How Parents Influence Their Child's Work Ethic

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 
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My kids are growing up with two role models in the working world—one pretty good and one not so hot. My husband works hard to a fault (at one point, HR told him he had 10 years’ worth of sick leave accrued) and is hyper-productive. He always has several major projects going at once. He switches between intense focus on one project and alternating among them, which means he gets a lot done in a given week, month or year.

Me, I take a slower road. Part of it is that I stepped back from my work when our first child was born, so I don’t have the same pressure to maintain a breadwinning career. But even so, I’ve never really had the same discipline that he has to start and complete projects, and my work has been mostly focused on getting a job that pays well enough to allow me time for family, friends and hobbies outside of work.

This may be because we have two different work “orientations,” according to research by Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Kathryn Dekas, a Ph.D. and a people analytics manager at Google. Penny Wrenn, writing for LearnVest (h/t The Huffington Post), reports that Dekas and Baker’s research found that the most significant influence on children’s work ethic is their parents.

They identified three “kinds” of work ethic, or what they call work orientations: 1) a “job” orientation, which is just a 9-to-5 that pays the bills, 2) a “career” orientation, in which workers derive satisfaction from measurable advancement, and 3) a “calling” orientation, in which workers would do the work even if they didn’t get paid (I’m thinking ministers, actors, musicians and a few grandstanding politicians).

People can move among these orientations throughout their lives, of course, and sometimes they exist in combination. But however you and your spouse are oriented will probably have a strong effect on your kids. That effect can be either positive or negative. In an interview with Wrenn, Baker says, “If parents come home and talk about how much they hate their jobs—how they can’t wait to retire—then their kids are probably going to see work as just a grind.”

So no major surprises there, though I’ve always hoped that my kids would somehow be better than me in all respects, including their work orientation. I do worry that children will see a hard-charging, high-earning dad (or sometimes mom) as the “real” work ethic in the household and discount the efforts made by the primary caregiver mom (or sometimes dad). Care work, like ensuring that the makings for a week’s lunches are in the fridge or running an elderly relative to the doctor, often goes unseen, while career accomplishments are visible and celebrated.

Fortunately, the researchers showed that two career orientations can exist in combination: They cite a young woman who patterned her successful, aggressive career orientation after her dad, but leaves room in her schedule for pro-bono work for nonprofits—a nod to her community-minded, social-worker mom.

Like all parents, I want my kids to find their own ways, to settle into careers that are both callings and a means to pay the bills. As a former theater person, I know it doesn’t always work out like that. But I know and admire enough artists who’ve made their artistic lives function with a strategy that combines money-jobs, career opportunities, and pure, for-love theatrical work to make me think it’s possible.

That is the number-one thing I want to teach my kids—that they have control over their work lives and that they can be flexible when their needs and desires change. The jobs of the next 20 years are going to favor people with broad skills and a lot of flexibility. Sometimes they’re going to need to prioritize a paycheck and sometimes they can spend more time on the calling, if they have one. And that sometimes, when the need arises, they can step back entirely to care for a family. Because after all, work isn’t everything.

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