I sure am glad that my parents encouraged me (and my siblings) to grow up.
I think I was about ten years old when I got my first job: delivering The Northshore Citizen to maybe 50 or 60 homes in our neighborhood every Wednesday morning. Seems like I split the job with my sister, but my early-onset Alzheimer’s leaves me a little uncertain. Wasn’t long after that, though, that I definitely got my own daily route. I spent about four years unwittingly distributing a lot of liberal propaganda (known then and now as The Seattle Times) to my neighbors, most of whom probably appreciated it (the propaganda, that is).
“Daily,” of course, meant daily: 365 days a year. Mercifully, there were three or four of them each year on which I made it home dry. I remember the dark, wet night I stepped on a nail as I ducked under some dripping rhododendron bushes to get to the Harkenon’s house. It was hard to tell if that sucking sound (and feel) was the nail coming out of my foot or my sneaker coming out of the mud. Saturdays and Sundays—and every Christmas and New Year’s Day (thank goodness for sobriety)—were delivered in the mornings. Nothing like a 5 a.m. wake-up call every weekend morning to try to make an old man out of a young man. School seemed like a pretty desirable place compared to delivering papers in the cold, dark, and rain.
When I was fifteen, my buddy Jeff (who already had a driver’s license) and I were on our way to a church softball game. (I often played catcher and not particularly skillfully. He sometimes enjoyed a little too much watching me get blown up on the occasional play at the plate. We had a competitive stake.) Anyway, he needed to stop by his workplace—as a dishwasher at the prestigious Inglewood Country Club—to pick up his check, since his Trans Am drank a lot of gas. Curious to see the insides of such a posh place, I went with him. Before long, we found his crusty old boss, who summarily dismissed him (on suspicion of breaking some rules, which Jeff vehemently denied) and then looked at me, squinting narrowly, and said, “Son, you want a job?” I said, “Sure,” and after the game Jeff dropped me off for my first night of work.
Those nights cleaning up after country club party-goers sometimes ended at two or three or even four in the morning, depending on how late the evening’s festivities lasted. Calling and waking my parents for a ride home at such hours seemed a bit much—and they rather agreed—so I usually walked. It was just a couple of miles (but, yes, it actually was uphill). The inevitable rain seemed to cleanse my spirit to a certain extent—and that wasn’t all bad after spending the evening in a country club bar kind of environment.
That job didn’t last long, though, as I soon got hired by Jeff’s brother-in-law to work at his art and picture framing store. I cut frames, glass, and mattes—mostly tens of thousands of mattes—after school and full-time in the summers for about three years. Some Saturday mornings (yes, 5 a.m., again), he took us waterskiing. And…
Well, the story of jobs just keeps on going, but I’ll quit boring you. The point is: my parents encouraged responsibility, financial independence, and, to a large extent, emotional independence from my early years. They also encouraged independent thinking, thankfully, but that’s a story for another day.
Of course, there were also chores growing up. (By “growing up,” I’m referring to the 14-year period we were given to turn 18 years old.) Tuesday nights were mine to do the dishes. We actually had a dishwasher, but we never used it. My parents said it was broken, but years later, I’m increasingly suspicious about just how broken it really was. When I was eleven or twelve or so, my mother taught me how to do laundry. I had a hard time remembering which colors to wash in which temperatures, so I made a chart and nailed it to the wall of our unfinished laundry room. It hung there for probably close to 30 years.
My biggest chore, though, may have been our vegetables. (And by “vegetables,” I am not referring to the three rows of our model vegetable garden I was expected to weed every day of the summer.) Mother served at least two vegetables at every dinner and the rule was you had to eat two of them and no less. I’m pretty sure the zucchini, lima beans, spinach, and occasional brussel sprouts were all calculated to be encouragement for us to achieve independent living at the earliest possible age.
Leaving home and going to college was a foregone conclusion. I don’t recall ever considering an alternative. My older brother went off to college after high school. So did my older sister. Three months after graduating from high school, my parents drove me down to Provo, where, believe it or not, I met my new roommate, Shannon. Shannon, you’ll be relieved to know, was not only male, he acted and sounded a lot like Rocky Balboa, only more educated. I wrote my parents a letter most weeks and called home some weeks. When my freshman year was done, I went home and cut another gazillion mattes before leaving on my mission. The rule was you needed to pay for everything you could.
My mother has never forgiven me for this (though having conspired with my father to turn me into an independent adult at an early age, she really has no one to blame): after my mission, I was home for a week and then never lived at home again. And that’s not because I disliked my home or my family—I come from the greatest family on the planet! And who doesn’t want to live 15 minutes from Dick’s Drive-In and 30 minutes from the Seattle Mariners?! It was just time to be the autonomous adult they’d taught me to be.
Why do I mention all this? Well, last Saturday Becky and I were asked to teach a class on helping young women prepare for adulthood—college, missions, the temple, career, marriage, etc. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the role parents play in helping their children become successfully independent—which I guess I would define as having both an understanding of how to live after the manner of happiness and the desire and motivation to independently do so. (Which seems easier to do if you have some practice at it before the actual moment arrives.)
As I mentioned to one of the classes Saturday, I think it is common for young children in our church to hear about “families being together forever” and picture themselves in heaven as little children with their loving parents forever with them and taking care of them, maybe even holding them. I think, though, that there may be parents with the same vision, hoping against wisdom that little Johnny and Suzy will stay their little Johnny and Suzy forever and continuing to nurture an environment that will keep them physically, emotionally, or financially dependent. It seems my parents tended to see me as the adult I would become more than the child I was—and, like I said, I’m glad they did.
In the family Becky and I lead today, we don’t speak so much about achieving emotional, spiritual, and financial independence (though everyone understands that’s the goal; it’s even written in our family plan) as much as we talk about “building character.” Most things that our kids should do but don’t want to do are about (at least as they hear it from us) “building character.” Truth is, we’re trying to build independent adults who know God’s plan and can independently achieve happiness and who have as much character as they are willing to develop.
A favorite scene from five or six years ago gives me great hope. It was early on a weekday morning in the middle of the summer, maybe 6:30 or 6:45. Must have been July. It was one of those nothing-but-blue-sky Utah summer mornings that starts out quite warm. I was getting ready to go to work and, for some reason, glanced out the bedroom window which faces our backyard. There was our son, bent over pulling weeds in our, well, modest vegetable garden. He’d figured out that the faster you get your work done, the cooler the temperature you can work in and the more quickly you can start playing. I suppose the bad news is that our kids won’t be kids forever. But if my parents were right, that’s actually the good news.