As a task-oriented (more than people-oriented) person, I am well aware of the pitfall of workaholism. As a teacher and parent, I’m also well aware of the importance of grit and dedication to doing one’s best. Is there a way to help kids develop a good work ethic without pushing them to value work too much?
Good question. Work is a gift from God, a divine mandate to cultivate and steward God’s resources—and since it’s a good gift, it’s easy to fall into the pitfall of workaholism. If we don’t let the gospel speak into our every working moment, we are inclined toward worshiping our work—and the good gifts it earns us—more than our Savior. Do you know how I know that? I’ve done it.
As for being task-oriented versus people-oriented, I’m not sure it’s so binary. You can be a people-oriented task-slayer. But you’re right that most of us do lean toward one extreme or the other. When we idolize work or success, we are inclined to value tasks over people. When we idolize approval, we are inclined to value people over tasks.
Praise God, there is a better way forward. Let’s call it grace-driven grit.
Because of the sin in our hearts, we’re inclined toward working for God’s favor. But if we are in Christ, we actually work from his favor. God is pleased with his beloved in Christ, and thus we don’t have to—and never could—earn his respect.
That said, Christians should be known for a strong work ethic. Why? Because God made us to work well. Because he intended us to put in a good effort and find success in cultivating and caring for creation. And because we image Christ to a world that doesn’t know him. Every word, action, or lack thereof is a statement about our King—and we want to reflect him well.
If grace is the reward for your work—instead of the motivational structure behind it—you will be frantic and frazzled most of the time. You will compulsively check your email. You will worry or brag about how many hours you put in. In other words, you will try to make your outward behavior justify your inward being.
If grace is the foundation for your work, however, you will be driven by love for God and love for people. You will know that you’ve been given what you don’t deserve, and thus you will be more patient with those you work with and for. You’ll own up to mistakes, offer grace when others stumble, and be willing to give up power. Your inward being will direct your outward behavior.
In both cases, you’ll work hard and produce results and move the ball along. But one will exhaust you; the other will bring you life.
Teaching Grace-Filled Grit
Our children (and to a degree, if you’re a teacher, your students) will often value what you value. The outward manifestations of your heart will speak louder than any lessons or words of wisdom you try to impart.
Our kids must see that we value God’s glory over our glory. And when we fail at this, we ought to show them what repentance looks like.
So as we seek to impart a Jesus-centered work ethic to our children, we must first exhibit it. They should see us get up in the morning and start work on time. They should hear us speak with interest about our tasks. They should witness us wrestle through crises with patience and resilience (appropriately, to be sure—don’t scare them with your woes). They should watch us rejoice in projects completed and dream about ways to do things even better. If you’re now working from home, you have a unique opportunity to show this to them all day long. And if you’re an essential worker and still leave the house, that very act is an amazing testimony to the value of work.
We will model work imperfectly, of course. Our kids must also know that we need grace. Our kids must see that we value God’s glory over our glory. And when we fail at this, we ought to show them what repentance looks like.
We should also require our children to work. Kids need to be kids, but they also need to learn to do something against their will simply because it needs to be done. In my humble experience (my kids are still young), this means giving them menial tasks. Have them take their plate to the sink. Have them fetch a diaper for you. Have them take out the trash. As your kids get older, their tasks can grow with them. Your grade-schooler can empty the dishwasher and load up the washing machine. Your teenager can wash the car and run errands.
Teaching a work ethic to your child requires a steady effort on your part.
Be thoughtful about this. You may want to sit down with your spouse periodically to think about the things you’d like your children to be able to do. Then teach them how to perform those tasks—kids don’t automatically know how to load a dishwasher, even if they’ve seen you do it a thousand times.
This is where most plans fall apart. It’s easy to have a child load a dishwasher once. She may even think it’s fun! But the daily grind is where she’ll fall away from the task, and you may be too tired or distracted to chase her down. Teaching a work ethic to your child requires a steady effort on your part.
My best advice is to put the task into a routine. If your son clears the table every night, soon the task should become second-nature. Eventually you’ll be able to stop reminding him (and could perhaps add another chore!). You are teaching not only daily rhythms of work, but perseverance and consistent service to others.
Sabbath Rest and Grace
Finally, we want our kids to work well, but they also need to learn to rest well. And thus they need to see you work hard, fueled by God’s grace, and then watch you trust God enough to come home and get on the floor with them. They need to see you observe Sabbath practices and to help them do the same.
Training up your child the way he or she should go (Prov. 22:6) is a long game, and it includes modeling right behaviors, teaching right theology, and providing consistent opportunities for them to dirty their hands.
These words are smeared with my own hypocrisy, as I struggle daily to do this well. But the good news is that the grace I want my kids to embody is newly available for me each morning, too.