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Manual Labour a Great Teacher for Kids

Childhood should involve getting dirty, tired and entrepreneurial.

In the mid-1970s, my mom and dad hired a builder to add a garage onto our cookie cutter bungalow. The man’s name was Andy Steier, a Hungarian Jew from Budapest who had stories about riding on a Nazi prisoner train as a boy during WWII. Mr. Steier created ABP Construction here in Canada, and watching him work as boss was my first introduction to the entrepreneurial life. I was 12 years old at the time and I’d never before seen a man earn money in direct proportion to his efforts and effectiveness. Work well and he thrived. Work badly and he’d starve. Mr. Steier didn’t have a job so much as he was the ruler of his own kingdom, and he soon let me experience this same sense of rulership in my own small way.

It happened one day as I was riding my bicycle down the street I grew up on. A friend’s father flagged me down with a question: “How’s that garage project going at your place?”.

“Really good, Mr. Abernathy. The workers start early and finish late. They’ll be done the roof this week. My parents are happy.”

A few days later, Mr. Steier drove up and handed me an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a cheque for $100. “That’s your commission money”, he said in his thick European accent. “You earned it. Your neighbours chose me to build their pool because of what you said.” It was the sweetest $100 I’ve ever earned.

Later on Mr. Steier went on to make me into my own contractor of sorts. He lived on a country property with 5 acres of grass to mow and leaves to rake. He taught me how to use his John Deere lawn tractor, how to back up a trailer full of leaves to dump into a ravine, and the enormously motivating sensation of being paid for results, not for time on the clock. “I’ll pay you $20 for each cutting”, he explained. “How quickly or slowly you do the work, I don’t care. Just get the job done right.”

I cut Mr. Steier’s grass and raked his leaves for a couple of summers, and my days at work there never went so quickly as when I rushed around trying my best to get quality and speed to meet. My record time for a grass cutting was 6 hours 20 minutes, delivering me an unheard of $3.17 per hour. I was a wealthy boy, but there was a flip side, too.

One particularly wet summer, I got a little lazy and didn’t cut Mr. Steier’s grass one week in the short window of sunny weather I had. By the time the skies cleared and I got back to it, the lawn looked terrible. Large clumps of grass marred what was usually the golf-green look I created. That meant a couple of days of raking and hauling trailer loads of clippings. Mr. Steier paid me for that raking, but I felt badly about it. I never should have let things get out of hand. If I had been on the ball, I never would have had to push that rake around so much.

At the time, the only reason I worked for Mr. Steier was money. But looking back on it now, I can see big value in learning to happily do manual labour while growing up. It’s a lesson I teach my kids whenever I can now too, though it doesn’t seem very fashionable these days among parents. Am I the only one who thinks more kids would benefit from the kind of lessons I learned by working for Andy Steier?