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Parenting Adolescents and Encouraging the Will to Work

Work is effort made to accomplish a purpose, follow a direction, or meet a need.

Key points

  • Human living requires working for self-care and social functioning.
  • Asserting growing independence, adolescents can be more actively and passively resistant to parental requests for work.
  • Insisting their teenager do her or his share of family work teaches healthy mutuality and industry.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Human living requires working for self-care and social functioning. And as a child grows into adolescence and then into adulthood, there is more that she or he must be able and willing to do.

At issue is “work” in a vast variety of forms—for coping, earning, making, trying, fixing, doing, helping, achieving, enduring, and the list of necessary work functions goes on. Life takes a lot of daily work to manage and make one’s way.

Long ago, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” I believe he was talking about acceptance and attachment when referring to love, and about purpose and industry when talking about work.

What manner of work? There is the drive to get what you want, and there is compliance to do what you're told. So, consider how parents might want to instill motivation to work of both kinds in their teenager.

Attitude Toward Work

The transition from childhood to adolescence can feel for the young person like growing out of the age of command (where parents could make you or stop you) into the age of consent (where parents must depend on your cooperation to get what they want). Now freedom feels more up to you—hence there can be more resistance to being told what one must and cannot do.

For a little child, being assigned work by parents (doing something for themselves or others) often felt like an opportunity to act older. “Giving help feels more grown up!” Work can feel empowering, like a privilege to do. It is a chance to please the family powers that be, do as they do, and be like them.

For the more self-absorbed adolescent, however, “work” demands can at times be resented or resisted. “Why now? I’m busy! I’ll do it later.” Now work can feel offensive, like an imposition to do, a sacrifice of personal freedom and independence. Growing adolescent intolerance for direction can start giving “work” a bad name.

Now a double standard increasingly comes into play when it feels better to work for oneself than to do work for others. Thus, where the dependent child often wanted to please parents, the more independent-minded adolescent becomes more focused on pleasing themselves. Where following parental demands once motivated the child, questioning those demands becomes more common in adolescence.

Thus, it can take more parental effort, pursuit, and supervision to get work out of their teenager than when she or he was younger because now work for others can get in the way of preferred things to do. “It takes more work to get our teenager to get things done!” As for the young person, while parents did a great deal of caretaking for the little dependent child, they expect the older independent teenager to do more for himself and his family.

Parental Frustration

This shift can be frustrating for parents: “She’ll work for hours to practice her athletic skills, but complain about the little housework we assign!” “He’ll work forever on his computer game, but has no time to give us a hand!”

Sometimes parents can wonder: “Is it worth the effort and aggravation to get work from our teenager? Wouldn’t it be simpler not to ask or just to do the job ourselves?” No. While persistent repetition is often necessary and can feel wearing for the pursuer to do and the pursued to tolerate, it shows that parents mean what they want, will not be deterred by delay, and proves productive when it helps the teenager get work finally accomplished.

In addition, two growth issues are at stake: learning mutuality and developing industry.

Mutuality and Industry

Mutuality decrees that in a healthy relationship there needs to be some equity of effort, with each party actively contributing to joint well-being. Where parents do it all and the teenager does none, not only is this lesson of mutuality lost, but the imbalance of effort cause the indulged young person to believe that one party doing most of the giving and the other most of the getting is OK.

Now the giver can feel resentful and the getter can feel entitled. So, it’s worth the parental effort to get the teenager to do her or his effort-giving part. In addition, this lesson bears on the capacity to build healthy relationships later on where both older parties contribute their share of necessary work.

Industry is the capacity to make oneself work, developing an ethic that empowers effort. Practicing the willingness to do more work is how you learn to act more grown up. That’s the tradeoff that parents can explain: “The older you grow, the more you have to do for yourself, and for your family while you live here. Growing up is not free of charge. Of course, once on your own, how much and how hard you work is up to you; but you’ll find that not much happens that you want unless you do. It takes developing the will to work."

As for education; it doesn’t lie. As one grows from elementary school to middle school to high school, there is more work to do. Study demands increase in older grades, just as they do while growing from dependent to independent life. With demands to assume more responsibility, self-management takes more work. “Life was simpler when I was younger!”

Parents Can Explain

So, when your adolescent questions the necessity of work, you might explain: “When it comes to leading your own life as you grow older, you are going to have a lot more work to do. Our job, while you are still living with us, is to get you in training to manage the increased demand. This will take self-discipline. We understand how doing unwanted tasks can feel unwelcome, but that is actually a very good time to make the effort. In doing so, you strengthen the will to make yourself get to work. Feel like it or not, as adults we have to do this every day.”

Finally, state this assurance: "While you have to earn growing freedom by taking more responsibility; our love for you requires no work from you because it is always a given."

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