Years ago, my husband and I met a retired sociologist in Ontario who had studied groups of immigrants now in Canada. He told us, “In all my research, I have never seen an ethnic group that has thrived as much as the Dutch Canadians. In general, they have multigenerational nuclear families and success in their work. They are contributing to their communities, and they are content.” When I asked him how he explained their thriving, he said, “It’s from their Protestant work ethic; their dedication to God, family, and church; and the blessing of the Lord.”
What is the Protestant work ethic? Max Weber coined the term in his 1904 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He stated that since the Reformation, Protestants have lived out their faith by diligently working in the vocation God has assigned to them. Weber believed Protestants worked efficiently and lived with discipline and frugality in order to give evidence of their salvation. Protestants themselves, however, would say they work to glorify, thank, and obey God.
But the so-called “Protestant work ethic” goes back further than 1904, or even John Calvin and the Reformation. It is really the biblical work ethic, and it goes back to creation.
Our Enduring Mandate
In paradise, Adam and Eve tended the garden of Eden. After the fall, sweat and pain entered the story. But even though some of our work is now burdensome, God gives blessings, joy, and fulfillment also. The creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to replenish and subdue the earth, and to exercise dominion over the earth still holds (Genesis 1:28).
Throughout most of human history, parents and children worked hard simply to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over their heads. It’s the same in much of the world today. But in the West, we have a more comfortable lifestyle; we have technology and machines that do many of our everyday tasks.
So, does this mean that we and our children can take it easy? No, the biblical work ethic still applies. God designed us to follow his pattern in working six days a week and resting one (Exodus 20:8–11). He still calls us to do whatever our hand finds to do with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). He still says if we are able-bodied but don’t work, we shouldn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Teaching Our Children to Work
How do we as parents instill this biblical work ethic in our children? What might diligence look like in their lives? Let’s approach this task by answering the why, when, how, and what.
First, why do we teach our children to work diligently? Because they too will be called to fulfill the creation mandate, and we are assigned to train them. We have approximately eighteen years to prepare them for adult life. It’s a gradual process that requires patience, repetition, wisdom, and prayer. Our goal is to equip them to provide for themselves and their family, and to contribute to the well-being of their community by loving and serving their neighbors, all to God’s glory. Then they will experience the by-product of a peaceful conscience and a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Second, when do we start? Start very young with a few little tasks. Bless them such that they never remember a time that they did not work. Help them realize a big part of life is work, and that work is good. Fan the sense of excitement in very small children when they do what mommy and daddy do. So, involve them in the everyday tasks of running the household — running to get a diaper for mommy to change baby, picking up trash, loading and unloading the dishwasher. Buy toys that relate to work, like a toy lawn mower or kitchen. Ride that wave of excitement as it lasts, and then continue to require the work even when it’s not as fun.
That’s when they learn another lesson — perseverance. Remember, if they are able to toss their toys about like a tornado, then they are able to gather them into a bucket. Play is a huge part of childhood, and it’s valuable for learning about the world all around them, but between birth and adulthood, they learn to gradually decrease play-time and increase work-time. Sitting in front of a screen numbs them and stunts their mental growth, whereas creative play and work develop their minds.
Third, how do we accomplish this task? It’s not easy. Some children are naturally diligent, but most are inclined to resist at times. You can’t do it alone. Rely on God — find his wisdom in the Scriptures, especially in Proverbs, and pray for discernment and love. Pray for his guidance as you plan with your spouse. Decide what work is reasonable to expect from each child according to his or her age and ability. Set an example of diligence yourselves. Have the expectation firmly planted in your mind, “Our children will work,” and let your attitude and words convey this.
Also have a plan in place to deal with resistance when it happens. Implement natural consequences, such as, “If you don’t put your dirty clothes in the hamper, they won’t get washed.” Then carry through with the warning. Stay calm, firm, and positive. Discipline your children when they are young so that they learn self-discipline as they grow up. Persevere; you are in this for the long haul. Remember, hard-working children, like Rome, are not built in a day.
Finally, what are some practical ways to instill a biblical work ethic in our children? The word together comes to mind. We are a family; we live, eat, work, play, and worship together. We serve each other. Working together is great “together time.” We have our little ones alongside us when we do dishes, take care of the yard, and clean the house. We teach them as we go.
At first it takes more time, because they are learning. Don’t expect perfection, but do expect effort and gradual improvement. If and when our children show the smallest shadow of defiance or disobedience, deal with it immediately. This is foundational for teaching children to work. And it’s foundational for life itself.
Before long, the kids are contributing to the well-being of the family. When they are little, praise them and celebrate success, so they develop a positive attitude to work. As they grow older, continue to show age-appropriate affirmation and appreciation.
In Due Season
From my years of teaching and mothering, there are a handful of lessons and principles I would want to make sure our children learn. Many of these may take years to instill in them!
Teach them values as you teach them to work, such as honesty, purity, and humility (to name a few).
They need to take responsibility for their space and their stuff; tidiness and organization make life a lot less stressful.
Nurture perseverance so that they can approach a task involving multiple steps confidently, not getting overwhelmed.
Provide them with boring and repetitive tasks, because that’s just part of life.
Set goals. Picture the end product — a clean room, a repaired toaster, or a delicious meal.
Give them a variety of experiences in different subjects — mechanics, science, gardening, art — so they can learn life skills and find their talents. Teach them to love learning.
Instill confidence to overcome obstacles. Teach them that failure can be used for good when they learn from their mistakes. Encourage them by saying, “You can do this!” Celebrate successes.
Nurture excitement to start a new project or build something. Then make sure they finish.
Pay them for some of their work (except for the work expected of family). Then teach them how to tithe, save, and spend their money, so they understand, “No effort equals no pay. Extra effort equals extra pay.”
Provide the joy of service — of giving to others with no expectation of a reward, of helping someone in need.
As a final reminder, the work of salvation is one type of work that neither parents nor children can do. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ died for sinners like us, so that we can be saved. Pray for the Holy Spirit to work faith and repentance in all of our lives, either for the first time or afresh. Then we can truly enjoy our work. We will see it as the gift of God. We get great joy from glorifying him. And in due season, we and our children can enjoy the fruit of our labors and rest with peace in our hearts.