A job well done

8 Oct

I am, what my husband calls “clerk of works” for a building project at the school. In the process of acquiring building materials, I found myself waiting to be served at a steel vendor. At the delivery exit, I noticed an elderly man, obviously a labourer at the shop, loading steel pipes on a customer’s pick-up. He took great care to load the pipes in such a way that the load was balanced. He then proceeded to attach the pipes to the frame of the pick-up with used wire. He did it in such a way that you could see that he gave the job some thought and he proceeded to do it well. Certainly he is no middle management employee. He is probably on the lowest rung in this organisation. Yet he does his job with great care and even with authority. My father used to say that a job worth doing is worth doing well. This man was raised on that same maxim.

This started my thoughts on the kind of attitude we want our children to have when they are employees, one day. What do you need to do a job well? How do we teach this in our everyday living to our children? I think that we need to teach children that it is a privilege to be able to work and to be remunerated. We also need to teach our children that we sometimes have to do things that are neither glamorous nor easy. Most jobs have aspects that are downright boring and sometimes even worse that boring.

I once met a man at a workshop on work attitude. The presenter asked him to address the people in the workshop on exactly this aspect. He proceeded to tell us that his family came to South Africa just after World War 2. They came from Holland and were desperately poor. He wanted to go to school and make something of his life but his father said that every child of 16 years had to go out and find a job. He went to a large workshop and asked if they would employ him. He was prepared to do anything. In 1946 there was strict demarcation in the workplace about where qualified artisans were employed. The only work available to him was to clean the toilets. He made a decision to rather clean the toilets than go home to his father empty-handed.

He was given the most basic cleaning materials and was shown to a filthy, horrible bathroom. He started to scrub the floor and discovered that beneath the grime and muck there were beautiful, hand-painted Delft tiles. This inspired him to do the walls next. When he started to clean the doors, he discovered that the door handles and the bottom parts of the doors were copper. He then went to the overseer and asked for cleaning material for copper. It was given grudgingly. Over the next few weeks the grimy horrible toilets were changed to beautiful restrooms. Yet, he remembered, nobody said a word, not even thank you. He kept working because he at least received a meagre, labourer’s pay. He also continued working because the change in the restrooms gave him immense pleasure.

When he had been employed for a few months, the workers were informed that the CEO of the company would be visiting and inspecting. When the CEO went to the restroom he came out and asked: “Who cleans the toilets?”. The young boy put up his hand and waited for disapproval.

At the time I met him he was a man of almost eighty. He was the owner and CEO of a large chain of Diesel workshops. He became a mechanic when the CEO of that first workshop sent him to trade school because of his hard work in the toilets. What was his message? Exactly what my father said: “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well!” He also said that modern parents seldom teach their children the ability to stick to the job. In his opinion, modern children are raised by parents who always feel “sorry” for their children. In this process children do not experience that the very fact of completing a difficult or even boring job, gives a huge boost to the satisfaction level (and of course, builds self esteem).

If I have to connect this story to brain development research, we learn two things: In the first place a difficult task or a problem provides the brain with opportunity to solve problems and grow in creativity. In the second place, to do a difficult task provides children with a feeling of self-worth. There is also a third benefit; children develop resilience when they are able to complete a difficult task.

What are stumbling blocks to stop us from developing these important characteristics in our children? The first has to do with our view of our children. If we view our children as being small, powerless and without knowledge, we tend to treat them as being small, powerless and without knowledge. Our perceptions of our children become their reality.

There is also another aspect. The world around them tells parents that their children’s self-image, and consequently their self-worth, is very fragile. As a result of these messages, parents conclude that they should never do anything to damage their children’s self-image. Parents also assume that it is important to ensure that their children feel constantly good about themselves. We are hesitant to say to a child: “That is not good enough”. By this, I am not advocating that we must constantly criticise our children. But we should expect our children to do things that are developmentally appropriate. How do we know that our expectations are developmentally appropriate? By knowing our children.

Erikson, the famous psychologist, said that the ability to develop autonomy is a very important phase that starts around the age of 3. The ability to believe in yourself starts developing when children are allowed to make choices, assume responsibility for their choices and sometimes make mistakes. To make a mistake and find a way to rectify the mistake, provide young children with wonderful opportunities to develop.
If we want to raise kids that will persevere until a job is well done, we have to provide them with developmentally appropriate opportunities to make mistakes and to assume responsibility. If we can manage to teach our kids to be resilient and to persevere, they will understand real work ethic. And if they understand work ethic, they will be able to do any job that may cross their path, well.

Photo credit: Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/manbeastextraordinaire/3963732435/

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