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Dan Liljenquist: Work ethic should be a top priority for children

Published: Thursday, April 11 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The term "work ethic" seems to have disappeared from common usage in our society.

Jack Smith, AP

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I grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as the seventh of 15 children. Second only to their faith (and in large measure because of their faith) my parents valued children. They graciously accepted every child they could bring into the family, including six boys, through adoption.

My parents' life's work was their family. By logistical necessity, my parents had to focus their efforts on teaching us the things that matter most. They taught us to love God, to serve others, to be involved in our community and to excel in everything we did. They also taught us to work — they instilled in us a "work ethic."

The term "work ethic" seems to have disappeared from common usage in our society. While children today seem to be busier than ever with school and extra-curricular activities, I worry that as parents we may be under-investing in a key character trait fundamental to long-term success — the determination to start, stick to, and finish tasks, especially when such tasks are difficult, unpleasant or both. I believe we can and must do better.

According to the dictionary, a work ethic is "a belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character." My parents were believers in work. From the earliest possible age, I had jobs to do at home, whether it was picking up the playroom, mowing the lawn or sweeping the garage. My parents also encouraged me to work outside the home. I had a paper route, moved sprinkler pipe in the potato fields, bussed tables and washed windows to earn money. Work was a large part of my life growing up.

I must admit I did not enjoy all the working. I hated pulling weeds most of all. When my family moved into farm country during my teenage years, my dad, a doctor who knew little of gardening, insisted on planting a half-acre sized garden behind our home. Each summer morning as he left for work, my dad would leave detailed work instructions, written on yellow legal-pad paper, taped to the refrigerator door. Without fail, one of the instructions read: weed two rows in the garden.

Each day, I would delay weeding the garden as long as possible. Eventually, I would drag myself out to the long rows of dirt and pick at the weeds, complaining aloud about my plight. My dad would come home, check my work, and provide feedback. Most of the time his feedback was accompanied by this poem by Douglas Malloch:

Bill Brown made a million, Bill Brown, think of that!

A boy, you remember, as poor as a rat.

Who hoed for the neighbors, did jobs by the day,

Well Bill's made a million, or near it, they say.

You can't understand it, well neither could I.

And then I remembered, and now I know why.

The bell might be ringing, the dinner horn blow,

But Bill always hoed to the end of the row.

My dad rarely scolded me. He worked with me. Eventually I learned to hoe to the end of the row — to work to a "Bill Brown standard."

I am a believer in the work ethic. Work strengthens character. Work disciplines action. Learning to work is a key to long-term success and happiness. As parents, helping our children develop a strong work ethic — to work to a "Bill Brown standard" — should be among our top parenting priorities. With all the other worthy activities that compete for our children's time, I hope we will make the time to teach them to work.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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