Let’s talk about work ethic. As I was picking up my kids’ clothing off of the floor the other day, I thought back to my own childhood. I was required to keep my room clean. I had chores from a pretty young age, and I lived in constant awareness of the consequences of not meeting my responsibilities: extra chores, spankings, being grounded, and various other forms of parental torture. Comparing that to the current state of affairs in my household, I can see I fall pretty far across the border of Camp Parental Leniency. That got me thinking about my work ethic and how my childhood influenced the way my career has progressed. It also got me thinking about how to instill a work ethic and a sense of responsibility in my own kids.
First off, I’m pretty sure that my father’s tactics of berating, fear-mongering and demonstrating general disgust at the results of whatever job I was doing around the house were factors in my more laid-back approach to parenting. I walked around my house for much of my childhood trying to avoid my father’s demoralizing stares, knowing (and not liking) the odds I’d be found worthy. Now that I am an adult, I can reasonably hypothesize that a lot of this is generational. His father, I’m sure, expected so much more out of him that he expected of me. His dad built his own house from scratch, using only the labor of his four sons.
My dad was a guy who could rebuild an engine by age 14, who lived alone in a separate cabin on his parent’s property from the same age, and who put himself through college with the money he earned while in high school. As an adult, he rebuilt our entire house room by room with his hands, never once brought a vehicle he owned to a repair shop, and as icing on the cake, built an airplane in our garage that he raced professionally.
By comparison, my childhood was fairly easy. But when I talk to old friends from those days, they always talk about “Iron Mike” (my older sister’s nickname for my dad) and their reluctance to come over to my house on the weekends for fear of being pressed into service re-shingling the roof or trimming the trees. And while it is true that I put in a lot more hours doing chores than any of my friends, it just seemed like the norm to me.
The worst part by far was “the inspection.” This is when my father would examine and critique the job I had just completed. These moments were torturous, because the job was never good enough for him, and the amount of shame he could induce was legendary in my family. Once when my sister did a subpar job mowing the lawn, her punishment was to mow the lawn every day that week. By midweek, I thought I could detect an air of madness in her actions: she had decided to mow it east to west first, then north to south, to make sure she didn’t miss a single blade and incur his wrath. When he found a planter that had weeds in it, I knew he was going to come up with a new chore that would take me at least until sunset, to make sure I learned my lesson. But sadly, the lesson seemed to be, “No matter what, you will be found wanting.”
I don’t want to make it sound like I was up at 4 a.m. milking cows and harvesting grain – I had a pretty great childhood. But I also scraped, sanded, and repainted our house every afternoon after high school for a month. We never had a gardener (I can imagine my father reading this right now and cringing at the thought) so my sister and I were responsible for all of the yard maintenance. I washed and waxed the cars, and did other household chores that I honestly believe helped me in so many ways as an adult. (The shame part, not so much).
So as a parent, I struggle with this. I want my kids to know how to do a good job, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing a task all the way through. But I also don’t want to repeat the emotional beating I took from my father, whose voice certainly lives inside of me, all too ready to speak up and make itself heard. To this day I still dread taking on a task like building a fence, installing shelving, or building a dresser from Ikea, afraid that voice will make the whole experience one of self-flagellation. I certainly don’t want to pass that voice along to my children.
But I can honestly say I owe a great debt of gratitude to my father for teaching me how to work. Now, as a middle aged man, I can forgive his inability to deliver that message in a way that helped my self-esteem. When you become a parent, you realize quickly how limited your toolbox is, and my father was no exception. But what he did do was teach me that an honest day’s work is a currency that will always have value in our society, and it will lead to relationships with people of quality and character. I may be lazy in my own estimation, but I am considered by my peers to be a hard working, no-excuses sort of person, and I am proud of that. My dad gave me that. Now it’s my job to figure out how to give that gift to my kids, and maybe improve the wrapping just a bit.
Judy Greer said something in our conversation that almost made me tear up when I heard it. She described her dad simply, as love. “My dad is just love. He just loved me, no matter what the situation.” And as she said this, I realized I was sitting across from an extremely successful, balanced, happy human being who seems to have a work ethic that rivals an ant colony. Is it possible that all I have to do is love my kids, and the rest will work itself out? Am I working too hard? Worrying too much? I guess I will always do that. But after spending an hour with this talented, warm, open, present woman, I have high hopes that maybe all you need is love, after all.