It was summer vacation and the kids had erupted in jubilee. Our 12-year-old son, especially, felt liberated. Free time! He could ride his bike, play his drums, drive the tractor, or do nothing at all. I let him bask in this I'm-on-vacation feeling for several days. I was happy for him.
But before long, I couldn't help noticing that while he was loafing, weeds were growing in the garden, laundry and dishes were piling up, and paint was peeling.
We had bought a rather run-down antique farmhouse the year before, and the job of restoring it and sprucing up the yard had slowed to a crawl. My husband was busy with his job, I had a toddler and horses to care for, and I was doing most of the interior work myself.
That night I had a private conversation with my husband. The next morning, Ian came into the kitchen feeling sunny. I hesitated and then launched into the news: "Dad and I would like you to work at least two hours a day during your summer vacation."
"What?" Ian asked, disbelieving.
"We have a lot to do around here and really need your help," I went on. "We'll pay you, but you have to do it."
The boy was indignant. "I don't think I should have to work if I don't feel like it!" he cried. "I'm only a kid!"
"You'll still have plenty of time to play," I pointed out. "Two hours a day isn't too much to ask of a 12-year-old."
It wasn't a popular stance, but I stuck with it. Each morning I gave him instructions as to what needed to be done around the yard: pulling weeds behind the barn, spreading bark mulch, mowing the acre-plus lawn.
The work became part of his daily routine, but he didn't spare any enthusiasm on it.
Halfway through the summer, the pile of $1 and $5 bills on Ian's dresser began to look pretty substantial. About this time he came to me as I was painting horsehair plaster in an upstairs bedroom.
"Mom, do you have any more work I could do today?" he asked.
"What?" I asked, putting down my paintbrush. I wanted to hear this again.
"Yeah, I figured out if I work extra, I might be able to buy a new piece for my drum set by the end of the summer," he explained.
It took me about 10 seconds to think of another task for him.
Over the next several weeks, Ian spent more and more of his free time doing jobs for me. Even through August heat and humidity, there was a quickness in his step and a light on his face as he worked with his goal in mind.
One day I went out to inspect his progress and praised him for the nice job he was doing. A curved edge to the lawn and evenly spread bark mulch gave an orderly, finished look to the landscaping at the back of the house. Ian straightened up and surveyed the property, which was undergoing a slow transformation.
"Yeah, this place is starting to look good after all," he said, beaming, as sweat dripped from his dirt-streaked face. A few minutes later, he mused, "I wonder what it feels like to win the lottery."
That's funny, I thought. It's not like him to be dreaming of winning the lottery. For a minute I worried that his values had shifted. But my worry was unfounded.
"I bet it doesn't feel that good," he answered himself, "because you wouldn't have earned it."
Without either of us anticipating it, Ian's work had given him something much more precious than that new piece for his drum set, something more valuable than a jackpot.