Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

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Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!

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Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.

Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know it is important to set limits on their children and to be consistent in enforcing those limits. Despite this, a good many parents don’t have the strength of will to withstand the repeated pleading of their kids, or the energy to do so.

If your child wants you to buy him a candy bar or a toy while you are in the store, many parents believe it is simply easier to give in than to listen to the endless entreaties of their offspring.

In some cases it can be too exhausting or overwhelming to have to deal with a persistent child, in other instances the parent might fear losing the child’s affection if the desired treat isn’t forthcoming, and in still other situations the parent feels guilty if he or she deprives the youngster of something.

For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I always tell parents before they intend to change their style from one that inconsistently reinforces their child’s misbehavior, they have to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to be prepared for what comes next.

And what comes next is something pretty powerful.

Its called an “extinction burst.”

First, what is “extinction?” Extinction occurs when a behavior that has been previously “reinforced” (some would use the word “rewarded”), no longer receives reinforcement. Eventually, the organism (animal or person) will stop performing the behavior. Put differently, the undesirable behavior is “extinguished.”

Take, for example, a laboratory rat. You can teach these creatures to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. Rats are good at this. But, if you no longer give the rat food pellets for pressing the bar, the critter will eventually stop doing the bar press. But there is a catch here and it relates to the word eventually. And the catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”

Let us assume your child, like the lab rat, has learned something about how you deliver reinforcers. The reinforcer could be the aforementioned candy bar or toy; it could be money; it could be your attention; it could be staying home from school; it could be a lot of things.

And, let’s further assume that you no  longer want the child to keep pestering you for whatever it is that he wants. Now, remember he hasn’t gotten what he wanted every time, but often enough to learn to be persistent and keep at it until you “break” under the assault.

The “extinction burst” consists of the young-one doing even more of the behavior you want to eliminate at the point you stop reinforcing him.

That might mean he will be louder, or pursue you longer, or repeat more often whatever has worked before. It can go on for a very long time until, finally, the child learns the lesson you want to teach him; in other words, learns he will no longer receive what he wants for his inappropriate actions.

But if you finally do break down and reinforce the child with what he wants during the “extinction burst,” he will have learned an awful truth: “Well, maybe I just have to do this behavior longer or more or louder in order to get what I want.” Indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be able to think or say this to himself.

Even laboratory rats operate according to the same rules of learning, and no one I know has had a very deep conversation with a rat lately.

At least, not the four-legged kind.

Parents sometimes tell therapists they have tried to be consistent and it failed. In other words, that the science regarding “extinction” and setting limits is inaccurate.

But what has really happened in this kind of case is the parent wasn’t ready to deal with the extinction burst. Their inability to tolerate the “burst” of seemingly relentless pestering or complaining eventually led them to reinforce the child once again for the undesirable behavior; and, in so doing, made it harder to extinguish the behavior than when they started.

Had the mom or dad only be able to stay-the-course and resist the child a bit longer, the “extinction burst” would have ended.

The moral of the story is to prepare yourself before changing your parenting-style in an effort to become more consistent. If you aren’t absolutely sure you have the organization, energy, strength, patience, and self-confidence to withstand the “extinction burst,” don’t even try. You will only make things worse.

And don’t expect your child to really believe you when you say “this is the last time I will let you do this” while you once again reinforce troublesome behavior.

Talk is cheap and, like those same lab rats who can’t understand your language, your child will pay attention to what you do and not what you say.

But, if you do have the requisite qualities that any good parent needs and you are fully prepared to hold your ground with your child, you might be quite pleased at how you have reasserted yourself and gotten control over the home situation.

To do that, the earlier you start in your child’s life, the better.

You may be interested in the following post on the topic of consistency: What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines.

The photo of an Albino Rat was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines

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Do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

It’s not a silly question.

The two machines are rather alike. Both require you to insert some money. Both then demand that you engage the machine, set it in motion. In the case of the candy machine, you press a button or pull a lever to make your choice. The slot machine waits for your follow-through on its lever or “arm,” hence the name, “one-armed bandit.”

That is where the similarity ends and the answer to the question becomes essential: do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

The reason is as simple as it is important. The candy machine is dependable, reliable, and consistent. Every time you insert your coins and make  the selection, it provides you with the item you have chosen. If, by chance, it should not, you would quickly stop inserting coins because your knowledge and experience tell you that no matter how many more coins you deposit, the machine will not do what you want. It is broken.

