It happened during the summer of 1991, while I was having dinner with my family. At that time, Georgette and I had four children — Harry (10), Anna (8), Maria (7), and Laura (4). Our fifth child, Mary Rose, was due to be born in October of that year.
One of the older girls started talking about how some of her cousins received a weekly allowance from their parents. Before long, all three of my oldest children were involved in the conversation. They eventually concluded that they should be treated the same way that their cousins were being treated. They then proceeded to boldly insist that I begin paying them a weekly allowance.
At first, I played along by asking an obvious question: “How much do you think you should get each week?” Each of them came up with a different amount of money. I then said, “Tell me what you do each week that entitles you to receive money from me.” They responded by telling me that the daily chores that they were required to perform were sufficient to justify the payment of an allowance.
I responded by telling them that the work they were required to do around the house was a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to live in our comfortable home — a home that was heated during the winter and cooled during the summer. I emphasized that in addition to a comfortable home, the lifestyle they were accustomed to living was far better than the lifestyle of 80% of the rest of the people in the world.
They ignored what I said and tried to again use their cousins and the work that they did around the house to justify their request for an allowance. At that point, I said in an authoritative tone of voice, “In Harry and Georgette’s house, there is no free money. If you want money, you have to work for it.”
They refused to give up. Like me, my children can sometimes become stubborn and aggressive. Our conversation became loud and animated. They compared me with other parents and attempted to make me feel guilty about refusing to pay them an allowance. I told them that in the home that I grew up in, my parents had the same philosophy about money. They didn’t give me or any of my brothers and sisters free money. We were taught that if we wanted money, we had to work for it.
I finally ended up telling them the same thing my mom used to say when we argued with her about the way she treated us: “When you have your own children, you can do whatever you want with them, but as long as you’re living in my home, you’re going to follow my rules. Now I’ve made up my mind. We’re not going to talk about this anymore. The conversation is over.”
At that point, my children stopped talking and the room went silent. About 30 seconds later, the silence was broken when Georgette brought up a more pleasant topic.
During the time that I was arguing with my children, Georgette didn’t say a word. She just sat back, smiled, and observed what was going on. I think she was waiting to see if our oldest three children were going to succeed in taking me down. If that’s what she was waiting for, she didn’t get to see that part of the show.
Although the topic of a weekly allowance never came up again, on several subsequent occasions, I made it clear to my children that they were required to start working for wages by the time they were 14. I told them that although our government didn’t want teenagers working until they were 16, my children weren’t like most Americans. I told them that in our family, we didn’t need the government telling us that we shouldn’t work, or that we weren’t capable of working.
I wanted my children to have the same experience that I had while I was growing up. When I took over a paper route at the age of 12, it opened up a whole new world for me. In addition to having spending money for myself, the job of delivering newspapers provided me with something that was more important than money: a sense of self-worth and confidence.
When I told my parents that I wanted to start delivering newspapers, they were pleased with my ambition and encouraged me to go for it. Both of my parents started working for wages before they were teenagers, so they knew the value of working for an employer at a young age.
But it wasn’t only my parents who believed that children should begin working at a young age. Most of my aunts and uncles felt the same way about their children. My cousin, Harry LaHood, started working at a local restaurant when he was 12 years old. His younger brothers followed his example by getting jobs at a young age.
My cousin, Danny Williams, got a job as a busboy when he was 14 years old. His dad, Bill Williams, talked to a friend of his who owned a restaurant and asked him if he would give Danny a chance to work at his restaurant.
Danny didn’t have a say in the matter. His dad’s belief was that as a young adult, Danny needed to learn how to take on the responsibility of working for an employer. When Uncle Bill told Danny about the job, he said, “Now this is a good friend of mine. He’s going to tell me if you show up late or if you fail to do what you’re supposed to do. I don’t want you to let me down. You need to hustle and work harder than everyone in that restaurant. Do you understand?”
Of course, Danny understood. He didn’t have a choice. His dad spoke with authority and conviction. Danny knew that if he let his dad down, he would have to pay a heavy price.
The lesson I tried to teach my children about the importance of getting a job at a young age was similar to the lessons that Georgette and I tried to drill into their heads the entire time they were growing up. We wanted to instill within them a belief that it was their moral duty to achieve success through hard work. Both of us grew up in families where this particular belief was taught — by word and example.
We wanted our children to be successful in everything they did. They were expected to be successful Catholics, students, employees, musicians, and later in life, parents. This meant that they had to be willing to make commitments and accept the responsibility that came with those commitments. Then they had to be willing to follow through by putting in the hours of work that were required to succeed at what they set out to accomplish.
Everyone has a belief system about work and what it takes to be a success. There are numerous people who believe that they are entitled to success without having to put in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of work that are necessary to achieve true success. Most of our beliefs originated with our parents, teachers, coaches, and all the other people who were in a position to influence us while we were growing up.
More on this topic next week.