Archives for posts with tag: parenting

                 SWEATSHOP SUFFERING


Okay, I didn’t really “suffer,” but I did spend an afternoon completing menial tasks in a Brooklyn-based industrial work space. My daughter, Kelly, owns a start-up company manufacturing menswear-inspired clothing for women. When we visited several weeks ago, my wife, Katie, and I were given the “opportunity” to help out in the sort of “all hands on deck” efforts that are the hallmark of a hungry, new company.


Along with a potential for carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand, I gained appreciation for an oft-overlooked or taken-for-granted object, namely: the extra button that is included with new shirts. Would you believe attaching such a button, when done manually (Ralph Lauren and the like doubtless use machines), can be an eleven-step process?




Some background is necessary. Kelly and her wife/business partner, Laura, are necessarily detail-oriented.   They shaped, tested, modeled, designed and discussed every aspect of their line of shirts for nearly a year before the first thread hit the first sewing machine. They aspire to provide their customers nothing less than the highest quality, sustainable, and affordable (but not too affordable) garment possible. In that way, they aim to build a following that will endure and grow.

The buttons I attached to 150 shirts, or so, were, therefore, not ordinary buttons. Sourced from the nut of a tagua tree harvested in Equador, and milled elsewhere in Latin America, they are delivered to Brooklyn in recyclable packages. Each of the company’s three styles of shirts sport a different button, naturally, selected specially for their particular color. While an undiscerning eye such as my own could not easily distinguish between buttons, I learned that buttons are to be taken seriously.


Here’s the process: (which Kelly promises will be streamlined in the future)

  1. Take an appropriate (as designated on a computer printout referencing each shirt) button from the bag after figuring out which are “ivory” which are “bone” and which are “plain old white.” (In doing so, I felt I nearly understood, after forty years of wondering, what Procol Harem meant by “whiter shade of pale.”)
  2. Take a two-inch by one-inch paper envelope from a box of such envelopes and apply the company name, Kirrin Finch, using an ink stamp, making sure the writing appears dead-center in the front of the envelope;
  3. Place the button inside the envelope;
  4. Punch a tiny hole in the top of the envelope using a small hole-puncher;
  5. Place an adhesive tag dead-center on the back of said envelope promising: “A button and a smile from Kirrin Finch”;
  6. Disentangle a four-inch thread from a pile of such threads, akin to separating one piece of spaghetti from a plateful;
  7. Thread the thread through the little hole in the envelope;
  8. Open the second button from the top of the shirt;
  9. Trim any extra thread from the opened buttonhole with miniature scissors;
  10. Pull the string through the buttonhole, tie a knot to secure the baby envelope, and re-button the button to secure the string.
  11. Breathe a sigh of relief and… repeat.

Note that several entries combine functions. I didn’t want to list fifteen or sixteen steps, but I could have.   Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help thinking that if there WERE a task appropriate for child labor to complete, this is it.




In the interest of family comity and all-around “good guy” behavior, I completed my extra button task with sufficient efficiency to be offered another task. Thus, confirmation of the axiom: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Job number two involved separating groups of buttons into plastic sandwich bags in groups of ten. These would be used for the eventual manufacture of future shirts. Again, I had to separate the now-familiar piles of stunningly similar-looking buttons and count to ten, like a pharmacist counts pills. Unlike a pharmacist, however, my efforts would not be “life and death.” Or so I thought…

After I’d completed ten bags, Kelly chose to double-check my counting. How this happened, I don’t know, but the first two bags she checked had twelve and eight buttons, respectively. This calamity represented the low-point of my career as a no-wage worker.

“If the seamstress gets a shirt order with the wrong number of buttons attached,” said Kelly, distraught, “the whole process stops.”


I pictured myself with Lucy and Ethel stuffing my face with chocolates as the assembly line sped up. Though the rest of the bags contained the correct number of buttons my fate was sealed. “You’re fired from this task,” she said.


I shook my head with sincere regret and embarrassment, but at the same time, my mind drifted towards retirement from clothing manufacturing. I pictured the delicious Italian dinner that approached in just a few hours like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Kelly interrupted my reverie, however: “I have something you can’t possibly screw up.”

“Oh, good,” I said, sincerity draining away.

“You’re tall, and these shirts have to be put up away,” she said, indicating several piles of shirts and several empty cubbyholes high up in a wall unit behind a table.

“I can do that,” I said, with enthusiasm. I recalled the task my father often assigned me in his clothing store, fifty years earlier, to break down empty boxes. What satisfaction can be gleaned from a simple-minded activity that cannot easily be messed up!