The slot machine, however,  is another story. Your knowledge and experience tell you that the machine’s failure to provide you with winnings on one occasion doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be a winner the next time, or the time after that. It might take you a very long period of failure and much expenditure of hard-earned silver dollars before you would come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. The machine, when its working correctly delivers winnings on an intermittent (or inconsistent) reinforcement schedule.

Getting the picture? If your children see you as consistent and reliable (like the candy machine) in responding to their requests and their pleadings, they will know that asking for what they want more than once will do them no good: the answer will be the same on the 10th request as it is on the first. And once they have learned this, they will make very few additional requests of you beyond the first one.

But if they see you as similar to the slot machine, boy are you in trouble! They will keep at you, over and over, because they know that one failure at winning doesn’t mean the game is lost. Perhaps the second try will work, or the fifth, or the fiftieth. They will know you better than you know yourself. Simply put, they will know that they have a good chance of wearing you down so that they can have the toy, the TV show, the attention, or the food they want; they will know that the punishment you are trying to enforce also can be changed, maybe not by pleading their case only once, but by repeated appeals to you. Your goose will be cooked.

Kids, of course, have more energy for this sort of “back and forth” than most parents do, so time is not on your side. And the longer they have experienced your inconsistency, the longer it will take for them to “unlearn” what you have taught them about yourself.

The message is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Do what you say that you will do. It will easier on you and better for your children. But before you get started, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”

What is that, you say? I’ll cover that topic in my next blog.

The above image is a Slot Machine by Jeff Kubina from the milky way galaxy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

To Wait, or Not to Wait: That is the Question

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I was taught a valuable lesson by a bunch of inner-city kids when I was their 20-year-old summer camp counselor. The lesson was about when and whether to take action; and when and whether to do nothing and wait. But let me tell you the story…

The job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard and MIT. Although I was attending the U of Illinois, my friend Rich Adelstein was then involved in something called the “MIT Science Camp.” I never really found out what science had to do with it, because it wasn’t much different from any other summer camp, but for a few things having nothing to do with science. First, of course, it was at MIT, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning; a place where only the elite young minds already proficient in science were allowed to matriculate. And because of that, it was not an “outdoor” oriented summer camp, although we did do the usual things like playing baseball. But perhaps the most important distinction between this summer camp and most of those you might have heard about or attended, was the fact that it was for underprivileged kids from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were in the 12 to 15-year-old range. Some were shy, some were petty criminals, some were learning disabled, some were angry, and some were lost. But, it was thought that all of them might still benefit from the camp experience.

The counselors were all about my age, and all of them were MIT undergraduates with two exceptions: myself and a Harvard student. The kids were recommended by their schools. The project was funded by money then available as part of the “Great Society” vision of LBJ, otherwise known as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The camp itself was supervised by a psychiatrist, Dr. Warren Brody. The year was 1967.

Many of the activities of my group of six kids were done in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff was a swell fellow, smart and easy to get along with, and we worked well together. We had money for some outings with the boys (all the kids in the camp were male) and even took them on a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard and another excursion to New York City, where we watched the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. As I said, we played some baseball and also put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. It was “Twelve Angry Men.” We had just enough players, and these kids were thereby exposed to performance. A fun summer was had by all.

On the day in question Geoff had a morning dentist appointment, so I was in charge of both of our groups. Depending on the day, not all the kids would necessarily be there. I imagine on this particular day, there were probably 10 of them present.

I was walking with the kids through Building 7 when one of the older ones quickly instructed the others to run in different directions. We had come to a four-way intersection, so there were four possible flight paths down which each kid could escape. In a flash they were gone. As I stood at the intersection and looked in each direction not one was to be seen.

Remember, I was 20 years old and in charge of these lives. Their safety was my responsibility. But what was I to do? Even though I was rattled, I was still smart enough to know that any direction I chose would, at best, avail me the possibility of finding only two or three or four kids. For the life of me, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Not because I thought that was a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of any good solution.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I had stumbled upon precisely the right course: inaction. In fact, it was the only solution. If I had started running down any one of the corridors, I’d probably still be running. But because I didn’t, the kids found that the “chase” they’d hoped for hadn’t materialized, and they weren’t having any fun. In the space of 10 minutes they were all back where they started and we proceeded on to our appointed destination.

Sometimes life is like that. If you stop chasing a thing or a person, it stops running away from you. You can drive people away in your pursuit, be it romantic or angry.

