Man At Work

Playing to my strengths

red and white coca cola signage

I was not born with the natural ability to throw or catch a baseball, the coordination to ride a bicycle or with the dexterity to use power tools.  Acquiring those skills was a process of instruction, repetition and, in some cases hours in the front yard with my dad (and mom), until I was able to make an accurate throw or properly catch the ball.  However, there are some skills that can’t be taught through instruction and seem to seep into one’s core as if by osmosis (or through setting a good example).  For me and my siblings, that example was the importance of having a good work ethic.  Whether my parents did so intentionally or by circumstance, it certainly stuck.  

Back in the dark ages of the 1970s, two professional parents was not the norm but that should not diminish the huge contributions made by both parents.  My mother didn’t work outside the home (a very modern description for a stay at home parent) but I have distinct memories of her teaching in the evening and getting early morning calls for substitute teaching assignments.  Having started her career as an English teacher in the New York City public school system, she taught until the arrival of my older sister and, like many in her generation, went back to work full time when my younger brother was in school for a full day.  As a group, my friends and I recall the childhood pictures of us wearing striped pants and polyester shirts (“that was the style” is what I have heard for the last 30+ years).  While many of my contemporaries assuredly went to some of the finer stores to buy these fashionable items, my mother was often sitting at her sewing machine to make clothes or knitting us sweaters.  I’m sure part of this was out of necessity.  You see, we were a family of five with three kids attending Jewish Day School on a school principal’s salary and yet none of us felt deprived or really knew what we might be missing out on.

Meanwhile, my father moved up the ladder in the New York City public school system and eventually became an elementary school principal long before I can remember much else.  During this time, he also was the principal of an after-school Hebrew school.  I have very fond memories of occasionally tagging along on Sunday mornings – if only for the bagels and lox – and the invitations to go to the weekend retreats despite being several years younger than most participants.  In retrospect, these years were probably not especially comfortable financially but extremely rewarding in other ways from the lessons we learned to the experiences we gathered.

Come July 1st, we set out on our family adventures.  Our childhood is like a travel log of the National Park system with indelible memories stretching from Maine to Arizona and back.  While my friends were heading to sleepaway camps both fancy and rustic we were preparing for a serious road trip (our trusted dog Brutus included) complete with a carton of books, toys, and enough food to take us through many, many, many miles at a time.  With a camper in tow, we set out on the open road not knowing what we might find or see or do.  I have seen the beauty of Yellowstone and the Teton Mountains, and the vastness of the Grand Canyon, and the majesty of the Giant Sequoias, and the artistry of Mount Rushmore.  Interestingly, our ability to go on these trips year after year are now beyond most families’ financial resources with two working parents but we learned a great deal and more than just about our nation’s history.

We developed a serious work ethic.  We all had responsibilities before the fun and adventures could begin.  Camp sites had to set up, water had to be brought back, the car had to be unloaded and the dog had to be walked.  We didn’t always view it as work – it was just what we had to do.  I think I trace my own work ethic back to these days as a child.  Not just the work required to get through a summer of camping but also seeing the example my parents set for me and my siblings.  I often hear about how school professionals have it easy compared to those in industry.  This was not my childhood experience.  My dad often did not come home until after 5:30 or 6:00 just in time for dinner and then head out again for a Board meeting at our school or to one of the Hebrew high schools.  My mom was heading to PTA meetings or National Council of Jewish Women events or to teach a class in the evening. 

They worked hard and, whether we realized it or not at the time, it rubbed off on us and became core to who we are and what we believe in.  Work hard, have fun and set a good example for your children.  Deborah and I have tried to model this philosophy for our own children and teach them about it too.  Having a work ethic is not quite the same type of skill that can be acquired through instruction and repetition but a little discussion and encouragement along the way can’t hurt either.   Sometimes as parents we need to recognize that occasionally we might take things a little bit further than we had intended.  Where is the line between building a positive character trait and creating an unnecessary burden?  

 Jacob and Sophie see how hard we both work and the sacrifices we make for the things we want and need (our kids routinely hear the word “no” when a request comes our way).  They understand that Deborah often has extended business trips to the far flung corners of the country and beyond and that there are times I don’t make it home for dinner.  A few years ago, Sophie came to us requesting an iTouch which was not an unreasonable nor an outlandish request.  Our initial response was that she would be expected to contribute.  Her response was very telling.  “I paid for iPod and I paid for my computer.  Sometimes parents just buy things for their kids because that’s what they do”.  We had been schooled by our daughter who had learned the work ethic lesson and had to remind us that it is sometimes easy to overshoot your target.    

Will we continue to show them by example?  Absolutely.  Will we still have discussions with them along the way?  For sure.  We will also take pride in their accomplishments of jobs well done as I am sure my parents do with me and my siblings.