I distributed the shirts by size to their appropriate spots and chastened from the button experience, double-checked my own work. After fifteen minutes, all of the shirts were put away and Kelly finally called it quits for the day.

“You’ve shown yourself semi-competent with buttons,” she said. “The next time you visit, maybe we’ll try you out on collar stays.”




Our son, Sam, is an excellent student. He’s now in a PhD program at an illustrious university. However, when he was young, his intellectual ability rarely extended to artistic creation. Although we happily hang a Halloween-themed painting by him in our garage gallery, there are more bad memories than good from the era when he produced “projects” for school. By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade, we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. My wife, Katie, and I abandoned the traditional viewpoint that a student is responsible for all his own work; Sam received as much parental or sibling assistance as necessary to survive what we concluded was a silly, system-wide preoccupation with paper, scissors and glue.

Katie, an educator, and a person without a scintilla of chicanery in her arsenal, initially struggled with the decision to relieve Sam’s burden.

“Isn’t this cheating?” she asked. “Will it ruin his sense of responsibility?”

“I don’t think he’ll be ruined,” I said. “He still does all his other work. He’s learning disabled in arts and crafts. Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny him assistance?”

“So you don’t have a problem with this?” she asked, seeking confirmation, as she colored in the background in a workbook Sam had to illustrate.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

After all, in truth, I’d once received a little parental assistance myself.


When I took mid-level (not for the brainiacs) biology in ninth grade at Friends’ Academy, the teacher was legendary; he’d single-handedly comprised the biology department for over thirty years. Mr. Farrington, white-haired and elfin, was a stern and serious academician. Accordingly, besides biology teacher, his position was Dean of Students. In that capacity, he handled matters of discipline and played a large role in determining where students applied to college. No, Mr. Farrington was not a man to mess with.

I’m not proud to admit that, in my teenage years, I resisted knowledge in subjects outside my core interests of English, history and music. I still apply some degree of willful ignorance, like a Republican presidential candidate, to a wealth of subjects. Biology, along with anything mathematical, was way out in my mental periphery.

Under Mr. Farrington’s steely gaze, the dissection of worms and frogs alarmed me without interesting me. And genetics? Forget it. He shook his head with incomprehension when my undistinguished classmates or I failed to “get it.” His classroom and walls were festooned with posters and projects produced by his more elite students, the “Section One” people, whom he delightedly steered towards his Ivy League contacts.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Farrington lectured, my mind usually drifted to the baseball field. He caught me flat-footed and spluttering the several times he called on me. I hunkered down in the hopes of avoiding his notice. An impressive student of the sciences I was not.


The culmination of the year, and a third of our grade, depended upon the creation of an individual herbarium by each student, a miniature replica of a wild scene of flora and fauna, set inside glass, usually fish-tank-sized. I stressed over the project for several weeks, unsure where to even begin. Though I rarely involved my parents in the details of my schoolwork, I must have expressed my fears effectively because all I remember, to my immense relief, is that my mother took on the project as though her life depended on it.

After several visits to the hardware and plant stores, and hours spent around the dining room table, during which I handed my mother pieces like a nurse assisting a doctor, she’d created a display worthy of a natural history museum. Having seen similar quality on Mr. Farrington’s shelf, it didn’t occur to me this might present a problem. Vaguely aware there might be moral implications surrounding this matter, I chose to ignore them. I felt that I was not a “bad” person and I knew my mother was not a “bad” person, and I was unconcerned about this becoming a habit. I delivered the herbarium with a sigh of relief and then forgot about it. A passing grade in biology was assured, I thought, and that had been my only concern.


I was taken aback several days later when my mother told me she’d been called by Mr. Farrington’s office to accompany me to a meeting with Mr. Farrington. I hoped, somehow, that his intention was to congratulate me for a job well done, but I wasn’t so naïve as to not feel nervous.

“What will we say,” I asked her, “if Mr. Farrington asks who made the herbarium?”

“I’m not going to lie,” said my mother. “But I’ll tell him you played a large role.”

“I’m not sure handing you stuff qualifies as a ‘large role,’” I said.

“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “You might have to re-do the whole thing and accept the consequences.”

My dread rose as we arrived at Mr. Farrington’s office and saw a sour expression on his usually impassive face. “My” herbarium sat on his desk between us.

“Mrs. Sanders,” he began, addressing my mother as though I weren’t present. “I’m afraid your son has violated a vital aspect of the honor system at Friends’ Academy.”

I turned pale, but my mother remained cool, merely raising an eyebrow to allow Mr. Farrington to continue.

“It is clear to me that Stuart PURCHASED this herbarium from a store,” he said.

