I remember listening one evening to my then teenage son describe a verbal altercation he'd had with a classmate. They had been involved in a class project and things weren't going well.
I was a bit troubled by my son's report of how he handled the situation, and was trying to figure out what I wanted to say, but was drawing a blank. If you have or have had teenagers you know that they don't take too kindly to advice. And, to be honest, I wasn't there when the argument took place, and so didn't really have any business giving advice to begin with.
I went to bed uneasy, sure that I should say something but at a loss for what it might be. Then, as often is the case, I found myself waking in the middle of the night with exactly the words I was searching for. Resisting the temptation to wake him up in the middle of the night as well (my sleeplessness was, after all, his fault), I jotted down my thoughts and was finally able to get to sleep.
My sleep depriving insights were not anything I could take credit for. In fact, for reasons I have yet to fathom, I had found myself pondering the lessons in life my parents had tried to teach me and my sisters and brother when we were my son's age.
Which is exactly how I presented them to him at breakfast the next morning. Surprisingly, he seemed to listen, perhaps for no other reason than that it was such an unusual way for his dad to begin one of his "lectures." This breakfast table wisdom consisted of the following:
• Try not to do anything today that you will be ashamed of, embarrassed by, or feel guilty about five years from now.
• Treat others like you want to be treated -- it really is that simple.
• If you don't have something constructive to say to, or about, someone else, don't say anything.
• Make it your goal that every person you encounter will be better off because of it.
• Always look for the positive in other people and in life in general. There is almost always something you can find.
• Put people first, everything will sort itself out if you do.
I give my mother credit for the above. She seems to have had the biggest impact on us five kids. My father, who spent most of his short life working long hours, did, however, add his own special wisdom about the world of work.
• Do your job and do it well, not for anybody else, but because it's who you are.
• No work done well is demeaning; respect anyone who does their job no matter what it is (and I washed plenty of dishes and cleaned plenty of restrooms in our family's restaurant just to make sure I learned this lesson).
• Always start by praising other people's efforts, even if they fail. They will listen to your advice a lot more willingly if you do.
It's not that either of my parents actually sat down and spelled these out for us. And I recognize that they are not all that original. Similar advice can be found in all sorts of places. What made them special for me is that I saw my parents trying to live them out on a daily basis. We kids absorbed them almost by osmosis, or so it seems in retrospect.
Maybe my son listened a bit more closely because it wasn't his dad talking, but rather his grandparents (and, I suspect his great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on) talking through his dad. I'd like to think that. And thanks, Mom and Dad, for all you tried to teach us.