Slow down. Be patient. See if you can live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Wait, wait, wait and see… Take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can actually make things worse. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Sometimes inaction is better — much better — than action.

A lot of things in life, like those kids, are like boomerangs — they come back to you.

At least, they sometimes have for me.

The top image is called Hesitation by Alfred Garth Jones, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents: Part I

A 15-year-old treated by me many years ago is a good example of one of the things that parents need to provide their children.

I’ll call him Ike (not his real name), a slender, silly kid with sandy hair. His family was middle class, hard working, and honest. Unfortunately, Ike lacked the latter two qualities. He was a minor league juvenile delinquent, prone to shop lifting, cutting classes, curfew violations, and occasional drug use. Ike was a poor student thanks to a lack of effort,  an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder condition that featured notable impulsivity, and the unfortunate fact that he wasn’t very bright. This teenager treated school as  diversion from his major life tasks of having fun and causing trouble. He rarely thought of the long term consequences of his behavior, instead choosing to do whatever felt right in the moment and whatever action seemed likely to produce some immediate payoff, the future be damned. Outpatient therapy had failed to make a dent in any of this, so his parents ultimately brought him in for whatever a psychiatric hospital could do to redirect Ike’s life and get some control over things.

Years ago it was often possible to keep a teenager in the hospital for several weeks or months if he needed it. Insurance policies were different and more generous then. And so, given the total control over someone’s life that a psychiatric adolescent treatment unit provided, you could produce changes in some very rebellious, out of control kids. Ike was like that. Eventually he figured out that the only way to get out of the hospital was to conform his behavior to the required standard.

While his parents participated in family therapy during his hospital stay, they remained uncomfortable with the job of setting limits on Ike. Neither one was very secure or self-confident and Ike fueled that insecurity by his behavior. Both parents were prone to feeling guilty when they punished him because of their own unresolved childhood issues, and Ike knew how to “play” them and get them to back off of threats and attempted punishments. These adults needed their son’s approval and good will too much for his, and their, good. Ike was running the show before his hospitalization. He knew it, they knew it, and his “will” was stronger than their wills were. If he complained and pleaded long enough, one or the other parent would typically break down and give him what he wanted. Despite the fact that family therapy hadn’t succeeded with the parents, Ike ultimately behaved himself in the hospital and had to be discharged even if his parents didn’t seem to have a better handle on how to deal with him in the real world. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As often happens after an adolescent is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, Ike and his folks went through a honeymoon period. But after a couple of months, he resumed his misbehavior and things weren’t much different from the way they had been the moment that Ike had first stepped into the hospital. So it was on the first day of his second stint in confinement (yes, his parents took him back and readmitted him), that I recall having the following conversation with Ike:

GS: “So, Ike, how does it feel to know that you can pretty much do anything you want when you are at home? How does it feel to know that your parents really can’t control you?”

Ike: “Terrific!” (Said with a big smile).

Silence ensued. I was quiet and just sat there with Ike for perhaps 30 seconds. Then, Ike spoke again and surprised me.

Ike: “And scary.”

This was the truth of it. Even Ike, who was one of the least thoughtful and least self aware patients I’ve ever treated, realized that if he could get away with anything he wanted, that wasn’t a good thing. Even Ike knew that if he was driving the bus, the bus was in trouble. Even Ike knew that he needed someone to rein him in, to set a good example, to steer him in the right direction, and to prevent him from doing some of the things he would do impulsively, recklessly, and thoughtlessly.

What then do children need? Parents with the will power, strength, consistency, motivation, intelligence, resilience, and the self confidence to set and stick to limits, take charge, and make sure that the combination of a child’s poor judgment and impulsive or rebellious behavior doesn’t rule the day. Ike was the problem, but without his parents getting a grip on their own lives and finding the strength and confidence to assume the proper role in the home, Ike wasn’t going to get better any time soon. And even though Ike would have and did resist a more assertive, consistent, and confident approach from his parents, he knew that he needed it.

Some children are easy, some more challenging for parents. It is our job in the latter role to figure out what each of our children need and provide it. Not all children are the same and not all of our children need an identical approach from us. Ike would continue to misbehave until his parents figured this out.

The strength that I’m talking about isn’t the only thing that children need from parents, and from time to time I’ll write about some of the other requirements. The good news is that if Ike, at age 15, was able to figure out what he needed, nearly all adults can too. From that point on, good things are possible.