“He ABSOLUTELY did not PURCHASE it,” said my mother firmly. “I would never allow such a thing.”

Mr. Farrington turned his gaze to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that this herbarium is professional in quality, worthy of a top Section One student, and Stuart has not previously shown such abilities.”

“Perhaps he was inspired,” interjected my mother, never a fan of the caste system at the school.

I lowered my eyes to look at the floor. I feared my mother might have gone too far. I certainly didn’t want Mr. Farrington to expect “inspired” work from me on a regular basis. Mr. Farrington remained silent for a long moment. Perhaps, the actual explanation occurred to him –- he was a smart man — and he weighed how much of a confrontation he deemed worthwhile.

My heart beat hard in my chest as several seconds seemed to last several hours. Finally, he merely shook his head, thanked us for coming in, and congratulated me on my excellent work. He addressed my mother, in a neutral tone: “You should be very proud.”


“Phew,” I whispered, when we’d closed the office door behind us and hustled down the hallway.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from this,” said my mother.

“To always do your own work?” I asked.

“To not do too good a job when you do your kids’ work,” she said.

“What kind of a lesson is that to give to your child?” I asked, amazed, but also amused.

“A practical lesson,” she said.

As a parent, I’ve heeded that lesson several times over the years, sparingly, when somewhat, arguably, possibly appropriate.


Gifted and talented, that’s what the school promised. Not even gifted or talented, but gifted and talented. Sounded redundant to us but you know how parents think – they will pursue anything that provides their child the best opportunity.
Our son, Sam, was approaching the end of eighth grade at the public middle school in town. My wife and I were guilty of snobbery, no sense in denying it. We looked at his classmates, and thought: “Well, that one will be delivering pizzas. That one will enlist in the military. That one will rise to management someday, at the local gas station.” We were not impressed with what we perceived as the school’s “striving for mediocrity” curriculum.
That is why we were in the lobby of the Engle School, wearing suits, waiting for Sam’s final interview to be over. The obstacles against choosing a private high school were considerable. Attendance would involve a sixty minute commute for our son instead of five. It would entail an expenditure of $26,000 each year instead of zero. And, possibly worst of all, it would involve dressing our son in khakis and polo shirts instead of the jeans and tee shirts to which he was accustomed.
Sam was to spend the entire day at the Engle School. When we arrived in the morning, a girl worthy of the cover of Teen Vogue escorted him out of our car. I thought she winked at him as she guided him into the main building. Or, perhaps, I just dreamed it, caught up as I was in the midst of gardens and fountains and gothic buildings, all presided over by the founders’ statues.
Our son was nervous about leaving his home town for a private school. But he also loved to learn, especially in the sciences. He was aware that the State Science Award was usually won by students from Engle. He was aware that half their graduates were accepted by Ivy universities. He had gone on-line to see the chemistry lab modeled on Princeton’s. When we arrived at the campus, he also saw the twelve new tennis courts that were incomparable to the pitted five at our high school and Engle’s new gymnasium and turf field.
While Sam was spending the day visiting classes with kids resembling a movie cast, we were meeting with the guidance counselor and several administrators. They had seen Sam’s scores and talked to us as though he were already accepted. One after the other, they hammered home their point:
“We believe our curriculum will blah, blah, blah and we believe the program will yada, yada, yada in order to maximize Sam’s potential and abilities and help him to achieve, attain, etc. etc. etc.” They would develop his “whole person.” We would be “entrusting” them with our “child” and they would return to us, at the end of four years, a “man.” Basically, there would be an assembly-line to take our awkward and undeveloped, but intelligent, son and shape him into a finely oiled learning and social machine. When we inquired about such issues as the likelihood of future tuition increases, or the cost of books, they responded with the irrefutable: “You cannot place a dollar limit on your son’s aspirations.”
When we were finished meeting with the counselors and administrators, we met with Engle’s “capital plan” representative. She told us about the annual fundraising event that often included performances by famous Engle parents and alumni who were lions of the New York cultural establishment. We suddenly understood that we would be expected to contribute several thousand more dollars each year, beyond the tuition, books and transportation.
In the weeks leading up to Sam’s visit, we had been hesitant about this disruption and cost to our lives. However, after seeing the facilities and hearing about the coordinated teaching approach, and contemplating the necessity that our son’s opportunities in life not be stunted by our penury or shortsightedness, we ended the day resolved that Engle was “the right thing to do.”
We waited in the lobby for several minutes, contemplating our new status as parents of an Engle student. Finally, it was three o’clock, and Sam was discharged by his Teen Vogue model hostess back to what now seemed our minimally adequate care. We walked together to the car quietly, taking in, I imagine, the enormity of the change that had taken place.
Once we were in the car, I turned to Sam and asked: “Well, are you ready to raise your game?”
He did not respond. My wife and I looked at each other.
“Sam?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
After a long pause, he finally spoke: “These kids may be gifted and talented…” he paused, “…but they’re kind of spoiled. I really want to go to the public high school. And that,” he concluded, “is what I’ve decided.”
We were not used to such assertiveness from our son. But it sounded terrific. It seemed he had grown up years in just one day. We breathed out in relief, happily concluding that the Engle School did, indeed, help Sam to realize his potential.


