how to poison attitudes towards work in young children


My son Little Buddy isn’t so little anymore. He’s at an age where he can make observations and draw conclusions – often amusing – about the world around him.  One of the conclusions he’s probably started to draw is that ‘work sucks.’

It’s not an attitude I’d like to instill in anyone’s child, least of all my own, but it’s almost inevitable. From his point of view, here’s what he thinks when he thinks of ‘work’:

  • ‘Work’ means Papa will be gone all day.
  • ‘Work’ means Papa will be tired and less likely to play when he gets home.
  • Not often, but quite possibly, it means Papa might have to go out of town
  • ‘Work’ means his Mama will have to split her time between him and Pumpkin, his little sister

He understands the association between money and work. He knows I have days I don’t work and days I just choose not to work.  But what I wonder is not so much whether he understands the work/money dynamic, but whether children form an idea that ‘work’ is a negative activity before they really understand the positive.

Take a famous writer or a motivational speaker or a pro athlete. The children of those people might of course have a great lifestyle, but speaking tours or away games or book signing tours must surely upset them, too.  Maybe part of it would be the closeness of the parent-child relationship.  I read quite often that people who leave their corporate jobs do it out of a desire to spend more time with their children.  Yet if I quit my corporate job to become a famous problogger, for example, I’d probably still have to spend time away from home to write.  I’d probably need to do a better job of attending industry events and travel to promote the inevitable book, and so on.

That’s not to denigrate that lifestyle, since I think it would be preferable. I just remember a conversation I had with my parents shortly after I returned to the States after working in Moscow.  While living in Russia, I had received six weeks of vacation per year.  Twice a year, I flew home for three weeks and lived with my parents (this is before I was married).  When I returned home, my mother was happy that I’d be living closer and they’d see me more often – but they didn’t.  I never counted up the days, but I certainly doubt I came anywhere close to staying 42 days at their home in a given year.

I would like my children to have a healthier attitude about work than I do. I don’t know if that’s possible.  My parents both had what seemed to me to be fairly good jobs growing up, and although they had their fair share of conflicts and troubles I never got the impression that they hated what they did, at all.  I don’t know if my dislike of my profession leaks over into my attitude towards work.  I may be saying the word ‘work’ with an undercurrent of unease that kids can sense.

I also suspect that in some ways I might HOPE to poison my children’s attitudes towards work, as long as it’s focused on a certain type of work: work that’s not at least vaguely fulfilling or rewarding.  That’s a tricky path to go down.  I’m sure many of the motivational types whose work I read might wince if their children gave an honest opinion of their work:  ‘my daddy spends all day speaking and writing to inspire others, and hasn’t thrown a baseball to me in three years.’

I do know that if I have any influence at all on my young kids I’d like it to be this:  work is not bad. Work you don’t like is bad.  Work that makes you feel bad is bad.  But working, in and of itself, is good, for a variety of reasons.  It provides for you and (eventually) your family; it can provide a lot of meaning to your life; and it can provide a lot of value to people outside yourself, which is no small feat.  I hope they learn that work is not a thing to be dreaded.  I hope they learn that it’s tough to work, it’s hard to work, and it’s often a struggle to work – but I hope they never learn to hate working.

photo by Mai Le