I’d been back in the workforce precisely a week when the New York Times published this story about wealthy parents who worried about how to instill a work ethic in their children.
One of the subjects – Steven Hayworth, a CEO of a bank in ritzy Coral Gables, Fla. — described how he was thrilled his teenage daughter had taken a job at a clothing store for the summer.
“As a parent who has worked his whole life and has had a little bit of success in my career, one of the huge life lessons I learned early on is the value of a dollar,” he says in the story. “Particularly for children of upper-middle-class and affluent families, there is no perspective on value. When the new Range Rover pulls into the driveway, there’s no concept of how many hours of hard work went into owning that vehicle.”
The question that immediately popped into my head was – why not? Why does the fact your family has money preclude you from learning the value of a dollar and the importance of working hard? And why is it such a mystery to wealthy parents how to instill those values?
We were solidly middle class when I was growing up but that didn’t mean my brother and I got allowances or got most of our “wants” paid for by Mom and Dad. My parents — both the product of a steel and coal mining town and families that had to struggle to get ahead — didn’t want their kids to think money came cheap.
So they put us to work. Early. I had my first real job at age 9.
We worked for the family business, a land planning and civil engineering firm my dad owned. I was 9, my brother was 7 and we were the office janitors. Every Friday afternoon my parents drove us to the other side of town after school and we took out the trash, vacuumed, dusted, mopped, cleaned toilets, scrubbed sinks and washed dishes. Once a month, we waxed the floors.
In return we got a paycheck. Every pay period, we got $20 each and the rest went into a college savings account. My parents let us know that we were funding our own education.
As a result, I learned at age 10 or 11 the lessons that a lot of kids don’t encounter until their first mall job as a teenager or – even scarier – at their first real job after college.
I learned that the quality of the work I did affected other people when I did a shoddy job cleaning a glass-topped conference table and my dad told me he’d had to redo my work – in front of an important client.
I learned how to do a job that was dirty, unpleasant at times and often completely unnoticed – unless you did it wrong. It made me appreciate people who do this kind of work for their entire lives.
I learned the value of a dollar when I had to save up three months worth of paychecks to buy the American Girl doll I coveted and then had to save for three more to buy her accessories. I still have that doll, lovingly packed away in perfect condition. I don’t think any other toy meant as much to me.
And, perhaps the most important, I learned how to work hard. It’s an attribute that amazed my first “real” employers, in part because most teenagers or even recent college graduates don’t have it. But working for my dad, and learning from him what made a good employee, I knew that initiative and follow-through will go a long way in this world – certainly a lot further than talent alone.
These lessons have paid huge dividends in my professional life and made me smarter about managing my money, managing my time and managing my boss.
These are lessons that a lot of parents don’t teach their kids. I know because I’ve worked with those parents’ kids. You probably have too. It’s not a great experience.
So, to these wealthy parents who worry about their children’s worth ethic, I say, good. You should worry. Worry is the first step, the indication that you know enough to be concerned. But the next step is to do something about it.
Don’t provide everything your kids want and need. Give them an opportunity to work for it, starting from an early age. Make sure the stakes are higher than just picking up their room or setting the table (they should be doing that anyway). Instead give them some real responsibility and a job that requires follow through.
Making your kids work is not punishment. It’s one of the million ways you show them you love them.