Once or twice a week I have the opportunity to spend a little time with my father. He’s now 75 years old which still places him on the young side of the average age for a male (78.6) but due to a debilitating sciatic nerve condition he has lost most of his mobility.
It saddens me to see him in such constant physical pain instead of enjoying the retirement that he worked for decades to prepare for.
During our weekly visit, he expressed a certain amount of guilt for not having the resources back then to do for us what parents of today do for their children.
"I wish your mom and I could have done more for you and our family", he confessed, "but it was all that we could do at the time".
I told him that I thought he was crazy and that I would not trade all the gold in the world for those rich experiences.
We reminisced nostalgically about the days when our entire family was still living under the same roof. Money in those days was always tight. Our family of seven lived in a small 1,200 square-foot, post-war tract home in a working-class neighborhood on the single salary of a local delivery driver (what would be a present day UPS or FedEx driver).
The other families in our neighborhood were not unlike ours. There were a few college educated professionals but mostly tradespeople, mechanics, secretaries, and grocery store clerks trying to raise young families.
The kids of the neighborhood attended public school and played semi-organized sports via the sponsorship of the Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, VFW, community churches and local merchants. We spent our long summer days building forts, exploring the canyons and gullies, and doing odd jobs for elderly neighbors in order to earn "movie money".
We were mostly unsupervised and relied on our good (or not so good) judgment, ethics and morals to do the right things in the absence of parental oversight.
Our parents and teachers taught us at an early age never to get into a unknown vehicle, never talk with strangers, that drugs and smoking were bad, save your money, don’t take things that didn’t belong to you, do your homework so one day you can go to college, and stick together.
The boys played "army" with little green soldiers, "invented" things with Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Legos, and Erector sets, or went to the park to play touch football, two-on-two basketball, or Nerf football (depending on the current sports season).
The girls had tea parties with their dolls, made cakes in their "Easy-bake-ovens", did crafts and home arts with their stay-at-home moms, and played hopscotch and four-square in their driveways.
On days when the weather didn’t allow us to go outside, we all stayed indoor playing board games like Parcheesi, Monopoly, Risk, Life, Clue, and Battleship. We made puzzles and played various card games. We learned about strategy, how to make change when we were the banker, and how to count, add, subtract, multiply and divide quickly. We discovered that when we compete there were sometimes winners and sometimes losers, and where playing for second place still made us keep going long after the winner was decided and every player didn’t get a trophy at the end of the season. Losing was simply a part of the game that caused us to work harder in order to win the next time.
Fighting and wrestling matches were common amongst my friends, siblings and neighbors. We fought our own battles and stood up for what we believed was right. Eventually this also taught us that fighting produced no real winners and that it just might be best to leave the fighting to someone else.
We took a city bus to the public library to borrow books to read, watched cartoons on TV on Saturday mornings, ate breakfast cereal made with high sugar content, learned to use the stove so we could cook (things like scrambled eggs - so we can make mom breakfast-in-bed on mother’s day and her birthday), how to peel potatoes, mow the lawn, make a bed with "hospital corners", and wash a car.
We didn’t know that we were considered "poor" by most standards of the day. All we knew was that we were mostly happy, that we had friends and neighbors that had about the same as we had, and that our parents worked hard to put a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on the table.
We never felt sorry for ourselves thinking about what we didn’t have. We didn’t sit around pining for someone to give us money, entertain us, drive us to our after-school and weekend activities, sell our fund-raising candy for us, and/or do our homework. If we needed or wanted something we took the initiative to make it happen. We found our own ways to make these things happen.
Today I had lunch with a colleague who was originally raised in Guangdong, China. He talked about the indirect result of China’s "one-child" policy. As he described it, the one child is coddled by six different adults - two parents and four grandparents (plus associated great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles).
According to him, today in China, the children are given anything they ask for, are growing increasingly lazy and have developed a full entitlement attitude. Whereas the parents and grandparents have worked extremely hard to provide a better life and living condition, their children have never known need. They are content to play Xbox video games, surf the Internet on their new model iPad, and shop at upscale department stores and malls.
He confided that one day, the Chinese people will one day be dependent upon these same children who have been given everything but have earned nothing. They have shown no aptitude, desire, and/or work ethic to continue the great economic progress that China has seen over the past two generations.
He is deeply worried.
Closer to home, we too need to be worried a bit.
We too have parents who are trying too hard to smooth out the bumpy road ahead for our children. We hire nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, personal trainers and coaches, and tutors. We seldom allow our kids to fail, fight, or play in the street...it’s simply just too dangerous. We place them into private schools with strict rules and high standards. Every participant gets a trophy at the end of the season so their fragile self-esteem is not broken. We buy them things to appease or bribe them (we call it motivating incentives...but it’s really a bribe).
We program them into organized year-round sports, dance lessons, music lessons, acting lessons, scouting, science camp, and travel abroad. We push them to learn math, science and computers before they can tie their own shoes.
These are our kids and we can’t possibly let them fail...the success or failure of our children is a direct reflection of us as parents.
The parents rationalize their behavior by saying that It’s a competitive world. Our children can’t possibly do it without our help and supervision. We’re just being the parents our parents weren’t.
That afternoon I thanked my father (and my mother in absentia) for raising me and my siblings to be independent doers and thinkers... for allowing us to learn the survival skills needed to somehow forge our own way...to learn how to fight our own fights... to stick up for ourselves...to take initiative...to be creative...to be bored...to do our own work and earn our own money...to create our own ideas...and to be self-reliant individuals.
I wonder sometimes if we are really helping our children with all that we give them today or are we really hurting them in the long run.
Our future is depending of those same children to one day lead us...I truly hope that they are up to the challenge.
Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we understand that our children are truly our future.