Should We Be Building Work Ethic in Our Teens or Let Them Stay Kids?

Should We Be Concerned About Developing Work Ethic In Our Teens Or Just Let Them Be Kids?

July 20, 2021 Updated July 22, 2021

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My 16th birthday wasn’t something I looked forward to because I was getting my driving permit, a new car, or a birthday celebration that would put “My Super Sweet 16” to shame. I was thrilled because I was finally old enough to get a job. Wait, what? Feeling grown-up was something I chased long before I should have. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, but it had to do with something along the lines of the real grown-ups in my life, read — parents and teachers, being proud of me for developing a stellar work ethic that would take me far in life. 

What better way to prove I was ready to take on the world than by doing it all. Spoiler alert–it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I was a full-time student, a part-time employee, and committed to a competitive pom-pom squad. We practiced four days a week during the summer, twice a week during the school year, and performed at sporting events and competitions alike, year-round. In retrospect, that was a lot for me to pack into my day-to-day and left me very little time to cultivate interests outside of obligations. But I must say, being busy AF did allow me to master a work ethic that I am very proud of to this day.

Hear me out and allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Being an overscheduled, busy teen encouraged me to learn how to multitask. Yes, I know the jury is still out on whether or not multitasking is actually productive, but it worked for me. However, this experience might not be the same for all teens, depending on what is prompting them to balance a hectic schedule. 

My parents encouraged my desire to work — not because I had to, but to encourage a solid work ethic, and of course, so I would stop spending their money like it was mine. It’s important to acknowledge my experience comes from a place of privilege. Many families expect that their children start working as soon as they’re able because that job has to help support their family. In fact, CBS News reports that 17.5 million young people between 16 and 24 are employed, many just to help their families get by. 

So how do we find a balance for our kids? Above all else, as parents, we want to make sure we’re doing what’s best to support our child’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. With that being said, here are a few considerations to keep in mind when helping navigate what is best for your teen. 

A Job for Your Teen Might Be Right If …

The most obvious answer to this might be if your teen shows interest in working. If they desire to pursue work outside of school, there is no harm in helping them find a job that will give them a taste of what’s to come after high school. 

Holding a job, internship, or volunteer opportunity outside of the house will demonstrate the importance of showing up, and on time, for other people who rely on them. Also, on the topic of time, it will help them better prioritize their time. Do I really want to spend three hours scrolling through my social feeds when I could be earning some cash instead? And yes, as the parent, I will be thrilled to no longer be funding your Tik Tok shopping habit. 

Speaking of which, budgeting, finances, and money are all very real parts of adulting. When your teen holds a job that pays, not only are they building on that work ethic, but they’re also able to reap tangible benefits of their own labor.  

On The Other Hand …

Do we really want the hustle and bustle of overscheduling to be the norm? If your teen participates in after-school activities, then leaves that to go to work, and comes home hoping to finish homework or finally eat dinner at 9 p.m., something has to give. 

There is definitely a difference between encouraging your teen to build a work ethic and adopting burnout as a normal part of life. Even though some children may be more mature than others, the fact still stands that they are children. 

Keep an eye out for any drastic changes in their behavior, like poor sleep and appetite or irrational irritation (and no, I’m not talking about your usual teenage angst). While life is bound to throw them a few twists and turns before reaching adulthood, starting off being stressed and overscheduled 25/8 is not a great starting point. It’s better to normalize self-care than it is to glorify a toxic hustle culture that has you worn out by your 30s—it’s not like I’m talking from experience or anything. 

There are more ways than starting work (which, ahem, they will likely spend the next few decades doing) to encourage a good work ethic. Interning, volunteering, or being involved in your local community are all equally efficient ways of helping your child recognize the importance of a good work ethic.  

The solution to the dilemma — developing a work ethic in our teens or just letting them be kids as long as they can — doesn’t have an all-size-fits-one kind of answer (because, you know, adulting). Having open and honest communication with your teen about their aspirations or even just figuring out what they like to do with their spare time will help you guide them in designing a life they enjoy.