My father was born two weeks after the stock market crash of 1929 and was aptly labeled a “depression baby.” His family’s experience of raising six children through this bleak period in our nation’s history, during which only about a quarter of the entire workforce was employed, dramatically impacted the way he was raised. It shaped his character and, consequently, the way he has chosen to live his life.
My father, fondly known as Bud, carried with him the values of frugality, a strong work ethic, and the ability to be self-sufficient as he raised his own family. Will it surprise you then to learn that as a child I sported the latest style hand-me-downs from my older brother? Or that tuna casseroles and meatloaf were suppertime staples? Card and board games ruled our Saturday night entertainment, and household chores were an expected part of our routines. Growing up and still today, as he reaches his ninth decade, my dad’s lifelong motto continues to be “work hard, play hard.”
Throughout the years, his three children—Jeff, Laura, and I—have had Bud’s clever little adage etched upon our hearts and stubbornly engrained in our psyches as we ourselves have navigated school, career and life choices.
As October draws to a close, perhaps we can take a moment to consider my dad’s words of wisdom. For most students (and, yes, their parents) the opening of a new school year is filled with anticipation and promises. This year for instance, students may have vowed to turn in all of their homework on time, study in advance for tests, or spend more time practicing their instrument. Parents, too, have set goals. Many of us use the start of the school year to regulate consistent bedtimes or to monitor our child’s activity on social media and technology. We have renewed energy and the best of intentions as we set out to reach our goals. But often, with time, our ability to adhere to our plan goes by the wayside.
‘Thank you, Dad, for teaching me the values of working hard and playing hard. They have served me well.’
For students, school work becomes more challenging and social pressures increase. Parents struggle to keep up with an overbooked schedule and are often exhausted, both physically and mentally, at the end of the day. In spite of the fact that we may be feeling more than a bit overwhelmed, this is the time we need to call upon our tenacity—some might use the term grit—to keep us on track.
How do we promote the value of working hard? In Julie Lythcott-Haim’s book, How to Raise An Adult, she devotes a full chapter to strategies that prepare students for hard work. As you might guess, she highlights the importance of family chores including cleaning the bedroom, caring for a pet, and helping to prepare a meal. She cites research from Dr. Marilynn Rossman, University of Minnesota, and of American Psychiatrist George Vaillant’s longitudinal study of Harvard students, to confirm that being responsible for completing chores matters to a child’s future success. As adults we see the important role of assigning chores as children build responsibility, accountability and independence. Additionally, children take pride in the job accomplished. The author goes on to point out that “even if our child’s sweat equity is not needed to ensure the smooth running of our home,…chores build the kind of work ethic that is highly sought after in our communities and in the workplace.” (Lythcott-Haim, page 200).
In school, teachers build work ethic in students in a variety of ways. Assigning long term projects and tasks help students manage timelines and overcome obstacles that emerge as they work through multiple revisions and edits. This helps students develop an appreciation for “a job well done.” Tackling multi step math problems or critical analysis of text requires students to confront the unknown, try new strategies and seek potentially new solutions. As they work through the discomfort of not knowing, students practice perseverance and a stick-to-it attitude eventually leading to a powerful feeling of personal satisfaction in the productive struggle.
What about mistakes? Admittedly, mistakes are not fun. But who among us can lay claim to a mistake free existence? I, for one, cannot. Nor do I suspect that many of us—including dear old Bud—can, or would. As adults we recognize that many of our greatest lessons have come from mistakes that we have made, whether from an error in judgement, another form of miscalculation, or simply from having taken our eye off the proverbial ball. One of the greatest gifts we can offer our children—especially in an era when competition is so highly prized—is the knowledge that it is okay to make mistakes. Our kids need to know that it is acceptable to simply be human.
As we seek opportunities to develop and strengthen a child’s work ethic, it is equally, although some might say more, essential to create opportunities for play. By emphasizing and modeling the importance of work and play, our children learn to lead balanced, meaningful and joy filled lives.
Thank you, Dad, for teaching me the values of working hard and playing hard. They have served me well.
Kathie Foster is superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.