How Do You Get Kids to Try Hard?

Do you ever worry about your kids’ lack of drive? Oomph? Follow-through? Do they forget about taking out the trash or doing their assignments? Do they avoid work at all costs? I worried about that, too.

After all, hard work is important. As I was doing research for my book, one of the things that struck me about each of the people I studied was that they were all so determined. They were diligent, hard working, and didn’t give up after failures.

For example, Andrew Carnegie had a very disadvantaged start. He was a dirt poor immigrant from Scotland, whose father, a weaver, had trouble learning a new trade once machines took over the job of making linens. The family was just barely scraping by and Andrew went to work in a bobbin factory as soon as he could. It wasn’t long before people noticed his hard work and “pluck” so he was given more responsibilities and opportunities. He worked his way up to messenger boy and a telegraph operator and eventually became a superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of  the Philadelphia Railroad Company at the age of  18. There he learned as much as he could about business and money, while making friends with very influential people. He started companies, made investments, and eventually became very wealthy.

Andrew and Thomas Carnegie, image from Project Gutenberg

The story of Andrew Carnegie is classic rags to riches, and we all love those kinds of stories – so why isn’t everybody like Andrew Carnegie? Admittedly, he had good timing by being involved with the railroad and steel industries just as they were beginning to take off. But there were other boys in Pittsburgh who were there at the right place at the right time as well. What did he have that the other poor boys in Pittsburgh did not? I don’t know the stories of those other boys, and for all I know, some of them might have turned out very successful as well. But I do know that Carnegie worked his brains out, and then worked a little bit more. He always seemed to take that extra step. When he was a messenger boy, he decided to learn every street by heart so he could deliver his messages more quickly. He learned the names and faces of all the prominent businessmen so he could deliver messages even while meeting recipients on the street. He made a very good impression wherever he went, because he tried so hard. He also kept learning, paid attention, borrowed books, and copied the manners of the “educated” upper class.

Carnegie would never have been as successful if he hadn’t tried so hard. Again it strikes me – why isn’t everybody like that?

My kids have had their share of laziness, forgetting chores and other unappealing tasks, but they do know how to work hard when they set their minds to it. I wondered if this would be enough when they went off to “regular” school and had to do so much more homework along with all their other activities. But they have handled it amazingly well, maybe because they’re not sick of school yet. However, they can’t understand the attitude of so many other students who sleep in class, or goof around, or don’t pay attention. They bring me stories of how frustrated they are when working with some group projects because there are other students who just won’t do the work. They will agree to something but not deliver. Or they will deliver the bare minimum. Then my kids are stuck putting the whole project together on their own. It could be that these kids would work really hard outside of class, or for something they cared about. But it still begs the question: why do some people try hard and others do not?

I’m sure there are not any perfect answers, but based on what I have learned from the lives of successful people, I propose four reasons:

  1. Positive Attitude – People have to believe that their actions make a difference, and that there is hope for a better life. I think that most of us pick up the attitudes of those closest to us as children, so if our friends and family have positive attitudes, it will rub off. We also need to feel worthy or loved in order to face the risk of failure.
  2. Interest – In order to try hard, one first has to care about the outcome or at least care from a sense of integrity. So even if a student doesn’t care about a particular geography project or chemistry lab, they need to at least care about fulfilling a task they have agreed to do. But it’s always easier to work hard on a job that interests us.
  3. Ownership – This goes above and beyond just working hard. A lot of poor souls work hard with nothing to show for it. It’s also about going that extra step, learning to do something better or different. For this, a person needs to feel ownership of his or her own work. If they are waiting for someone to tell them exactly what to do, then they have given up ownership. It’s amazing to me that society claims to value initiative, yet tries so hard to make citizens obedient instead.
  4. Mentoring – People, especially children, need examples of what is possible. They need to know that success is possible, even for them, and they need to see what it looks like to work hard. Andrew Carnegie’s mother was a great mentor, extremely hardworking and resourceful. She was always looking for opportunities to improve their situation, and was willing to try new things. If his mother had given up, or felt like a victim with no luck, as if there was no use trying, how might Andrew have been different? He also had mentors as he grew older: all of those businessmen who were impressed by Carnegie’s “pluck” shared their experience and knowledge with him, and offered him opportunities he may never have had on his own. Carnegie also credited his childhood heroes of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce for the examples they set. Whenever times were tough, he remembered their stories and tried to emulate their courage and character, thinking to himself, “What would Wallace and Bruce do?”

As parents, the main things we can do for our kids is to love them completely; and model a positive attitude and strong work ethic. If you are reading this, then hard work is probably already important to you, but remember to keep it positive. We can also give our kids more ownership over their projects and work. If they mess up, they will generally learn more from their mistakes based on natural consequences. If we nag, criticize or punish, then that means we have taken ownership of their problem. If they ask for our help or advice, that’s different. But otherwise, allow your kids the dignity of believing they can do the job, and a chance to do it however they see fit.

One example of this is grades and school work. I’ve generally let my kids have a great deal of control over their curriculum and daily work. If they don’t want to do their math, they don’t have to. Really. But eventually they always start worrying about getting behind and decide to do the work anyway. And no, I don’t taunt them with dire warnings of failure in life if they don’t get good grades. I just have a firm belief that it is up to them, and they can be successful no matter what they decide. They have a complete sense of ownership over their education, and it shows in the way they get their work done.

The thing that we as parents don’t have much control over is interest. Our kids might have a great attitude and sense of ownership, but if the subject is really dull, they still won’t work as hard as they will for something interesting. But I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. There’s no need for any of us to knock ourselves out over every little thing. I may have to remind my kids to clean the bathroom, but they will do it, and then they’ll work for hours to make sure their own pet projects are done right. It’s important to be selective over how we spend our time. You will be amazed though at the difference it makes, just letting your kids make those decisions for themselves. Give them time. Give them space. Maybe a few stories about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce wouldn’t hurt either.


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2 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    Wonderfully informative and exactly what I’ve found with my kids. Sharing this. And I’m reminded that I need to get a review of your book out after the holidays are over!

    • Jamie McMillin says:

      Thank you Laura! I’m so glad you told me about the Geekmom website. I’ve been following that and your blogs on my Google reader, and it’s like listening to kindred spirits 🙂