My Son the Garbage Man

If there’s one thing parents can do to raise a truly good-natured child, it’s to teach them to not look down on others. In an age where the unemployment is uncomfortably high and those with jobs are feeling unenthusiastic about the amount of bacon they’re bringing home, it’s important to teach your children the importance of every job out there.

A point of pride right now for me is that when asked what my four year old son wants to be when he grows up, my son has a large bank of answers – and it almost always includes being a garbage man or a gardener.

Okay, sure, he also says he wants to be a police man, a fireman, or Batman. But to me, it’s more a measure of his manhood that he includes garbage man, gardener, or even UPS man in his answers.

In fact, two years ago, when he was only two years old, he was dead-set on being a UPS man for Halloween. He insisted on wearing his costume on the days leading up to and after Halloween, and it seemed to delight every UPS man we passed when they’d look down and see that they too had admirers.

The basic concept I’ve tried to teach my son is that everyone’s got a job, and none of those jobs are better or worse than anyone else’s because they all serve a purpose. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. So you don’t go bad-mouthing anyone else’s job in life unless you’d prefer to do it yourself.

I’ve been in good jobs and bad jobs. I’ve worked as a journalist, I’ve worked as a pawnbroker. I’ve been unemployed, and I’ve been employed by three people at once. I’ve worked out of my home, and I’ve worked a hundred miles from home. There are definitely people with more experience than me, and more gruelling, more contrasting experiences, but I’ve done enough and seen enough to know that a job’s a job, and not everyone lives their dream. And more importantly: one man’s dream isn’t necessarily the same as the next guy’s.

My son gets it. To him, the dude with the leaf blower is just as cool as the guy that pulls in $100,000 a year in real estate. Actually, the dude with the leaf blower is cooler, because duh – leaf blower.

I owe some of my pride to a book that my parents read me when I was a little boy – and that I now read to my son. It’s one of Stephen Cosgrove’s Bugg Books, called Cooty-Doo. In it, Cooty is the son of a garbage man. Cooty hears his schoolyard friends making fun of the garbage man, not knowing that it’s Cooty’s father. Cooty is hurt and ashamed. His father finds him crying in the woods and sits him down, explaining that everyone’s got a job to do and he’d be no better of a person if he had a different job, so he does the best he can at what he does. Cooty, no longer ashamed, points to his father on the schoolyard, telling his friends that his dad is the “best darn garbage man in the whole world.”

UPS Matthew

Our son’s request for his Halloween 2011 costume.

The result is that whenever a garbage man is around, my son stops dead in his tracks, drops whatever he’s holding, and waves to the garbage man. He will stand and watch each can ride the lift, as our foul-smelling trash pours into the truck. He smiles, giggles, and watches it intently. He has a garbage truck toy that he plays with. He walks around the house, pretending to be a garbage truck. Well, that is, on the days he’s not still pretending to be a gardener or a UPS delivery man.

I wonder sometimes if I can fully put aside my own prejudices about jobs. If my son were to tell me (in his working years) that he wants to be a garbage man – what would I say? Would I welcome it with open arms like I would if he told me he wanted to be a graphic designer?

Can I walk the walk now that I’ve talked the talk? I hope so. Ultimately, I want a happy child, and whatever makes him happy makes me happy. I remember when I was in college, my father – an actor – told me that if I ever wanted to make money, it’d be a good idea for me to stay out of liberal arts. And here I am, a writer. And though I don’t make the largest paycheck (even in my own household), I’m happy. And I know that ultimately, my father’s life advice wasn’t an ultimatum. He knew from years of theater and screen acting that liberal arts degrees can make it tougher to find a job out of college. And it’s been true; I’ve found almost no lasting and well-paying jobs that pull from my liberal arts degree. My longest stretches of employment were with sales and buying jobs (I’ve been able to use my education in those jobs, but that’s a different story). Ultimately, writing makes me happy, and my father knows that – and so too is he happy.

My son has many years to try numerous jobs before he finds his passion. But in a world where so many people look down on others or discount the work people do, I’m glad my son is keeping his mind open. Even if he’s only four. In this economy, it’s never too early.