We were at my in-laws’ house one night when my eldest daughter, then around 4 years old, made a very polite request.
“I want to write a letter to Uncle Craig,” he announced. “Can I have an antelope please?”
I was reminded of this incident a few weeks ago during a business trip to Brazil. I was having dinner with two colleagues at General Prime Burger, a casual American-themed (and, interestingly, also British-themed) restaurant in a very upscale shopping mall in Sao Paulo. It’s the kind of place where one of the advertised promotions is the Shake Festival and where, during our visit, a boisterous birthday party for an elementary school kid and, apparently, his entire neighborhood wasn’t going to bother anyone.
Two finely dressed young mothers were sitting at a nearby table with three little girls, who appeared to be around 3, 5 and 7 years old. Actually, the mothers sat at the table; the girls traveled mainly for the restaurant. They visited the boy’s birthday party, checked out the kitchen where the finishing touches were being put on the dishes, visited the hostess booth, and made their way to a corner where there was a TV with cartoons. Their mothers watched from a distance but never moved.
In the United States we can find this lax, rude or even risky parenting style, especially given São Paulo’s reputation as a dangerous city. But the mothers were not doing anything wrong. The mall itself, like most places of its kind in Brazil, has strict security measures, and the children would never go past the reception desk at the restaurant’s only access point. Inside that burger joint, those three girls enjoyed more freedom, security and autonomy than most of the other 25 million inhabitants of São Paulo at the time.
I put the girls on when I got up to use the bathroom. General Prime Burger has one of those modern arrangements where the sinks are shared by both sexes in a common area outside of the restrooms. While she waited for the men’s room to be free, the older girl led the two younger ones into the ladies’ room. When she came out, she reminded the little one to wash her hands.
The 3-year-old couldn’t reach the sink, so the 7-year-old picked her up. That’s when I got involved, using my limited Portuguese to ask if I could help. I turned on the water for them as I did.
It turns out that a 7-year-old girl in Brazil is a lot like the women I’ve lived with at home for the last several decades: she’s perfectly comfortable bossing me around.
“Sabonete” (sab-on-ETCH), he ordered. I put some soap on her hands and passed it to her. She rubbed the little boy’s hands together.
“Paper” then directed. I took out a paper towel and handed it to him. She wiped her companion’s hands dry and led her into the restaurant without another word. As far as she knew, handing out soap and paper towels was my main occupation. (I’m sure if her mother had been within earshot, she would have reminded the older girl to say “obrigada,” the feminine form of thanks. I’ve always found Brazilians to have very good manners.)
As the girls walked away, I realized that after 17 years of making more or less annual trips to Sao Paulo, I now speak Portuguese at roughly the level of a 3-year-old Brazilian. God knows how many times I have inadvertently ordered an antelope or its equivalent without realizing my mistake because someone had the grace to figure out what I meant.
Of course, most parents see it as our job to correct our children when they make such mistakes. We don’t want our children to grow up believing that the US Postal Service delivers antelope, or that strangers wait outside bathrooms to hand out soap and paper towels. A skillful parent will deliver the correction (“Write the letter now and we’ll look for an envelope when we get home”) in a way that doesn’t undermine the child’s self-confidence and initiative, or the desire to explore a hamburger. together with friends and brothers.
This approach, which I learned from my experiences with my two daughters, has now seeped into my work life as a company president and as a financial advisor. At work, I see my role as creating a safe space in which my employees can do their best work and grow professionally, by developing procedures to ensure that their mistakes, and mistakes are unavoidable, are small, caught and treated. opportunities to learn. .
Similarly, working with clients who have businesses or other assets to pass on to younger generations, I try to help develop structures that promote family harmony, growth, and security. I do not advise clients to try to prevent their heirs from making mistakes; I just want the mistakes to be manageable so they can help the young generation grow up.
It’s amazing how much we learn from our children as we teach them the difference between antelopes and envelopes.