Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids the Wrong Lesson About Hard Work

Last week, I was packing my family for a twelve-hour spring break car trip from Chicago to Atlanta. We had anticipated the trip for months. In Atlanta, my kids would reconnect with a cousin, I would see a childhood friend after seven years apart, and my wife would be recognized at a conference for the publication of her first textbook—a celebration of three years of painstaking work.

Days earlier, my daughter had spilled yogurt all over her car seat. I was in the kitchen, scrubbing at the seat with rags, when my oldest son remarked, “Dad, I don’t think you can get it clean.” I looked at him, gritted my jaw, and announced, “Buddy, if you work hard enough, you can do anything.”

I was running a high fever at the time.

In fact, I had been running a high fever for several days. I had the flu. And not a run-of-the-mill kind of bug—I was infected with a ferocious beast that had me aching and chilled and exhausted. My wife was sick, too. Yet, insisting hard work would win the day, I continued packing for our vacation.

Forty-eight hours later, I would be telling my son something entirely different…

What Hard Work Can Accomplish

I think work is a very good thing. In my experience, people are happiest when work is a part of their lives, particularly if the work feels rewarding and promotes a sense of dignity. And hard work is often the place we learn determination and perseverance.

But teaching your son, “If you work hard, you can do anything,” is a problem. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is. If you work too hard, you can do a lot of unhealthy things:

you can ignore your body and all of its needs,

you can run yourself right into the ground,

you can forget that work is good but play is sacred,

you can get obsessed with extraordinary things and forget all about lovely, ordinary things—like rest and laughter and wasting time,

and you can refuse to quit your plans even while a virus refuses to quit your body.

In a word, you can refuse to be limited. And in doing so, you can refuse to accept something fundamental about your humanity.

I don’t like to accept I’m limited because, somewhere along the way, I started to condition my worthiness upon being able to do it all. I started to believe my value was contingent upon doing everything for everyone, and being everything to everyone. I guess feeling like we are not enough on the inside compels us to prove we are more than enough on the outside.

One overworked day at a time.

What Giving Up Can Accomplish

Forty-eight hours after I told my son hard work could accomplish anything, my family and I sat next to a highway in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ten hours from home and two hours from Atlanta—two hours from a long-missed cousin, two hours from a childhood friend, and two hours from a dinner banquet honoring my wife.

My daughter’s car seat was clean, but our blood remained dirty with the virus. Our symptoms raged on unabated. We had pushed and worked our way to the edge of Atlanta—we had gas in the car, but our bodies were running on empty.

I could no longer deny my limitations—no amount of hard work was going to beat this bug. I couldn’t get my kids to their cousin. I couldn’t get to my friend. And I couldn’t get my wife to her banquet. It was time to turn around and go home.

My son couldn’t understand why we were “giving up.” He was angry. I couldn’t blame him. Just two days earlier I had told him a person can do anything if they work hard enough. So, I looked in the rearview mirror, and I told him I’d been wrong. I told him it wasn’t about giving up—it was about being human and honoring the reality of our limitations.

And then we turned the car around and headed for home—for a quiet house and a comfortable bed and rest and restoration and healing. We turned away from some extraordinary experiences and headed home for some very normal, very limited things.

The Blessing of Being Limited

It’s good—perhaps even holy—to be faced with our limitations and our finitude. We need to stare right into the conditions of worth we place upon ourselves and ask ourselves all over again: am I worthy, even when I’m broken and limited and so very, very human?

Because we are limited creatures. Microscopic bugs can level us, our bodies can break without warning, and our minds can betray us. We are limited in our ability to earn the love and approval of others. We have limited control of the world and of the future. We can’t slow time down and we can’t rewind it. While love itself is limitless, our ability to live lovingly is often woefully limited.

And yet.

There is always one thing within our power: to embrace ourselves, right in the midst of our limitations.

To rest in the truth of our worthiness.

To dwell in the peace of it.

To be restored by the reality of our sufficiency.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.