First Struggle Then Strength

Dana Telford
Dana Telford

Is it possible to build personal strength without first going through personal struggle?

Sometimes as parents we are tempted to cushion our children from the pain of disappointment and failure as they mature. Too often as family business leaders we believe that we are helping family members by giving them a position that they have not earned when in reality the opposite is true. By helping too much we hinder growth. By enabling we create entitlement.

My teenage son Will loves video games. In his free time, he sits in front of our TV, thumbs a blur on the controller, eyes fixed to the screen, chattering away into his headset as he and his friends strategize how to counter the latest wave of alien invaders. My favorite game growing up was one played not on a screen but in a field: baseball. Despite my hope that this interest would somehow be passed down to Will, his interest in Little League was short-lived and unfulfilling. He tried some other sports and activities and has become a good tennis player.  He has found a passion for nutrition and weight-training. But video games are his first love, and his mom and I have given him the space to pursue this interest.

As Will’s gaming skills and interests have grown, so has the price of his hobby. Earlier this year, he set his sights on a high-powered gaming computer that was “on sale” and asked if we would order it online for him. “You know how it works,” I told him. Once each of our kids is old enough to understand, I explain to them our approach to large purchases: If we agree that the purchase makes sense, the child is expected to work to earn half the money.

It’s the same principle I learned from my mother. Whenever I wanted a new baseball bat or bike or expensive toy, my mother made me earn half the money to pay for it. That not only made me think about how much I really wanted the item — not surprisingly, a lot of things dropped off my “must-have” list when it was clear I had to help pay — but also created space for me to earn the item through hard work, rather than having it handed to me.

“But this is a lot more expensive than anything else I’ve wanted,” Will said when I reminded him of the policy. “I’ll have to earn $800 and I don’t have a job!” I told him I understood that earning the money would be difficult, but reminded him of a few pending expenses in the household that were higher priority – Anna needed braces and Sarah needs her wisdom teeth pulled.  “And,” I reminded him, “your half is going to be more than $800.  Don’t forget tax and shipping charges.”  He let out a sigh of frustration but accepted the reality and agreed to the deal.  Over the next few weeks, I observed him working and saving diligently, putting aside the money he gained from extra chores, babysitting and selling other gaming equipment he didn’t need.

One day Will came to me excitedly and said, “Dad, the computer sale is ending this week.  I need $1600 now!” I reminded him of our deal – that we would order the computer once he put $842 (don’t forget tax and shipping charges!) in my hand or my bank account. He looked disappointed. “I only have $500 saved,” he said. “But my Xbox is for sale and I’m sure someone will buy it.  Could you just order it and I can owe you the rest?”

I admit that it was tempting to give in to his request.  The clash of family socialism and breadwinner capitalism clashed inside me in a major way.  He had worked hard to save more money than ever before. But my wife and I realized that giving in would fail to uphold the principle we wanted him to learn, and would limit the space he needed to grow fully.  Obviously Will was disappointed, but he kept working toward his goal.

Within two weeks, Will sold his Xbox and reached his goal.  We were thrilled to see that the price of the computer was still $1,600 and ordered it straight away.  When it arrived it was everything he’d hoped for and he beamed with joy as he opened the box.

My wife and I told Will how proud of him we were for earning that computer.  He had become very resourceful as he pursued his goal of buying the computer: He had worked and saved and sacrificed his time and other valuables. He had become much more confident in his ability to figure out a way to make things happen. And he gained a greater appreciation of the value of money.

Through the struggle comes the growth.  As leaders we need to keep this principle in mind as we offer jobs and financial benefits to family and non-family employees.  We need to provide them adequate time and space to struggle.  Time to filter through the emotions of disappointment and space to figure out what they really want and how to earn it.  Without it how can they ever hope to develop their own strength?