This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Josh Johnson of Fraternus explains integrating children into the world of “business.”
What Did Your Grandpa Teach You?
“My grandpa taught me how to live off the land. And his taught him to be a businessman.” So goes Hank Williams Jr.’s semi-apocalyptic 1982 hit “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
In the song, Hank Jr. hints at two different worlds: the businessman and the country boy. Within these worlds each has their points of pride. The white-collar man was modern, didn’t have to do the dirty work, and could instead enjoy the comforts and entertainment the world has to offer (“He used to send me pictures of the Broadway lights”). The country boy enjoyed self-sufficiency and the ability to produce his own spirited nights (“I sent him some homemade wine…”).
Most of us want to be more like the country boy who survives than the man who “for forty-three dollars” lost his life. We want to be the guy who can skin a buck and run a trotline. Who can grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine. The one who can’t be stomped out and won’t run away.
There are good reasons for this. Agrarian and manual work are more closely connected with creation. The type of work traditionally lends itself to families staying closer to together. Farming and the trades were a way of life passed from generation to generation. You learned your trade from your father. You worked with your father. Work did not separate families, it brought them together.
In the modern economy, “businessmen” usually work in a different location from their family (at least before COVID-19). Many children grow up not knowing what their parents’ jobs are like, much less how to do them. Therefore, the relationships and opportunities for mentoring and teaching don’t present themselves naturally. This reality has drawn many to “return to the land” or to leave corporate America and try to make a living with a craft that is more integrated into their family life (or at least idealize such things).
This kind of radical change may be necessary for some families, but most do not have the option to “live back in the woods” as Hank puts it, just the “woman and the kids and the dogs and me.” To provide for our families, many of us have to exercise business or other “white collar” skills that do not require physical labor or skill. It may seem like this type of work cannot be integrated into the family. We have been trained to compartmentalize the aspects of our life into separate parcels: work and family. This is especially true with white collar workers. Are they really separate boxes that can never be integrated? I think not! I propose that if fathers give serious thought to it, they can find ways to integrate their family into their work, pass on healthy work ethics, teach valuable skills all of which will bring “their economy” into the “home economy.”
Passing It On
Even Hank Jr. notes his back-woods granddaddy was not the only one who passed on something. The grandfather of his city slicker friend “taught him to be a businessman.” The “taught” implies there is a relationship, and a fatherly one at that. Indeed, fatherhood is the sacred means that we are given to both bring our family into our work and pass on what we have received. Whatever you have received and from whomever you received it, you have something to pass on.
As fathers, it is our solemn duty to pass on to our children what we have received. This duty is comprehensive to our entire being, so it necessarily includes both those more obvious manual skills but also includes intellectual, business, and social skills. Most importantly, it includes the passing on of our Faith and a living example of how that Faith animates our everyday work. This duty is shared with our wives and ought to be supported by extended family and communities. But unlike a Sunday obligation, the duty to “pass on” cannot be dispensed.
I was awakened to this when I became a father. As I reflected on my own experience of working for a family-owned farm growing up, I desired to integrate my children into my livelihood which included both physical labor and business skills. My ministry job teaching at the parish did not provide much room for that, so we worked towards a part time rental and house-flipping business. Our strategy was to purchase a distressed property, live in it while remodeling it, then turn it into a rental and buy another.
As our children grew older, they were able to be with me more and contribute to the work. Increasingly, it became
As fathers, it is our solemn duty to pass on to our children what we have received.
necessary to explain our principles and goals. They needed to know why we were that strange family that subjected themselves to the torture of moving every two years. A few years ago we added self-storage properties to our business, which has only increased the opportunities to teach. As soon as they can walk, they can put on gloves and pick up trash. After a while my kids get mad that people litter their cigarette butts and are too lazy to take their food packaging to the trash can. Many times I have to hire out this dirty work. But I intentionally never delegate it all. If I did, I would miss so many opportunities for life lessons.
In the last few years our business has brought us into the world of construction and contractors. I didn’t plan it this way, but it has given my children and me the opportunity for closer brotherhood with other working men. Through working with and getting to know our contractors, our kids’ horizons are expanded to see the gifts and skills of many forms of work. They see that different men possess different gifts which can all contribute to a goal. They see hard work. They have played with the children of these hard working men and they see their fathers working to support their families. Work has an uncanny ability to break down perceived barriers and unite different cultures.
If Your Kids Are Smarter Than You (or Have Different Gifts)
Since number crunching and negotiating come more naturally to me, it is easier for me to directly mentor my children in this type of work. As we acquired multiple properties it became necessary for me to focus on managing contractors and a few employees. This provides me the opportunity to teach my children how to be good judges of character, how to endure others’ faults, but also when to let go of an employee who breaks trust.
Whether meetings are in an office or on site, I usually bring one or more of my older children along with me. On the way there I try to carve out time to explain what the meeting is about, who we are meeting with and what our goals are. Depending on their age I share outcomes I hope to negotiate and the scope of the work. I have often explained the principle of “win-win.” I have to get a good price to make a profit, but the other guy has to pay his workers and come back with something to feed his family, too. We too readily separate the spiritual realm and the material realm, but the words of Christ belong in the world of business — treat others as you wish to be treated. Or, as St. Francis de Sales put it, “Be just and fair in all you do. Always put yourself in your neighbor’s place, and put him into yours, and then you will judge fairly. Sell as you would buy, and buy as you would sell, and your buying and selling will alike be honest.”
Interacting with the world also offers opportunities to practice the charity of manners. With younger children, I remind them to be respectful to the person we are meeting with, use their “yes ma’am’s and sir’s, “Mr.’s and Miss’s” and offer a firm handshake with eye contact. After our visits we can also discuss what happened, gaining the skill of reflection and examination. Did we act rightly? Were the results good for our family? On the way home, I may ask for their opinion or discuss the results or next steps.
