I remember the first time I worked hard enough to get blisters. I was going into the third grade and it was shortly after we moved to a new house with a much bigger yard than we’d had before. My dad had tasked me and my brothers with different assignments outside. Since I was too young to push the lawn mower, and not skilled enough to work in the garden, my dad handed me a rake and showed me how to rake up the dead grass after it was cut. I can remember the foreign feeling of the rake, trying to figure out how to hold it in proper tension between my hands and put enough pressure on the handle to keep it tight to the ground while still pulling the grass toward me into a pile. It didn’t go quickly and I’m sure the yard wasn’t looking much better after I raked. In fact, I remember getting done with one small section of grass and feeling the strong urge to quit. “Dad, I can’t finish this whole yard! It’s impossible!”
Now, my parents were never much for bribing us kids to do anything. When I was little, we either did chores we were assigned or faced a punishment as a consequence for disobedience… Plain and simple. But this time, I think my dad saw an opportunity to incentivize a job that might just teach me the value of hard work. My dad made a deal with me that if I could rake the whole yard in piles of dead grass, he would pay me five dollars. Five whole dollars! Having that much money for a third grader in 1992 was like winning the lottery. Suddenly I had a renewed interest surging through me. I remember picking that rake back up and slowly working my way all around the yard, my muscles burning and hands aching. Although I don’t remember exactly how long it took, I know that it took me longer to complete my task than either of my brothers with their chores. The sun was starting to set as I finished raking that night, and I got my crisp 5 dollar bill. I had done the work. But I had also complained about it every step of the way. Hard work? Yes. A good work ethic? No. At least, not yet.
I am starting to believe there is a difference between being a hard worker and having a good work ethic, and I think one of the main differences is how a person can learn to enjoy the work they do. Someone can be a hard worker, but complain all day long about what they have to do. I’ve met plenty of people who have seemed to make it their life’s goal to stop working. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sabbath rest, but the way we see Genesis modeling God’s resting is after he completed six days of very good work, and you don’t see him complaining through the work-week. Here is a question I’ve been wrestling with as a father, and as a school leader: “How do I help kids learn to enjoy hard work?”
Sadly, as an adult it can be easy to slip into my third grade mentality when it comes to work. And I don’t think it’s just a problem I struggle with either. Over 40 years ago, Loverboy wrote the anthem for all of those who were just “working for the weekend”. Our culture tells us we’re just supposed to trudge through work to make our money and get to the end of Friday. As a principal, I see this mindset in the students I work with too. Complaining about homework, finding the path of least resistance, not completing assigned tasks… These behaviors are all too common among students today. And while some might accept this as a universal trait kids have, I think it’s worth pushing back on. In fact, this is one of the main points of culture that I am seeking to develop at my school, with both faculty and students: Enjoy hard work. Although I can’t say that every person has picked up this banner as excitedly as I might have hoped, every once in a while, I see a few signs that people are starting to get it.
Here are some points of emphasis that I believe have been important to stress:
- Work is a privilege. I remember my childhood preacher telling a story about one of his children being punished at home. The details of why the kid was in trouble are a bit foggy, but all these years later I can distinctly remember the punishment that was given: The child was not allowed to do Saturday chores with their family. Can you imagine that? A parent telling their child that since they misbehaved, they were not allowed to partner with the family to do yard work or clean the house? Perhaps too often, we tend to think the opposite of this. Work IS the punishment. Laziness and lounging around is the reward. But think about the message we could send if we help people shift their mindset to see work as a privilege that could be taken away.
- Work is an acquired taste. That same preacher, perhaps in that same sermon, also described hard work as something that we needed to acquire a taste for. I’ve always thought this was an apt description of the way most people learn to appreciate and enjoy hard work. When you think about teaching a kid to try a new food, the best way isn’t to cram it down their throats by the spoonful. Instead, you give them a taste. You let them experience it honestly. You model an appreciation for eating it first, describing what you enjoy about it. And you give it time. When it comes to helping someone learn to enjoy hard work, I think there are many similarities. Invite the person to join you. Model for them what you can enjoy about working hard and describe the benefits. But don’t be discouraged if it takes some time for them to acquire the taste for it, bit by bit.
- Work is something to celebrate and appreciate. I love that at the end of each day of creation, God looked over His work with joy, appreciating and celebrating what He had done. And that didn’t stop after humans were brought on the scene. God bestowed upon humanity a job to be done, but at the end of the hard day’s work, He came down and walked with them in the cool of the evening. How beautiful is that? I can imagine Adam and Eve having a healthy pride as they showed off the things they had worked to accomplish each day. And I believe we can still help kids do this today, not just at art contests or at the end of a quarter, but on a daily basis. What would it look like to help your students look over the things they have completed and recognize something they enjoyed in the process?
As I look back at those blisters on my 8-year-old hands and that crisp $5 bill in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet, I’m grateful for the lesson of that day. But I’m also grateful that it was just the start of my parents teaching me not just to work hard, but to appreciate, and even enjoy hard work. I’m grateful they gave me just enough of a taste of the privilege it is to work with others. Of course, I would be lying if I said that I jump out of bed each day, racing to my job. There are parts of our jobs that may always be difficult to do and not geared towards our personalities. Some days, or seasons, we will be tempted to quit. But I do know that a better understanding of what a good work ethic looks like has benefited me in my life.
After all the yard tools were put away and we were cleaned up for the evening, we sat around the dinner table as a family and feasted on the hamburgers my dad had grilled. We looked out over what we had accomplished that day and we celebrated. And a seed of something good was planted in me that day that I hope to cultivate in the next generation.