The Elbow-Grease Factor: How to Teach Your Children to Love Work


“It’s Saturday,” my mother would sing out at eight o’clock, and all of us children knew what she meant. In the winter we’d spend the morning cleaning house. In the summer, we’d arm ourselves with weeders and head for the front lawn, or grab hoes and shovels and get the weeds out of the tomatoes.

I hated weeding. Nothing galled me more as I was growing up than wasting an entire Saturday morning digging dandelions out of the front lawn, knowing that in a week there’d be more. But my parents always said, “We all share the work and we all share the play”—and they meant it.

And it’s funny—today I enjoy gardening, though not every aspect of it. But I learned that work precedes accomplishment, that the watermelons don’t grow unless I water them, that the dishes aren’t there for the next meal unless I wash them from the last, that clean clothes don’t magically appear in closets, that money doesn’t get deposited regularly in the bank unless I work first.

Not bad lessons to learn—and all over the Church, parents are trying to teach their children how to work and also how to enjoy it.

Teaching the Value of Work

“Work has two values,” says President Roy Agle of the Bay City Michigan Branch. “It has a cash value, and the value of a sense of accomplishment. And the children need to learn both.”

The cash value of work is important for children to learn. If they grow up in a family where the parents provide everything they need, and if the breadwinner works outside the home, they may have no concept that somebody actually labors to earn the money.

The George Parkhurst family of Orlando, Florida, started when the children were young by setting a price for several major jobs around the house. “Anyone who wants to vacuum the swimming pool gets a dollar,” Sister Parkhurst reports. “Anyone who wants to mow the front lawn gets a dollar, and anybody who mows the back lawn gets seventy-five cents. If they want to clean up half the garage they get so much, and if all the jobs have been done recently, we find other ways for them to earn small sums at home.”

This is, of course, in addition to jobs they do for free as sharing, functioning members of the family. “The housework is everybody’s job, and they do their assignments regularly.” But they also learn from a very early age that special treats or special purchases are made possible by their doing special work.

“And when they’re old enough,” Brother Parkhurst adds, “they can go to work for me and my partner in our business. It’s hard physical work—they work like adults and they eat like adults. They realize that at the end of the day they’ll get a paycheck—if they’ve worked. If they haven’t, they don’t get paid.”

An added benefit is that the children get to see exactly how their father earns the money that’s been providing food and shelter for them.

As the children get older, some parents encourage them to take on major responsibilities. The paper route is traditional, but many other jobs can be done.

The sons of President Agle raised pickling cucumbers on their large lot and sold them competitively to pickle processors in the area. “When the other farmers had a bad year, so did my boys,” President Agle recalls, “but there were several good years, too, and they made money literally, ‘by the sweat of their brow.’”

Rodney Bradshaw in Mesa, Arizona, was a schoolteacher—but, “We decided that town was no place for our children, and so we shopped in the paper and found four acres out here in what used to be out of town in 1950.” They built a small, two-bedroom house, with the intention of building a larger house later. The rest of the land was turned into a farm, and the children grew up doing chores as a normal part of their lives.

When the family moved to a different house as the city moved out to surround the farm, the entire family practically rebuilt the new place from the ground up. They dug and built a basement, added several bedrooms and a family room—and almost all the work was done by the family, including the interior finishing.

Did the children enjoy it? “Oh, they got very tired, of course!” But work is in their blood—and not just because they were forced to work. Brother Bradshaw says, “I feel very strongly that you can’t tell a child, ‘You go do this,’ and then sit and watch him do it. I worked right along with them.”

Building the Family with Work

Just north of Detroit, Michigan, the Gearig family lives on a fairly large plot of ground, with trees, lots of lawn, and a shed in the back yard. That shed means a lot to them, they call it their “President Kimball shed.”

“A couple of years ago, when President Kimball told us we should fix our homesteads up and either repair or tear down our old sheds,” Brother Gearig recalls, “we couldn’t decide whether to tear down our shed or not.” They postponed the decision by painting the entire house, fixing up the porch, and painting the garage. “We painted the garage in the summer of ’76, and Steve, age eleven, and Elizabeth, age nine, did most of the painting.”

