Advice from My Dad: Work on the Basics

January 15, 2018 by

Mr. Dileo gave our senior composition class what I thought was a really sappy assignment in our last few weeks at Warwick Valley High: we had to create a scrapbook-style collection of memories from the last eighteen years. But one page of the book we didn’t have to write ourselves. It was to be a letter from Dad or Mom, reflecting on all we had learned and wishing us the best for the years ahead.

I could hardly wait to read my dad’s. Most of my friends had shown me sweet letters from their parents – full of praise, happy memories, and high ambitions for their bright and beautiful daughters. But when I finally got my hands on and started reading Dad’s letter, I thought maybe he’d misunderstood the assignment. Rather than the proud papa tone, he had opted for the brutal truth. “Wait a minute,” the letter began:

You’re saying I’m supposed to create an epistle of my wisdom and advice to you as you leave the house and move on in life? Some kind of epic, nugget-laden literary work that will be a source of inspiration in the years to come, that you can pass down from generation to generation as a revered document dripping with sage rules to live by, or what? Uh-uh. I don’t think so. Not from this pen. This pen is still trying to check off the to-do list of basics that started eighteen years ago.

Then followed an embarrassingly long compilation of things parents say to their kids: “Chew with your mouth shut. Listen to your mother. Brush your teeth. Is your homework done? Is your bed made? Don’t mumble. What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Doing the little things well is one of Jesus’ teachings.

“Whoa,” I remember thinking, “This is a little awkward. Where’s he going with this?” He had questions for me too: “And so now suddenly you want me to make the quantum leap to penning my personal thesis of life’s directives? A little premature, isn’t it?...Or is it?”

Then I came to this paragraph, and finally started to catch his drift.

Maybe there is some continuity in the carry-over of the mundane basics into the higher goals and wisdoms of life. Some things will never change, wherever you are or whoever you’re with, even alone – Respect. Love. Self-discipline. Forgiveness. Laughter – all basic stuff, but enough for a lifetime of work.

I don’t think I fully appreciated Dad’s letter until I left home and realized that nobody was giving me those basic reminders anymore. I was on my own now, and suddenly overwhelmingly grateful for the nagging, the timeouts, and the other consequences that had guided and corrected my actions thus far.

Wood shavings on a work bench

But Dad’s letter was addressing more than just the basics. Besides serving me a healthy portion of humble pie, it showed me that those really mundane little actions would prepare me for the bigger things in life, and that doing those little things well would show love to those around me. Another oft-repeated phrase in our household was “leave it better than you found it,” whether “it” referred to a trail we were hiking, the woodshop where we were building something, or the bathroom (I won’t elaborate). I realized then that this love and care was what my parents had been trying to instill in my siblings and me all along.

In a sense, Dad’s letter was a relief – I knew I wasn’t done learning even the most embarrassingly basic skills of life, and I wouldn’t have to live up to some ridiculous “reach for the stars” quote. But at the same time, he and Mom had given me, as he put it, the work of a lifetime. Since then, I’ve remembered his words when tempted to cut corners or take the lazy way out. Actually, doing the little things well is one of Jesus’ teachings: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10).

So, sorry Dad, but I’ll just take your letter as the “epic, dripping-with-sage-advice literary work” that it is, and keep working on those basics.


About the author

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin

Shana Goodwin works as an editor for the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, and lives at the Fox Hill Community, with her...

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  • Your father reminds me a lot of my own actually; he, too, was never one for the average parent's praises, he was more of a "pick yourself up by the bootstraps and work hard no matter what" type of parent. After reading your post, I've been thinking about my relationship with my father and it offered me an opportunity to reflect on the wisdom that both our fathers have left us with. My dad's most famous quote, "if you're going to do something, do it well" feels resonant here and it's worth remembering that we are constantly learning and bettering ourselves in the process.

  • Thanks George – everyone needs a good editor, and I always value my mom’s feedback!

  • Well put by your dad! I would like to think a friend can be critical as well as praise and at some point we realize that its good to hear good and bad or else what would we have to write about in a blog? Your mom and Dad were at the Xmas gathering and it was so good to see them. Karen told me she likes to be your editor at times!! I say freedom of the press! LOL

    George Arnott
  • So true. It's easy to miss the importance of the little things and want to do something big right away when the little things in life can be stepping stones to something larger. I find that's true with me! Thanks for sharing! Great post.

    Kristina Hartz