How do I instill a strong work ethic in my teenage son?

Q: My 13 year old son was given the opportunity to make some extra cash this summer by doing yardwork and other small projects for friends and neighbors, but because he often decides not to put out much effort, he's earned much less income than he could have. Of course I hope he grows up to become responsible and make a worthwhile contribution to the world. How do I teach him a strong work ethic?

A: My guess is that you are already doing the very most important and effective method for teaching a strong work ethic:  Modeling it.

Developmentally, your son sounds right on track for age 13. He's still got a lot of growing up to do, and his brain will continue doing some serious and major development for about another ten years. I like this article as a description of what's going on in the teenage brain:

In the meantime, while his brain is still busy developing and figuring out how to deal with the mass quantities of hormones that his body is dumping into it, he's watching you, soaking up and internalizing your values and your good example every minute of every day.

If you work hard and take pride in your accomplishments, chances are very good that your son will, too, when he's an adult. It's what he's seen all his life. It's what he knows.  It's what the most significant man in his world does. And when he's finished with this necessarily self-oriented phase of development, he will do it, too.

Here's what the research tells us about motivation: the kind that can be imposed or installed by consequences or prodding may appear to obtain short term results but does not stick over time, and is particularly likely to go by the wayside when nobody is watching.

The kind that sticks is intrinsic motivation -- it comes from within. So when I work with probation officers, who have a pretty strong investment in helping their clients make significant lifestyle changes, I teach them how to develop and enhance intrinsic motivation so that when offenders are no longer under supervision, their good behavior is likely to continue because it is getting them where they want to be.

So instead of telling offenders why it's important that they stay sober, or get their GED, or get a job, we ask them questions like, "How do you see your life being different if you decide to get a job vs if you decide not to?" or "Where would you like to be in six months?" followed by, "What do you think is the best way to make sure you achieve those goals?"

Their responses may be exactly the same as what we would have told them (ie: I need to stop drinking), but with one huge difference: It was THEIR idea, not ours.

And that is the difference that makes all the difference when it comes to whether they take action or not.

So one way to help your son develop the kind of consequential thinking that may lead him to conclude when he's an adult that he likes his life better when he's productive might be to ask questions to find out what is important to him, rather than attempt to convince him what should be important to him, and then ask him (in a light and casual way) what he thinks would be the best way to achieve those things. All the while realizing, of course, that what is important to him will change DRAMATICALLY as he matures.

So basically, it comes down to these things:

Continue living a full and productive life in front of him.

Invite him to join in while you accomplish things, but don't pressure him to do so. 

Make sure to do fun, unproductive stuff together just for the heck of it - playful stuff with no purpose other than joyful connection (paintball, squirt gun fights, etc.) You want your relationship with him to be an anchor during the storms of his life, and you want him to feel free to come to you in good times and bad, so associate yourself with having fun, not just work or expectations. Do some risky/scary/edgy stuff together, like rock climbing or whatever adventures are available where you live, so you can share a little adrenaline rush.

Let him observe you learning something new so he knows how to perservere to achieve something he wants even when it's frustrating or hard.

Give him plenty of unstructured, private time and space to complete the developmental tasks of a teenager, which mostly involve figuring out who they are independent of their parents. (And by unstructured I don't mean running loose in the world at all hours of the night, I mean safe,
supervised down time when he appears to be doing nothing of great significance at home.)

Continue to make clear what the basic expectations are for his contributions to the family (dishes, chores, etc) and then allow him plenty of flexibility over how he expends his additional time and energy. Teenagers really do need some time to sleep in and veg out and be 'unproductive'. The amount of growing they are doing at this stage is phenomenal and can be exhausting at times.

Continue providing for his basic needs, but let him pay for luxuries or upgrades.  So if he needs a computer for school, you spring for one that's perfectly adequate, and if he wants extra bells and whistles, he pays for those with the money he's earned. And if he wants an upgrade and doesn't have any money, he has the option of working and saving up for it.

In a way, it's a really good sign that he's clear about what is important enough to him to invest energy his in. It takes courage to not follow the beaten path, and it shows that he's thinking for himself, running a basic cost-benefit analysis to determine which returns are worth investing his time and effort into. Those analytical skills will serve him very well as an adult.

Plenty of people don't achieve that clarity until their mid-life crisis, when they suddenly realize that they've created a very culturally appropriate life, and are doing all the right things, but there's no juice in it for them - no joy, purpose, or passion.

We all want our kids to grow up to live a happy, productive life.  And while the developmentally appropriate task of teenagers is to figure out what matters to them, what feeds them, what makes life worth living for them, at the same time, the task of the parent of the teenager is to provide within safe and reasonable limits the freedom and opportunity to try things out and try things on (including things we REALLY hope they decide not to stick with, like green hair!)

I hope this helps!

For more information about Karen's parenting or interpersonal communication consultations by phone, visit

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