And then they decided that the shed would stay—but fixed up. “We used to joke that once we had the shed finished, President Kimball could come and look at it and know that we had done the things he asked us to do—but we really couldn’t expect him to come before then.”

The shed was a mess—but they fixed it up in record time. Everyone in the family worked on renovation, repair, and painting. “It was kind of hard work painting the garage because it was cinderblock, a rough surface that really soaks up the paint. I remember that the little ones wanted to help, so we let them paint around the bottom, where they could reach. I was really surprised—they kept on working through that whole day, and it was a hot day!”

Now the family talks with delight and accomplishment of what they did to make their beautiful old home look as good as it did when it was built.

Many parents say that if we all share the work, then we can all share the play. But some find out that when the family shares the work, the work often becomes play.

The Hollon family of Half Moon Bay, California, discovered that principle when they took on the responsibility of a crop of New Zealand spinach at the local welfare farm. And although the rest of the Church members helped readily during planting and harvest, the Hollons used the regular chores as a chance to work together as a family.

“We went to the farm nearly every night with Dad and packed spinach and put it in the cooler and boxed it,” Sister Hollon recalls. “The boys learned to drive the tractor and the Caterpillar—in fact, so did I!”

And Brother Hollon adds, “It was a tremendous experience. We’ve had good experiences in family home evening, but working together on the welfare farm was a great experience for our family to have—loving one another through just working together and learning to respect each other’s abilities. We found that even the youngest ones could handle responsibilities we wouldn’t have thought possible.”

What about in the suburbs, where yards are small and heavy farmwork isn’t really possible?

The Irwins of Detroit, Michigan, still got some of the good results of family farmwork by giving each of their children his or her own tomato plant. “I paid each of them a nickel a tomato,” says Bishop Irwin. “It probably would have been cheaper just to buy them in the store, but they learned the connection between work and earnings. They did a reasonably good job of watering them and took quite a bit of pride in picking those tomatoes.”

And of course, housework goes on whether the family lives in a city apartment, a suburban home, or a country farmhouse. Most Latter-day Saint families expect the children to do a fair share of work around the household; and with large families, that’s not just a teaching device—it’s a necessity.

The Wayne M. Hancock family of Midland, Michigan, was serious about household chores, and sometimes the children thought it wasn’t right. “One of our daughters thought she was very overworked, because she compared herself to friends who did absolutely nothing,” Sister Hancock says. “They were not required to come home at a certain time at night, not required to babysit for the family, they didn’t have to do dishes, they didn’t have to make beds—and our daughter felt that she was very overworked because we made her do these things.”

But the peer pressure faded, eventually. “We received a letter from her this fall, and she thanked us for teaching her how to work.”

How are the chores arranged? Every family has its own method, it seems. In some families, the chores are linked with allowances. In other families, an allowance is either not given, or not linked to chores—but the chores must still go on.

Brother and Sister Hancock chose the latter route: “We don’t give them an allowance for things they do at home. They have their portion of the lawn to mow, the trees to take care of, plus their assignments in the home doing housework,” Brother Hancock says. “We tell them that this is part of their citizenship responsibility—that just as father provides money for the house and food and clothing and transportation, and mother heads up the housework and cooks meals, and so on, the children also have to work to keep things running.”

The Carlos Bowman family, also of Midland, mixes the methods, requiring a certain minimum of chores, and then paying the children for those jobs that they might otherwise hire someone to do, like mowing lawns and babysitting. “And we don’t stand for any nonsense like ‘That’s a girl’s job, that’s what girls are supposed to do.’ We just answer them, ‘Well, you eat, too—and as long as you dirty the dishes, you can help to wash them!’ And the girls do their share in the yard, too,” Brother Bowman says.

Teaching the Proper Use of Money

“If we gave them money whenever they asked for it, they would think that money comes from asking, not from working,” says Sherwood Smith of Orlando, Florida. “We still buy their clothing, but their allowance is very small. It’s enough for little children—but the teenagers soon learn that if they want to buy records, CB radios, movie tickets, or stereo equipment, they’re going to have to earn them. And they did!”

