Work of Purpose, Purpose of Work

Working Together by Jennifer Miller

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.

– Theodore Roosevelt

As we move into the school year, the subject of work seems to be front and center. Kids are focused on learning tasks during the day and engaged in homework in the evenings. Full-time working parents face job challenges year-round but perhaps more intensively now as for some, the fiscal year ends and a new one begins. And for those part-time working parents or those with more flexible schedules such as mine, they may take time in the summer to spend with their children and now are either back to work or more engaged in it. We, as parents, may also try to engage our children in contributing to our household by doing chores. Because work plays a significant role in our daily lives, it’s worth exploring the question, what are we teaching our children about the purpose of work in our lives?

I asked a few adults how they defined work, one a full-time parent and the other a full-time employee and parent. Both defined work similarly as “the way we make money and contribute to family security.” And jobs that offer financial security are determined by employers who are looking for hard workers. In a survey of 150 American managers,
                               nearly 60% of the respondents ranked work ethic as the most important
                               factor when hiring an administrative employee, assuming the candidate
                               had the basic skills necessary to perform the job. Work ethic was ranked
                               higher than other employee characteristics such as intelligence (23%),
                               enthusiasm (12%), and education (4%). 1

But in addition to hearing parents talk about their jobs, children develop their ideas and values about work with unpaid experiences in their home and community. Caring for children, maintaining a household and home (cooking, cleaning and repairing breakdowns) and contributing to the community whether its making dinner for a sick neighbor, voting on leaders and issues or raising funds for your children’s school. Yet, commonly families struggle with getting children to do household chores. Homework can also be a time of conflict. Parents use charts, praises, rewards and punishments to try and get their participation and cooperation sometimes resulting in power struggles. And why? Maybe, in part, it has to do with how we view and are teaching our children about the role of work.

We can learn from other cultures. In a Mayan Village, for example, in remote Yucatan, Mexico, parents are working all day long in their respective roles – men in the fields and women in the household preparing food, washing clothing, caring for livestock and cleaning. Children as young as they are capable begin participating alongside their parents. Artin Goncu who studied their daily habits wrote about an eighteen month old child who threw corn to the chickens while her Mom hand-washed clothing and her sister swept out the dirt floors of their stick-woven house. Her sister “facilitated her accomplishing the chore by providing Mari (the 18-month old) with the corn, but she did not bribe or praise her for doing the chore – her compliance was assumed and it was forthcoming.” 2

Perhaps an expanded view of what work means could benefit children’s participation, engagement and motivation with work. If kids hear adults regularly complaining about work as drudgery, they bring that view with them to their work experiences as well. If parents moan when it’s homework time, kids will certainly bring a moan to the tasks as well. Research on motivation shows that rewards, excessive and general praise and punishment not only do not motivate children toward the actions we want them to take but also can hurt their motivation to try. 3

The following is an expanded definition of work with ideas of how we might teach our children to engage in it.

The purpose work is:

…to give the best of who we are. We take tremendous pride in our children’s accomplishments and celebrate their unique talents. Work can be a vehicle for expressing who we are and how we best contribute ourselves to the world. A sense of vocation is not solely connected to particularly religious affiliations but can be used as a way to describe how a person’s passions and gifts can benefit others through their work.

Engaging kids:
Kids are constantly in the process of defining and redefining their identity as they grow and change. They are asking the question, “Why am I unique? In what will I be able to demonstrate competence?” And in that search, you can listen openly and encourage as a good coach might. Coaches observe and watch for strengths and articulate them specifically so that they can be built upon. They offer practice opportunities so that kids can progress in their competence. And they coach on limitations and weaknesses by acknowledging them and asking good questions to prompt thinking about how they can best work toward their goals.

…a part of being in a family. As in the Mayan household, children are highly capable of contributing alongside family members to maintain the daily requirements of a household. Responsibilities can be viewed as a regular expectation of being in a family. Though we parents should not shoulder the burden ourselves, working together as a family to organize, clean, fix and maintain is a way that all family members show caring for our environment. And certainly every home culture is different and must find what works best for them.

Engaging kIds:
In our home, we don’t label “chores” or keep lists of responsibilities. But we do work together and it’s part of our daily and weekly routines. When E seems capable of learning to take on a new responsibility, I model it and work with him to learn how to do it no matter how simple (learn more about interactive modeling). He sets the table and sweeps the floor. And I do my own work of preparing dinner or dusting and holding the dust pan alongside him. We turn on music at times and enjoy working together. The only reward is the connectedness we feel as we care for our home together. I will remind in kind ways but gently and with full confidence that he will follow through. I do not need to nag, yell, punish or bribe because it’s how we’ve decided to be as a family.

…to contribute to others and/or the environment. Humans in general are intrinsically motivated by three basic psychological needs: autonomy, belonging and competence (ABCs). 4 Work can serve to fulfill those needs by giving an individual the opportunity to significantly contribute to the betterment of other peoples’ lives.

Engaging kids:
Kids are seeking out ways to fulfill these essential ABC needs too. Sometimes they make poor choices in an effort to satisfy their sense of autonomy for example. Give them chances to show their competence in making significant contributions to others in the family. Kids can take great pride in preparing a meal with a parent or washing the family car together but they need support from an adult to begin it.

…to advance our sense of meaning and purpose. At some point, all work is difficult. If we feel that our work connects us to meaning and a sense of purpose, we can get through the most challenging obstacles. This is what sustains our motivation over the long haul. Certainly our role as parents may be one of the most meaningful roles we play and the work of parenting, though incredibly difficult at times, is steeped in meaning and it sustains us.

Engaging kids:
When discussing work at the dinner table or on a road trip, articulate your values and sense of purpose and meaning related to work. How do you uniquely contribute in your work? How does it give you a sense of meaning and purpose? Does it connect you with a bigger community than you might be engaged in without it? How have you learned about people in that community in your area or around the world?

…to create a sustainable livelihood for ourselves and our families.
And of course, creating a sustainable livelihood for ourselves and our families is critical to our safety and security. It can significantly influence our experiences and how we live our daily lives. Helping children understand the value of the work we do and why we get paid for it helps them begin to wonder and ask questions about what we do all day.

Engaging kids:
So much work and communication takes place online that the work that used to be highly visible and understandable by children is much more hidden and complex. Try making the hidden apparent by looking for ways to show your children evidence of what you do. In addition to finished products, kids need to hear about the process, the people involved and the struggles along the way. Also expressing gratefulness for our work and the life that it helps sustain gives children an understanding of why they too should be grateful for the hard work you do.

…to further our learning and development.
Kids are keenly aware of their own growth and development since it often makes them uncomfortable and at times, frustrated. They are actively working on developmental milestones and, though not as visible, so are we. Parents are so often in the director’s chair that we forget or don’t want to admit that we are learning all of the time too. Work provides a context for continual development whether its working collaboratively with others or managing a team.

Engaging kids:
Discuss and talk about your own learning goals. How is work challenging you to develop? How are you accepting that challenge? What supports are you seeking? What steps are you taking to persist toward larger goals? We want our children to persist toward their learning goals. Hearing about yours in your own career helps provide a specific model for them.

If we want our children to thrive not merely survive, we need to prepare them with the attitudes and experiences that will motivate them to engage in work that makes a significant contribution. Our knowledge economy requires creative, critical thinkers, collaborators and innovators. Thinking about how we influence our children’s perceptions and involvement with work now can significantly impact their participation in family responsibilities today and their to ability to shape their future success.


1. Miller, M.J., Woehr, D.J., & Hudspeth, N. (2001). The Meaning and Measurement of Work Ethic: Construction and Initial Validation of a Multidimensional Inventory. Journal of Vocational Behavior 59, 1-39.

2. Goncu, A. (1999). Children’s Engagement in the World; Sociocultural Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

3. Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. NY, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

4. Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54-67.

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