I heard this story on an early morning radio show, and I have no idea if it's true, but if it isn't it should be. It had to do with a family doctor in a small town. He was well-liked by his neighbors and patients and allowed neighborhood kids to play in his yard without complaint. The woman who wrote the story apparently had been one of those kids and she tells the story about watching him plant new trees on his property. But this is where the story takes a little bit of a twist. After planting the saplings he would deny them water. Now that's gardening heresy. Everybody waters a new plant, bush or tree. It gets weirder. After planting the tree, he would flog it with a piece of wood.
When asked why he denied the saplings water he said that the tree roots would have to dig deep into the soil to find moisture, which he believed was better than making them weak from the get-go by spoiling them with water. The flogging was done, he said, to make the trees more alert to their surroundings. The woman who told the story then related that after she was grown she returned to her old neighborhood and sure enough the trees that the old doctor had seemingly abused stood straight and tall and were flourishing. But the other trees in her old neighborhood hadn't fared as well. Some were dying while others had disappeared entirely.
This little story made a big impression on me and I couldn't get it out of my mind. If you think about it enough, it makes all the sense in the world. Learning how to get by without too much help from others can make people stronger-not weaker-when they get on with their lives.
We all know the stories of people who have been graced with very supportive mommies and daddies who end up being unable to cope with the everyday trials and tribulations of life. My old coach in high school, Don Waterman, who had been a three-time All-American tackle at Harvard in the 1930s, once told me, "You can always tell what kind of an environment a young man came from by how he plays football. Young men who come from tough backgrounds seem more aggressive and tougher than those who come from more privileged environments. They display more endurance and they don't fold when the going gets tough."
I have always remembered those words and from my observations in business and on the athletic field, I believe Don made a wise observation. There's something about individuals who have come up the hard way that makes them special. They seem to have more appreciation for what they have achieved through sweat and tears. I don't know about you, but anytime I've had to work hard and long on reaching an objective I take great pride in what I've accomplished as opposed to things that have been handed to me.
One of the problems that people who have been coddled have is that they have little respect for things and for others. We all know about rich kids who wreck new sports cars bought by indulgent parents. But a young person who has earned the money to buy a car treats that automobile with tender loving care.
There's something about achieving your goals on your own that is invaluable. It's what character is all about. Years ago I lost a good friend to a heart attack. He died in his office at 4: 30 a.m. He built his steel business from nothing in one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. Morning after morning this man with only a high school diploma would get up at 3 a.m. to go to work, building a multimillion-dollar business. His dream was to eventually turn the business over to his college-educated son. After the father died, the son took over for all of six months and wound up selling the business because he didn't like getting up that early day after day. It ruined his social life and he really didn't like the business anyway, the son said.
The father had made sure his children got everything, because this man had so little growing up. Now his widow lives in a beautiful home near where I live and the son, who hasn't been able to "find himself," has gone from job to job over the years.
Years ago I was in the back of a limousine with two wealthy gentlemen who were my clients. Said one, "My two kids haven't amounted to much and it's my fault. If I had to do it all over again I wouldn't have given them everything I did. They are both spoiled rotten." The other man agreed, saying, "I've had the same experience, but I cut my kids off early so that they now know what it means to earn an honest living. Giving kids everything just doesn't work."
It's one thing to let children know they are loved and accepted; it's quite another to give them the sense that no matter what they do, things will work out just fine. Maybe making them learn how to sacrifice and earn their own self-respect by achieving goals on their own prepares them for the hard knocks that invariably befall us all. Like the good doctor's trees, they will learn how to get what they need on their own, and appreciate it all the more once they do.