The Hancocks follow a similar procedure, though at times they helped. Once when the boys were in Scouting they wanted an expensive down-filled sleeping bag. Sister Hancock recalls, “We told them, ‘All right, we’ll give you twenty dollars toward it for Christmas, and you pay for the rest of it.’ And when they wanted ten-speed bicycles for their paper routes, we said, ‘Fine, if you pay for them.’

“We felt that this was a luxury. We give them their lunch money and their clothing, but children can ask for a lot of things. They think they need a lot of things to be happy—but if they have to pay for those things themselves, they quickly learn to judge how important they really are to them. They learn how much things cost, not just in money, but in time and effort.”

Many parents counsel their children closely on how to use their money. Some have strict savings programs—one family insists that half of all income go into a savings account toward a mission. Other parents guide their children in “safe” investments.

The Pixtons of Albuquerque, New Mexico, worked out a system of priorities. “Number one is ten percent for tithing. Then twenty-five percent goes into the bank toward missions for the boys and toward either missions or college for the girls. We hope that as they get older the percentage going into savings will increase—but that is the minimum we have set.”

Learning a Trade

College and vocational schools can train young people for many professions and trades—but many jobs that can earn a young person money and teach the value of work can only be learned by experience. It’s ironic, but often the only way you can get experience is to do the job, while you can’t get a job until you have experience.

Bishop Loren Chapman of Oakton, Virginia, found a solution.

“I went to get my lawn mower repaired by an old gentleman who had retired from the business because of arthritis. He still did some work though, and his price was good, so I asked him if he’d repair my mower. ‘No,’ he told me. ‘You do it.’

“Well, I was in my suit, and besides, I didn’t know how. But he patiently explained to me what I should do; and using a newspaper as an apron, I repaired it under his guidance. It occurred to me to ask him, ‘Why don’t you let my son come down here and work with you and just teach him how to handle tools and do a few things?’”

“He answered, ‘I don’t want any kids around here.’

“So I said, ‘Don’t pay him. I don’t even want you to give him a lunch. Just let him hang around and learn how to work. I grew up on a farm and I know a little about mechanical things, but not much—and here’s my boy growing up in the city and he won’t even learn the difference between a crescent wrench and a pair of pliers!’”

The old repairman consented, and the Chapmans’ son began working with him. “If our boy had been lazy, of course, it wouldn’t have worked, but the man taught him very carefully, so that before too long our son was actually quite helpful. And by the end of the summer, he was getting half of the labor costs of everything he did.”

The next summer the boy tried to get a job at a regular mower repair shop, and again was told, “I don’t want any kids around here. They won’t do anything.” But the manager at last consented to let him work for a week without pay—and by the next Friday he had a job paying fifty dollars a week. “The boy loved it. At fourteen he had stepped into the adult world and proved his worth. He never rebelled. None of our children have.”

And because this worked so well, another son spent a summer working without pay in an automobile transmission shop, and four daughters worked a free summer in a doctor’s office as receptionists, practicing secretarial skills learned in high school, and getting training as doctors’ assistants. “They worked eight hours a day as dependably as if they were getting paid. They found that their ‘employers’ would bend over backward to help a young person who really wanted to learn to work. And after that, they’ve never had any trouble at all getting good, fairly high-paying jobs—because they were skilled.”

The Chapmans still gave their children an allowance—but it went straight into the bank as a mission and college account from which no withdrawals could be made. Yet their children were excited to watch the balance grow, to watch interest being paid. Soon they were saving their earned money as well.

Family home evenings are occasionally devoted to going over the children’s financial records. They all see the progress everyone is making, and “these young people get a tremendous thrill from seeing their bank accounts climbing right on up. Their money is never thrown away on quick purchases, never wasted at all.”

In fact, those bank accounts grew so large through the children’s own earnings that now they have become a family investment company. The family has invested in the construction of several houses and sold them at a considerable profit—using the money from savings accounts started when the children were very young. “I guess we’ve made our children into capitalists,” says Sister Chapman, laughing. “But they understand how they have to work for money—and how they can make money work for them.”

Not every family work project is going to be profitable in terms of cash, of course—but as families work together they become closer; then children learn the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done, and they learn the true cost of paying their own way in the world.

Not bad results for a little elbow grease!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Orson Scott Card, a freelance writer, serves as Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Twenty-first Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake.