EPISODE 11: dollar diplomacy
One of the challenges of being a father is preparing your children for life's hard realities without crushing their dreams. Striking the right balance between "You can do it!" and "Wake up and smell the coffee!" varies from age to age, and child to child. I've been trying to get the mix right with my six-year-old son, but nothing brings the issue into sharper focus than prizes - be it his failure to win a ribbon at field day or watching others win academic awards while he is left to applaud from the audience.
I returned home from the office last Friday night looking forward to reading Nicholas a cursory bedtime story, listening to a few peppy anecdotes from his day - "No way, dude, shepherd's pie for lunch again. Awesome. Kiss kiss, night night" - and then marinating in Ketel One by the warm glow of the flatscreen. This was not to be.
"Dad, today was the day they gave out the handwriting prizes, and I didn't win," said Nicholas as small, salty tears began to run down his face. "This is starting off as the worst year of my life." I was stunned. Nicholas' handwriting is marginal at best. When did he decide it was prize-worthy? Then it struck me: at six, the world is still your oyster. Nicholas and his peers are still at a moment in life when each one believes he can play shortstop for the New York Yankees or be elected president of the United States. Soon enough the world will wear them down and they will graduate to hoping to be president of a company, then president of a division. Or if they are like me, they will merely aspire to be good enough pals with the president of their own division that their corporate overlord won't sack them without at least shedding a tear and serving up a generous severance package.
So I listened carefully to his tale of woe - how a certain fair-haired classmate's name was read out at the all-school assembly. The boy then proudly mounted the stage. "And he got a silver dollar! From the headmaster! In front of everybody," sobbed my dear, sweet Nicholas.
As the saying goes: I feel your pain. Having graduated from the same all-boys school that my son now attends, I can acutely remember the burn of the Handwriting Awards. Each year, I too would work slowly, carefully and delusionally on my sample submission and then sit in the audience year after year shocked as those with graceful penmanship were called to the stage to snatch their shiny lucre. At about age 12, I realised that my chances of ever winning a handwriting award were zero. I write like a convict. I sketch like a serial killer. In high school I used to type postcards, and Nicholas has inherited my crappy, fine motor skills.
"Well, you know, Nicholas, we Brodies are not great at handwriting. It is not our forte. I never won the handwriting prize." Thankfully, he did not ask what we Brodies are good at because that one would have been a brainteaser.
"Not even the Most Improved one... the one they give out at the end of spring term?"
"That's terrible," he said, before launching into another crying jag. "Have you ever won any prize, Dad?"
It would have been so fantastic to be able to say, "Yes, the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but we don't discuss it because your mother gets upset about what transpired that night between Penélope Cruz and your Doggie Daddy." Instead, I mentioned that when I worked at Variety I was once the runner-up in a company-wide competition for Best Breaking News Story.
"Who did you lose to?"
"A story from a publication called Cutis."
"A magazine for dermatologists. A lot of articles about skin diseases."
Nicholas looked at me like my head was a block of excrement. I changed tack ever so slightly. "What part of not winning upsets you the most? Did you want to go up on stage in front of the whole school? Was it the prize itself?"
"I wanted the silver dollar. I offered the boy who won it 20 dollars for it, but he wouldn't sell it to me." We'll circle back to the wrongness and vulgarity of that move at a later date. There were bigger problems to solve first.
"So you want a silver dollar?" I asked, trying to figure out how to staunch his sadness.
"Yes, and I'm mad because I've worked so hard on my handwriting."
After Nicholas fell asleep, my wife, Honor, and I talked about what was the message we wanted to send him. We decided that what we wanted him to learn was the importance of effort. We could care less about whether he wins, places or shows, but we want him striving valiantly - be it in the classroom or on the field. So we decided that night to create our own competition, which we dubbed The Brodie Olympics.
The rules are pretty simple. If Nicholas completes all his homework every night without us having to browbeat him into it, he gets a gold star. (Note to any management consultant reading this: gold stars only work with children.) If he can complete a month of gold stars, he will win a prize of his choosing.
As it happens, my grandfather used to give me silver dollars on my birthday - one for each year I had attained until, by the time I was 10, I had cleaned out his coin collection. I've saved the silver dollars, some of which date back to the late 1800s and are sitting in a safe-deposit box. All Nicholas has to do over the next month is show that he has learnt the value of effort, and he will earn a prize with a value greater than that of the newly minted silver dollar won by the kid with the fancy handwriting. If he can master this life lesson now, I have no doubt that when he grows older he will never lose a prize to a guy who covers psoriasis and other rashes for a living.
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here