up a meal, making a bed, dusting furniture, or pulling weeds. They love the active interaction and also the verbal affirmations that come from doing their part.
  7. Impose consequences. Children only get certain privileges—spending time with friends, watching TV, playing games on the computer—when they do their chores. A reality of your life is that you have to work for what you get. There is a cause-effect relationship between your effort and rewards. You help kids understand this principle when you link privileges to completion of chores and contributing to family life.
  8. Do away with “teenage retirement” by expecting your teens to work outside the home. We can’t take them by the hand and lead them to a job interview but we can stop funding their “retirement.” Let your teenagers buy their own jeans, pay for their entertainment and dates, even pay all the expenses of the car they drive. If we stop paying they’ll have to pick up the ball and in the process learn what it’s like to make it in the real world.
  9. Be clear about who owns your kid’s problems. Jared is frustrated that he didn’t get the class schedule he wanted. Jenny hurts because a friend said something mean. Ellen is complaining because she’s bored. Mike doesn’t have money to go out with friends. These are problems that your kids own. Too often parents step in to try and solve them for their children and by doing so deprive them of opportunities to learn and grow. Of course you can be involved by listening with empathy, asking questions to help them think through options, and even sharing your own experience. But you need to do so being aware of who owns the responsibility for these problems.

I could go on. This is not a comprehensive list. The important point is to know that we don’t help our children when we try to make life painless for them or ensure they’re always happy. We have to stop rescuing and let them struggle with real life issues which is how they will grow (kind of like a butterfly breaking out of a cocoon). By facing the adversity and challenges of daily life our children develop courage, discipline, and character. It is the means by which they discover their strengths, develop emotional resilience, and, ultimately, achieve their potential.

So, I’m curious to know what you do to teach your children to do hard things. What have you found that works? What doesn’t work?

I also recognize that parenting in this way is not easy. Many need to learn a new framework, principles, and skills. For help, check out my new book entitled Raising Responsible, Emotionally Mature Children.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

One response to “Teaching Our Children to do Hard Things”

  1. Melinda says:

    Very good article! I shared some with Sarah (my ten year-old daughter), especially the part about how just because we can do something for our kids doesn’t mean we should. She thought it was an interesting point. (Her current plan is to completely spoil her own children, but she told me that she might change her mind by the time she’s a parent.)

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