Friday, May 04, 2012

Lessons of youthful toil valued in adulthood

From today's Briefing:

What’s the crummiest job you ever had?

At the risk of offending current fast-food employees, I’ll admit that my least favorite job was working the cash register at a fried-chicken joint.

No matter the temperature outside, it was always uncomfortably warm behind the counter. A thin layer of grease covered every surface in the store — and my face.

Customers’ tempers often flared if they had to wait too long for a drumstick to fry.

Everything I owned, even the inside of my already-pathetic 1975 Audi 100, smelled like day-old fried chicken.

My fried-chicken dollars paid for that car, plus gas and insurance, clothes, makeup, snacks, magazines — all the stuff a 16-year-old girl thinks she needs.

And though I didn’t always appreciate the lessons in the moment, I did gain some valuable skills.

While on the job I started using “ma’am” and “sir” as a sign of respect. And I learned to not use those terms while working the drive-through microphone; some voices can be deceiving.

I learned how to speak with angry customers — when to stand firm and when to give in to demands.

I learned the value of showing up a few minutes before my shift began and calling in sick only if I was truly ill. I learned to appreciate days off.

While standing around last week to see our boys off for a camping trip, some friends shared their own labor stories. Brian picked tomatoes in fields in Canton during the infamous summer of 1980. By the end of each sweat-soaked shift, he said, his hands were worn out and darkened by sap from vines.

Another friend spent that same summer working as fry cook in his family’s restaurant. Rodney spent hours on his feet in a sweltering kitchen, dunking egg rolls in a vat of boiling grease.

Each of them was also responsible for chores and yard work at home.

Neither loved the work, but today they can’t deny the value found in toiling in tough jobs at an early age.

What about our own children? Their young lives are decidedly cushier than mine or Brian’s or Rodney’s were. And that’s what we want, right? We want the next generation to have a better quality of life than our own.

But what if our improved quality of life is partially the result of relative hardships?

I can’t pinpoint how much of my work ethic is innate and how much was forged from early years of baby-sitting and chores, chicken-slinging and retail madness.

I am thankful that I was able to make big mistakes when the stakes were small and that I established valuable habits at a young age.

My parenting solution so far is not to manufacture hardships at home, but to involve my children in the process of running our home. Their responsibilities include sorting laundry, feeding and watering our dog, putting away clean dishes, making their beds, and taking out trash and recycling.

I don’t shield them from the difficulties of my work. We talk about expectations, deadlines and mistakes. I share with them the joy of getting paid to do what I love. At the same time, I’m honest about tasks that I don’t particularly like.

We visit about the importance of hard work, about not relying solely on intelligence, about the difficulty in balancing professional and personal responsibilities.

When they’re a little older and work outside the home is a possibility, I won’t push them toward the seemingly crummiest job available. But I might not discourage them, either.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@

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