DALLAS — I woke up before daylight and hurried to our station wagon, begging the rest of my family to hurry up. I was 14 and it was Saturday, so this behavior was highly unusual. But I wanted desperately to be done and back home before anyone I knew might wake up and decide to go grocery shopping — Or even drive past the store.
Because this was no ordinary trip to the grocery store, the potential for utter humiliation was enormous. My dad had finagled a deal with the store owner that he was pretty excited about: our family would fill in for the regular parking lot maintenance workers that morning. In a nutshell, we were to be the trash picker-uppers.
As difficult as this may be to believe, not a single one of us kids shared dad’s enthusiasm.
What we did share, however, was our interest in the carrot that my parents had dangled in front of us to get our buy-in on waking up before dawn on a Saturday morning. The carrot was a spring break vacation. With a large family and a small budget, there would be no vacation unless someone figured out how to earn extra cash.
My parents had gone and figured it out — without any regard whatsoever to how their kids might feel about it. But here’s the thing: We really wanted that carrot, and knew it was impossible unless we subjected ourselves to alarming conditions like hard work and the real possibility of social annihilation.
So we did what had to be done, sulking around for a few hours that morning, mostly in the dark, throwing away litter and moving grocery carts back to their designated areas.
I’m guessing that the parking lot gig didn’t result in a huge financial windfall, because Dad landed us another job a week or so later. A business owner had a few thousand brochures to mail out, and our dad happily volunteered us. Our tasks were to fold the fliers into three equal sections — not as easy as it may seem — stuff them into envelopes, seal and stamp the envelopes.
After the first hundred or so mailers, we developed a strong dislike for the job. Maybe it was the paper cuts and muscle cramps in our hands and fingers; or it could have been our dry, gluey tongues after licking so many stamps.
In any case, our memories of racing shopping carts through an empty parking lot grew fonder and fonder as the day wore on. By the end, if given the choice between parking lot maintenance and envelope stuffing, we would have chosen the parking lot — hands down.
Thanks in large part to our parents’ resourcefulness and in small part to us — since I’m pretty sure whining on the job significantly reduces the credit one is allowed to take for completing it — we had our vacation. It was a fantastic trip consisting of a visit to Six Flags and eating out, mostly at McDonald’s. I mention the eating out because we never went to restaurants — and I mean this literally — unless my grandparents were in town.
This may sound cliché, but it’s true: The blood, sweat and whines we had expended to make the trip happen made it that much more meaningful to us.
In fact, my memories of the work are just as powerful as my memories of the trip itself. It could be argued that this is due to the emotional trauma brought on by so much drudgery, but that would be the 14-year-old in me talking.
My parents understood something important about raising kids: The process is every bit as valuable, if not more so, as the product.
So, as a parent, I do my best to focus on the process. I’m far from perfect, but I give it my best shot. What’s great, at least in my experience, is that the product generally takes care of itself — and it’s usually not half bad.
In this matter, I’m thankful to my parents on two fronts.
One, they gave me multiple opportunities to experience the process so that I could truly appreciate the product.
Two, these experiences resulted in stories that are fraught with just enough angst and peril to be highly effective in motivating kids who complain about chores.
It’s remarkable how a simple story about a grocery store parking lot can suddenly stop all whining.