What is work? For purposes of this discussion, think of Work as the outcome of Will motivating Effort to get some Task accomplished.
When work is not easy, freely chosen, or enjoyable, it can become harder to do. At such times, work ethic and self-discipline can come to the rescue. For the most part, these two self-management skills must be learned through practice which adults have had more time to develop than adolescents, particularly early on.
Because most parents find that it takes unending labor to live and make a living. Accepting this hard fact of life, they tend to feel frustrated when the early adolescent (around ages 9 – 13) becomes more reluctant to do work compared to when he or she was a child. They naturally wonder, what happened to Mom’s or Dad’s willing and eager little helper?
In the child’s place they see a larger, older, more capable young person who should be of even more help, but is too busy or too tired or too out of sorts or too disinclined to kick in the effort. And when told that assistance is expected even so, the young person can make it a matter of debate, “Why do I have to?” and an argument ensues. Or he can resort to delay, “I’ll do it later,” in the hopes that putting off the unpleasant may make it go away by making parents commit one of three common mistakes. They forget what they asked for, they get tired of repeatedly asking and let it go, or they give up and do it themselves.
What’s going on with adolescent resistance to work? In a lot of ways the concepts of ‘adolescent’ and ‘work’ don’t fit together as easily as ‘child’ and ‘work’ more comfortably did. To see this change of attitude in action, parents need look no further than the schoolroom. Doing so may help them understand that this altered attitude to work is not from something amiss in their parenting so much as it is part of the impact of early adolescent change.
For example, the kindergarten teacher asks the class who wants to be on the “RCC,” Room Clean-up Committee, this week (staying fifteen minutes after school on Fridays to help sweep the floor, straighten the shelves, clean the critter cages for the next week) and almost all the hands go up frantically waving, voices beseeching: “Me! Me! Me!” This is a high status job at age five, and virtually everyone wants to be selected. The opportunity for work is treated as a privilege, an empowering chance to participate in something grownups do, the child feeling more grown up in the process.
Ask a class of seventh graders for comparable assistance, however, and the teacher is likely to find less volunteer spirit to draw on. What self-respecting middle school student wants to pull after-hours duty at school, and right before a weekend? Now the opportunity for work is considered more of an imposition. It’s the same way with homework at this age. What the child was willing to accept, the early adolescent is more prone to resist. And now putting off, rushing through, even lying about whether there was homework assigned, can all begin because the young person has better feeling things to do.
One of my favorite lines about this early adolescent resistance came from a parent at a workshop many years ago describing her middle school daughter’s increasing reluctance to doing chores: “She’s become allergic to work; it irritates her mood.” The early adolescent definition of work can be a demotivating one: whatever older people make you do that you don’t want to do or shouldn’t have to do, or at least right away. Work demands are emblematic of adult authority and so, in token of emerging independence, early adolescents often feel they should resist requests from adult powers that be on that account. Subscribing to these beliefs about work, a youthful anti-work ethic may develop: to work as hard as you can, for as long as you can, to get out of doing as much work as you can, as often as you can.
So a parent complains: “I keep telling her, if she’d just do it right away without arguing and putting it off, and then having to redo it because it wasn’t done completely the first time, she could get the whole job done in fifteen minutes instead of dragging it out for three exhausting hours, with the aggravation of me chasing her down. But she’s insists on taking her time!”
But I disagree. “No, she insists on taking YOUR time, constantly putting what you want on hold until later, which is as late as she can make it. That’s the point.” Not being as prompt to do tasks is one way early adolescents gather more power of self-determination. Thus at home, work becomes more of a ‘working compromise’: the parents gets to tell the young person WHAT to do (get to set their agenda), and the young person gets to play for delay and decide WHEN it gets done (gets to schedule her cooperation.) So this is why it often takes more repetitive insistence, or parental nagging, to overcome adolescent resistance to work than was needed with the comparatively receptive child.
So if the early adolescent is more developmentally disposed to not doing work for parents, should they just back off, save their energy, and let the young person have their more resistant way? The answer is: absolutely not – both for the outcome now and later.
For the present, responsible parents need to keep after the completion of home-task and school-work assignments so that with practice a young person develops a strong enough work habit so he can overcome his own resistance and get accomplished what he doesn’t always want to do. Also, when parents do all the work around the family and the adolescent does none, they can get resentful of this one-way investment of effort. Better they explain and insist: “It takes work to support a family, and that work needs to be shared. We expect to do work for you, and we expect you to do work for us.”
For the future, there is this. What parents hope is that by the end of high school, the young person has forsaken his work-resistant ways and is able to take care of work demands in a timely and efficient way. When he has not, this developmentally acquired habit of resistance can come back to bite him in the form of Procrastination. Particularly when entering college, procrastination (the practice of delaying work with all kinds of diversions, escapes, excuses, empty resolutions, and false promises) can contribute to the high rate of academic failure and flunking out among freshmen (on average, about 50% according to the Journal of College Retention.) Now, this older adolescent is no longer resisting work demands from parents, but from themselves: “I can’t make myself get work done on time, and sometimes at all!”
So what might parents wish for their adolescent to learn when it comes to work? Here are a few thoughts.
Be able to work to get what you want and to make your way.
Be able to work when you don’t feel like it, but there is work to do.
Be able to work with and for others.
Be able to work without excessive delay.
Be able to work to accomplish what you agreed to do.
Be able to work hard at what matters to you.
Be able to work to keep yourself well.
Be able to work to support yourself.
Be able to develop good work habits.
Be able to enjoy the work you do.
Be able to make work not all that you do.
For many young people beginning adolescence, work is an acquired taste. Growing up over the next 10 to 12 years, however, as the parent insists on them performing chores and accomplishing homework and providing household help, as attaining wants and and achieving personal goals require effort, and as volunteer service places contributory value on the labor one has to give and holding part time jobs for money becomes a financial neccessity, attitiude toward daily toil will gradually change from more resistant to accepting as they get used to the idea that to maintain oneself and to make one's way in the world requires relentless work.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Being a Target or a Victim of Adolescent Bullying