Posted in response to someone on a forum who asked how unschooled kids, who ‘get to do whatever they want, whenever they want,’ ever learn to get up and deal with the daily drudgery of a job.

As I see it, the reason adults get up and go to work every day is not because it’s a habit they’ve got into, but because they know that this is, on balance, something that is worthwhile for them in that it enables them to contribute to society and to their own well-being and that of the people they care about. Adults are able to think abstractly and say to themselves “yeah, I hate these early mornings and the drudgery of meetings at work, and the politics of my office, but my department does some good work, and sheesh, if I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t pay the mortgage and put food on the table and enjoy knowing that my kids are well provided for.”

So the ‘work ethic’ that makes Chuck get up for work in the morning has everything to do with his ability to see the longer-term value of the work that he does… in terms of generating income and contributing to community and society. And I don’t think it has much to do with the fact that he was made to do his homework before playing outside as a child.

Kids’ ability to defer the immediate gratification of momentary pleasures in favour of long-term goals is something that grows gradually. Many would argue with Piaget’s and Steiner’s didacticism of the psychological stages of childhood, but I think most would agree that the capacity for abstract thought is minimal in very young children and really blossoms out during the teen years. This is part of what maturity is.

So one would expect that the ability to say “I’m gonna do this boring, tedious, prolonged, difficult work because ultimately it will produce some benefits that I value” is something that will evolve during the childhood and teen years as that maturity takes root.

As an unschooling parent I don’t believe in imposing the behaviours of a mature, abstract thinker might willingly engage in. Instead, I think that it is my job to support and nurture the growth of maturity and abstract thinking so that those behaviours come to be willingly undertaken. I admit that with my eldest being just 13, I haven’t followed this right through the continuum, but I see plenty of evidence of growth in this direction.

My parental ‘supporting’ and ‘nurturing’ takes many forms. It means encouraging awareness and appreciation of a living room we’ve just tidied. It means documenting the early efforts at things (playing the violin, soccer skills, handwriting, painting, whatever) so that in a year or two, there will be hard evidence for my kids as to how their ongoing practice has resulted in impressive long-term progress. It means encouraging persistence at long-term projects like gardening, weaving or building a fort. It means divulging my own long-term goals and struggles along the way. It means encouraging patience and persistence and touching base regularly with hopes and dreams.

Assigning schoolwork and imposing routines and concrete expectations is one approach to building a work ethic. This is an extrinsic approach — the motivation comes from outside the child, and I guess the hope is that through creating habitual behaviours, the drive will eventually become internal. I’ve chosen a different path that nurtures the factors that motivate a person from within. I’ve chosen a path that relies on maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning, the ability to defer gratification, be patient and do what is necessary for the greater, more long-term good.

For me this latter approach is more productive, since extrinsic expectations tend to result in resistance from my children, the elder two especially — they “have very strong autonomy needs” (i.e. can be very stubborn and resistent). Yet if I help them hone and work with their own desires and dreams and abilities, if I help them to notice, validate and appreciate their own efforts at patience, diligence and such, there is no resistence; we are on the same side.

It seems to work for us.

Work ethic

One thought on “Work ethic

  • July 11, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    What a thought-provoking post. “Instilling a good work ethic” has always been one of the main reasons I haven’t stuck with unschooling my dd. But I really liked what you had to say on the subject.

Comments are closed.