I received a sad letter a few days ago. A woman in her early 20s was asking me, her pediatrician, for advice about how to find work.
I was confused. She didn’t tell me what type of work, and then I realized: She meant how to work at any job. She wrote that while she was growing up, her mother did her laundry, gave her money, a car, and all the clothes that she wanted — and insisted that she do “meaningful” activities during her summers rather than have “menial” jobs.
Well-meaning parents need to pay very close attention to a few things if they want to raise capable, hardworking and honest adults.
The first lesson is that they can earn money, show up on time, and be accountable to their employer as well as responsible.
Here’s where they can start.
1.) Find opportunities for your child to do boring work. When my son was 14, he stocked shelves in a grocery store. He bellyached half of the summer but now at 25 looks back over that summer as instrumental in his drive to excel in graduate school.
Children feel good about themselves when they labor. Whether it’s mowing lawns, cleaning homes, doing laundry, or walking dogs for money, there are invaluable lessons learned in doing work they find uninteresting. The first lesson is that they can earn money, show up on time, and be accountable to their employer as well as responsible.
More importantly, they learn to appreciate the value of hard work. This will help them be more patient with crying babies, study harder in school, pay their bills on time and be a real adult. And they will learn that even if they land the job of their dreams as an adult, that even then, much of the work will be boring. And that’s OK. Boring work is part of life.
2.) Don’t rescue kids all the time. Conscientious and kind mothers are terrible at watching their kids struggle. I lead the pack, so I’m not pointing fingers. Some psychologists say that fathers, in general, do a better job at allowing their children to figure their way out of problems.
Having our children struggle to find solutions is critical if you want your child to grow up to be resilient and responsible. We have all known people who refuse to take responsibility for their own bad behavior — they aren’t fun to be with. In fact, they aren’t successful at relationships or careers. It’s tough to have kids bullied, failing in math or to not get picked for the lead in a play, but these are all opportunities to work with our kids to find solutions and not take over the problem completely.
3.) Encourage economic diversity among friends. Many college students boast about having “diversity” among their friends. But on closer inspection, they reveal young men and women who have different skin color, religious habits, and speak another language — but who communicate at the same intellectual level. And many of the students come from similar economic backgrounds.
True happiness comes to kids who stop thinking about their own needs and focus on those of others.
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If these same students went to a local town carnival and rubbed shoulders with non-college-educated folks peppered with enormous arm and leg tattoos, I wonder if they would still enjoy diversity of friendship or conversations. Probably not.
Good parents must remember to help their children embrace other children who are less educated and less well off economically. It’s easy to be friends with someone who agrees with your political or philosophical views, but befriending another who lives in a neighborhood across the tracks or who uses bad language is another story. If you want your child to have a real appreciation for diversity, find her friends who live in a very different economic or social class. Befriending someone who has a much smaller (or larger) house than they teaches kids that they can share deep commonality as human beings.
Children who grow up with a sibling who has a mental or physical handicap consistently describe how much they learned from a loved one who was so completely different from them.
4.) Model service. Regularly serving those who are less fortunate in your community teaches your children that they are on earth not simply to follow their dreams, become the best pianist in the state or wealthiest investment banker. They are here to live beyond themselves and help others. True happiness comes to kids who learn to stop thinking about their needs and wants and focus on those of others.
By serving, they learn to appreciate what they have, deepen their sense of value as a human being — and most importantly, their world broadens in scope because you force them to see outside of themselves.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practice pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.