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As much as you may wish to, you can’t gift your kids with luck. You also can’t change their talents any more than you can change their height (though you can teach them that talent is overrated). But work ethic, at least, is one big input of success families can influence. No wonder so many parents are determined to instill a strong work ethic in their kids.

What’s the best way to teach your kids the importance of nose-to-the grindstone hard work? You might guess that modeling it yourself by throwing yourself into your career and putting in long hours is the way to go. An intriguing new study out of the Netherlands, however, suggests the picture is a good deal more complicated than that.

The surprising way parents influence their kids’ work ethic.

For the study researchers polled almost 4,000 Dutch adults about their relationships with their parents and their own work ethic, using standard questions such as “I’d rather work overtime than fail to get something done on time.” After crunching the numbers, the researchers spotted a correlation, but it probably isn’t the one you’d expect.

It wasn’t those adults who reported having the hardest working parents who were the hardest working themselves. Instead, it was those who had the warmest relationships with their fathers during their teen years who ended up with the strongest work ethic. (Closeness with mothers mattered too, though less so. “This may be because historically it is fathers who more often have jobs outside of the home and may therefore ‘serve as important role models and have more impact on their children,'” notes the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog write-up of the study.)

While the research didn’t delve into how the hard-working adults came to have such warm relationships with their dads, it stands to reason that their fathers had to be around for such tight bonds to develop. That suggests, though doesn’t prove, that fathers who spend more time with their kids and a less at the office might actually be better placed to instill the value of hard work in their children.

In other words, workaholism is a bad idea for lots of reasons. Spoiling your kid’s approach to work may be among them.

A bucketload of caveats

It’s important to note that while these findings are intriguing, they’re also preliminary. All this study shows is a correlation between strong teenage relationships with dad and later work ethic. It wasn’t designed to examine causation. Genetics probably plays a role, and it could turn out the plenty of workaholic dads still end up close to their teenaged kids. Further research is needed to investigate these possibilities.

In the meantime, we should probably avoid drawing too many conclusions from a single study. However, as consistently working long hours is a pretty terrible idea for lots of other well established reasons (assuming your family is in a financial position to avoid it), there’s probably no harm in adding one more possible drawback to the pile.

Be warned, it’s unproven as of yet, but your insane workweeks are likely not teaching your kids to buckle down. In fact, if they keep you from bonding with your children, they may end up doing the opposite.

Do you think your parents influenced your work ethic? How so?

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