Bringing my kids to work and the jobsite has not been without its challenges and my own failures. Sometimes I’ve overworked them. Because much of my work in the business is in the evening, sometimes I have kept them out too late and they didn’t
When we travel together I am passing on something to my children, but they are passing something up to me, too.
get enough sleep. I have said “yes” to things I should have said “no” to and all have suffered the consequences. My wife quickly learned to ask me twice as to what time we are really going to be home when we leave for a meeting or jobsite. My personal shortcoming and even sins are all mixed up in this. But you cannot wait until the time is ideal — it will never be. As one of my bosses/mentors used to say “don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” When you include your kids in your work you will scarcely be able to hide your failures.
Work Travel: The Kid Effect
Travel is often one of those things that seems to set work and family against each other, but I’ve found it a great opportunity for teaching. I cannot integrate my children into much of my work — ninety percent of my time is spent on the phone or on a computer — but the travel I do for Fraternus has indeed become a sweet spot where I can bring my children. This has given them a little window to my work world that has had a two-fold effect: giving me some leisurely time alone with them as well as passing on worldly skills. Airports, airplanes, and automobiles may not seem natural places of leisure, but think about it from a kid’s perspective: they are getting to go alone out into the big wide world with dad! When we travel together I am passing on something to my children, but they are passing something up to me, too. Love is reciprocal, and here it is no different— their gift to me is helping to see again with the eyes of a child! Questions about how airplanes work foster my own curiosity and awe for the wonders of flying. Eating at less-than-homemade quality airport restaurants becomes dates. A conversation with a stranger becomes easier, especially when the conversation affords opportunities for evangelization. Navigating a new city becomes an adventure. Servers and fellow travelers smile more when they see your child. Heck, I get three times better service! I call it the kid effect. Even a TSA line becomes lighter hearted when you have a kid with you. In truth, having children around us at times during work is perhaps just as important for us fathers as it is for them.
If at all possible during trips, I try to carve out a few hours for something special. When it comes to painting and crafts, I have never had any interest or skill. But my oldest daughter is very artistically gifted. I have never taken an art class with her, but when she is with me on a trip I try to find art galleries worth visiting. I never would do this on my own, but when I am with her on these “dates’’ her desire to discuss hues, shades, and other aspects of the artist’s intention spurs an interest I never thought I had. We have visited historic homes and plantations, participated in nature tours, visited museums, gone on hikes, or sometimes just taken to the sidewalks by foot and explored. Sometimes flight schedules make it impossible or there are times when my work duties require that I hole-up in a coffee shop with my laptop while the child reads. But by trying to carve out time for leisure even in the midst of a work trip I am teaching my children that work is not everything. I am also showing them they are important enough for me to spend time just with them. And how it has paid off — that these times have become cherished memories are evidenced by the “Dad remember when we” conversations that pass across the dinner table.
Working with What You Have
Kids cannot go everywhere, and most of what I have described is the exception rather than the rule. For most of my work I am by myself. Often I have to work after they are sleeping. They have seen me tired, troubled, and angry. They have all been snapped at or ignored when I have my head in the computer and they interrupt. There are places and meetings they cannot come to; those things remain shrouded in mystery for them. I cannot pretend that I have the perfect balance. And though great good comes from bringing a child on a trip, it is still hard on my wife when I travel.
My situation is not “ideal,” and neither is yours. But I encourage you to work with what God has given you and be as creative as possible. You may have a job with zero flexibility for integrating your children. Even if you are in such a career, you are not doomed. My father worked for defense contractors, and like with most military and civilian contracting work, children are prohibited. While he could not integrate his job into family life, he found other ways to connect. He started a small tree farm on our property. He tried to teach me how to repair cars. I had little interest at the time, and his patience ran low, so that did not work out well. Not everything will! But he put real effort into finding other things that did. While none of these were income producing activities, they were opportunities for working together and learning some manual competence.
My suggestion is that if you cannot integrate your children into your bread-winning work, consider finding volunteer work or a boutique business you and your family can do on the side, including your wife. Proverbs 31, after all, shows that a godly woman can oversee a great many things that are intimately connected to the family.
Up the Ante
As fathers we have the natural role to pass on traditions. As Christian fathers we are commissioned to sanctify what we pass on. How you fulfill this duty may look different than what I have described. But remember that grace builds on nature.
This does not require supernatural grace. Baptism is not required to pass on how to live off the land or be a businessman. Idol-worshiping pagan fathers have been known to quite effectively pass on skills and a way of life to their sons. But as Christian fathers we have more than the natural to pass on. Our baptismal destiny is supernatural. We are anointed to sanctify our work, and where is this more important than in the work we share with our children?
In our family we give pride of place to the Divine Office as the means of both ordering and sanctifying our time. This Prayer of the Church orders our day rather than us “fitting in” prayer here and there. It is not always convenient and not as much work gets done, but there is always something more to be done. Give ninety hours to your work in a week, and there could still be more to do. It is easier to start work or keep on working than it is to stop and pray the liturgy. But the sacrifice of stopping and praying reminds me of what is most important and quells the temptation that life is all about me and what I can do. It also shows my children the importance of not making work an idol by subjecting it to God. Praying liturgy as a family is work in itself. But this work is sacred and has a strengthening effect for the work that follows — whether business, intellectual, or physical work, or resting and leisure.
Give pride of place to prayer in your family and ora et labora becomes more than a cool sounding Latin phrase. Prayer truly sanctifies what we are passing on and enables us to share more deeply in the Father’s work. As such, we are passing on to our children not only what they need to survive but to thrive, both in this life and in the life to come.