     She looked as though she could barely walk – the only girl who could possibly pierce the defense of the Pequannock Panthers soccer juggernaut.
     “Emily,” I said. “What happened to you?”
     “Sorry, Coach,” she said, her voice husky. “I haven’t slept for the last two nights.”
     “Didn’t we agree that no one on the team would have a sleepover the night before a game?”
     “Yeah, Coach, but Tina’s my best friend, and it was her birthday on Thursday, so I HAD to go. And last night, I was at my cousin’s, so it wasn’t really, technically a sleepover. We just never went to sleep.”
     I must have appeared dumbstruck, because I was. In fact, I was so stunned that I barely reacted when Emily pitched forward onto the ball bag, put her arm under her head to cushion herself, and immediately fell asleep, thus rendering our dozen warm-up balls inaccessible.
     Coaching youth soccer was not a particular goal of mine. I managed to avoid it with my oldest child. She was independent and would have rebelled at the prospect of having her dad at every practice and game. However, my second daughter signed up CONDITIONED on me as an essential component part, as the coach.
     “Is this healthy?” I asked my wife.
     “Maybe not,” she said, “but if you are not the coach, she won’t play.”
     We paused to reminisce about the time when Sarah was five and did a sit-down strike in the middle of the field at her first Kiddie-Kicker practice. I still remember the embarrassment of walking to collect her amidst a roiling sea of happily engaged children, under the silently gloating gaze of twenty parents whose children were, somehow, better adjusted.
Now she was ten and willing to try soccer again. She’d quit the Brownies, she’d quit ballet, she’d refused to consider cheer leading (I was proud of her for that), she’d quit the flute/violin/piano trifecta. Sarah NEEDED an extracurricular activity.
     So here I was, not a leader of men, but a beggar of girls.
     “Please, girls, listen. Come on in to a circle.”
     There was no response as my minions continued to giggle and point at Emily. Sarah, at least, was sympathetic to Emily, or loyal to me, and stood quietly by my side. I whistled loudly and, finally, the chatter faded like an old record.
     “Girls,” I said. “We play Pequannock today. They are really good.” I paused for effect, the silence broken only by Marley’s bubble gum exploding on her face. It took several moments to quiet the giggling again.
     Once I was able to send eleven players out to the field and the game began, I coaxed Emily awake and she stumbled over to the bench to resume her nap. I took a moment to contemplate the positive aspects of this experience. My shy and retiring daughter was participating, sort of. I noted that her efforts to reach the ball resembled a person sticking a toe into the water to check the temperature. Nonetheless, there she was, adorable in her uniform, a member of the team.
     Not only that, but she wanted ME to be there. How many more years would that last?  The teenage years loomed ahead. The intense years of parenting young children were rushing to an end. For a few moments, I was hardly aware of what was happening on the field. My reverie was broken by the referee’s whistle. Pequannock had scored again. I felt a tug at my shirt.
     “Coach?” It was Emily, roused from her nap.
     “I think I could go in now.”
     “Really, you want to play?”
     “Well, my parents said if I don’t play today I’ll be grounded for a month, so, yeah, I guess I want to play.”
     I inserted the exhausted Emily who, even beset with the ten-year-old equivalent of a terrible hangover, had more talent than anyone else on my team.
     “Go, Emily!” shouted some parents, when she ran down the field.
     “Pass it to Emily,” shouted others.
     My team developed some vicarious verve from Emily’s presence. Now, we had one player who could compete with the Panthers. Eventually, of all people, Sarah passed a ball up to Emily who blasted a shot past the goaltender and the deficit was only 5-1. Everyone cheered. The girls exchanged high-fives.
     As usual, within five minutes of the completion of the game, no one on my team seemed to care who had won. The girls attacked the post-game cookies like locusts. If only they expended that much energy during the games! I was happy to see Sarah eating, chatting and laughing with the rest. This was a rare instance in my sporting career when I concluded that the girls had the right philosophy; it really didn’t matter if we had won or lost the game.