| LifeTakes |

No Thank You

“Would you make this house into a home for me? For us?” I ask.

On Friday afternoon, my son Avi troops home from his yeshivah dorm. He sits down in the kitchen, the chair still spanking clean, and samples kugel at the gleaming new table. I chitchat before I pounce on the poor young man.

“What job can you do for me today?” I ask.

He scratches his budding beard. “Uh, Ma,” he says, “can it wait for next week? I need a break.”

I nod graciously at the lad who’s been hauling boxes, hanging window coverings, putting up shelves, and doing lots of other stuff for the past 11 Fridays, all because his parents moved the family to a new house.

There’s one set of things that still waits, not so patiently, to be unboxed. Wall stuff from the home I left behind; paintings, puzzles, things like that. At first, I didn’t want them up. It felt out of sync with 2023 and the novelty of our new home. But after traversing the new hallways with bare walls for a while, I miss good, old, familiar.

And I want Avi to put them up. This kid has two Milwaukee drills, three tool kits, and a level that comes up to his waist. The problem is, he doesn’t want to. Or rather, he can’t. Burnout, they call it. I give him a couple of Fridays off and then start my cajoling again, using strategies that have worked in the past.

I ask for 20 minutes of his time. Nothing.

I enthusiastically offer to do it with him. Nope.

I offer a hundred dollars for the lot. That gets him moving.

In the wrong direction.

“Ma,” he says, “I have a full bank account. When I do it, I’ll do it for free.”

If I can’t bribe and reward and cajole, what’s left? Where are Pavlov’s dogs when I need them?

I followed Pavlov’s method, did classical conditioning with Avi, lots of positive reinforcement. I thanked him so many times I don’t know what the words mean anymore. And still, the kid wasn’t motivated to work. What was I doing wrong?

“I’m not a dog,” Avi says when I share my thoughts. “I do many more important things.” I laugh because he’s so right. He has curiosity, clarity, calmness, confidence, courage, creativity, connectedness, and compassion. The eight Cs of self-leadership. I can’t just move him like a game piece from Go to Boardwalk. I need to go with his flow. Play the game the way it was meant to be played, with the rules embedded in human nature. Not the nature of dogs.

Over the week I contemplate this new game of intrinsic motivation I need to play with my son. I learned a game at work called Make It Meaningful. As director of development for a small organization, one of my roles is to engage donors, and to thank them. Really thank them. Find out what drives them. Instill in them the feeling that they’re partners in helping our beneficiaries. To describe vividly and specifically how they inspire and effect change for the better. That’s what I’ve learned: People need to feel that what they do matters.

On the 17th Friday since we moved, Avi troops home, seats himself on the slightly sagging, stained chair, and samples kugel at the lightly scratched kitchen table. I chitchat before I prep him.

“Would you make this house into a home for me? For us?” I ask.

A soft smile spreads on his face. “Sure,” he says. “What do you need?”

I show him the bare walls. “If we put up the wall stuff from our old house, it would make this place more homey, no?” I pause. “What do you think?”

Avi nods vigorously. We go through each painting and puzzle together, choosing which ones to put up, deciding where each would look best. I follow him from room to room as he brandishes his paraphernalia. I comment on his precise measuring, marvel at his use of the level, and exclaim as he ceremoniously sets each painting on a nail.

I don’t say thank you.

Instead I say, “Avi, it’s so exciting that our paintings and puzzles are up. You made this place into a home for me. For all of us.” My voice catches at the tail end.

Avi’s shoulders straighten despite the weight of his tool chest, his face flashing a thousand lights. “I enjoyed doing it with you, Mommy.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 836)

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