March 18, 2007

Childhood Memories from a Workaholic

A professionally successful woman in her late 40’s began to recognize that she was a workaholic. With this new awareness came a difficult practice of re-prioritizing where she expends her time and energy. During this process she wondered what situations in her early life might have helped shape her belief that to belong and be valued, she had to work hard and be successful. Below is a passage from her journal.

I offer this genuine account as a resource to help us better understand the ways in which children perceive how others respond to them, construct beliefs based upon those perceptions, and then make life decisions that stem from those beliefs. I wonder if any of the children in our lives could relate to parts of this story? I also invite us to continue to explore unconditional ways that we can help reinforce each child’s inherent value.

When did I first start showing signs of workaholism?

As a young child, pre-school age, I had lots of time to kill. My parents both worked and we were often left in the charge of my oldest sister. My brother often beat up on me if we played together, and our house was out in the suburbs, at a time when the suburbs were still mainly woods. If we weren’t out in the woods “exploring” or making forts, then I would be in the house, reading--always the safest choice with my brother around. I could read at a very early age, and I learned to write well before I went to school.

Going to school was very traumatic for me. I felt abandoned by my Mom, and terrified of all the other kids. I guess that makes sense because I pretty much grew up knowing only a handful of kids in our isolated neighborhood. Most of my play time was spent alone, or with my brother, doing unstructured kinds of things rather than playing games.

Because I had never socialized with other kids, I didn’t know what to do during recess. I often walked around by myself. I came to prefer class to recess, and if I could, stayed in at recess to keep working (aha!). I was much more comfortable with the teacher or teacher’s aide, than out on the playground, because it felt so dangerous (all those kids I didn’t know, playing games I didn’t know how to play). Reading was always an acceptable activity--both at home and at school.

I don’t remember being competitive, though, at least for the first two years. I liked the activities (reading groups, making things)….For my first two years of school, I tried hard to do well (but was not the outstanding achiever) and more than anything, I wanted to make friends and be accepted.

We moved when I was eight years old, two things happened:
  1. I was no longer invisible. Because of my accent, the other kids made fun of me (“you talk slow”), and
  2. because of the better schools where I was from, I was one or two years ahead of my classmates.
First, I got lots of attention from the teachers because I performed so well. Second, because I was so “smart” the other kids stopped teasing me, and I had some cache as a playmate in competitive learning games. On the playground, marbles was the big game, and I learned how to play, and became a master marble player. Marbles is an everyman-for-himself kind of game, not one that fosters a sense of team spirit or collaboration. Plus we played "for keeps" and I amassed an impressive collection of beautiful marbles that I my parents would never have bought for me. In fact, because of my prowess, playing marbles was banned by the school (after parents complained that their children were spending money on marbles and then losing them). I earned respect on the playground, and in the classroom. In my old town, I was not special. In the new city, I was.

In the fourth grade, I was often rewarded with special privileges for being done with work. I ran messages for the teachers, I got to set up activities, and when they started a gifted program, I got to participate (lots of fun learning activities that were self-paced, rather than the rote learning of most classroom activities). My friends were all the gifted students. Being smart and hardworking was what set us apart and gave us our privileges.

At home, the one thing that got praise from Mom was my working hard to help her. So, between school and working at home, the pattern was set. Hard work, and being the best at something, was what made me worthwhile, made me somebody.

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